Why the BBC is getting its Brexit coverage wrong

Why the BBC is getting its Brexit coverage wrong

   July 11, 2018  
 
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Why the BBC is getting its Brexit coverage wrong

Suppose, just suppose, that Brexit turns out to be a foreign policy catastrophe as great as Suez or Iraq. In the inevitable post-mortems people are bound to ask about the media’s role in informing – or misinforming – the public. It will be a defining test case of the media’s duty to create an informed public capable of making choices in their own – and the national – interest.

We know about Fleet Street. We know that for years, even decades, several of the most influential and biggest-selling newspapers conditioned their readers to believe nothing good about Europe. There was no acknowledgement that – as is now apparent to all but the most fanatical – a decision to sever ties with the European Union would be unimaginably complex and risk-laden. To some editors, this was a matter of faith – and their readers had to be converted.

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And then there is the BBC, which is supposed to be all the things that some Fleet Street tabloids are not – sober, serious, factual… and impartial. Yet what does “impartial” mean amid the blundering, fragmented, tortured attempts of the political classes to work out how on Earth to deliver on a referendum result whose meaning – two years later – even the cabinet cannot agree on? Does impartiality require BBC reporters merely to report neutrally on the daily ‘‘he said, she said’’ of a peculiarly odd Westminster debate – including, in effect, two Conservative parties, a not-very-oppositional opposition and a seven-times-not-elected, self-styled political outsider?

Reasonable position

A statement from the Corporation in April made it plain that, “The BBC is no longer reporting on the binary choice which faced the electorate in the referendum but is examining the Brexit negotiations and the impact of Brexit on the UK and the wider world.” On the face of it, that is a reasonable position. Many would argue that it’s not for the BBC to question the apparently settled will of the very people who also pay the licence fee. Imagine the fury if the organisation behaved differently. There would be calls for the BBC’s charter to be ripped up, for the director general to be sacked and for the entire funding basis of the organisation to be scrapped.

That’s exactly what happened during the Suez crisis in 1956, with relentless (and often successful) pressure from the Eden administration to cow the BBC into resentful submission. An analysis of the period found that even Panorama, presented by Richard Dimbleby, was “embarrassingly reduced to skirting round the fundamental issues involved…” Little wonder that Michael Peacock, the programme’s producer, later claimed that Panorama covered Suez “with a degree of neutrality which denied the proper function of journalism”.

In the run-up to the war in Iraq the BBC similarly struggled to find an appropriate balance between “impartiality” and questioning. A thoughtful 2012 book by the current Today presenter Nick Robinson – now sometimes among those in the firing line over Brexit – accepted, in retrospect, concerns that “‘balanced reporting’ can allow those in power too much control over the terms of debate, particularly when there is no division between the leaderships of the governing and opposition parties”.

Robinson went on to concede that “there was not enough… questioning of the underlying premise… The build-up to the invasion of Iraq is the point in my career when I have most regretted not pushing harder and not asking more questions.”

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BBC, BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place, Marylebonei, London, UK
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Author
Alan Rusbridger
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