Brexit and the BBC

Source: David Graham, “Was truth the casualty of the BBC’s impartiality rules?”, Open Democracy, July 2

I last wrote about this during the referendum campaign, before the British people voted to leave the EU. I said that the way the referendum was being covered was “impoverishing the understanding of a vital issue.” Many more have since joined this discussion, including Lord Puttnam, on June 29 in The Guardian, who described the BBC coverage as “constipated…, hamstrung by the strict rules on impartiality which govern it, which meant as soon as one campaigner said something it had to find someone to say the opposite.”

Was truth a casualty of the impartiality rules? It seems paradoxical, but it’s not. So it seems time to formulate a basic strategy, addressing, first, the underlying “value” we should support, and then what steps might get us there.

First, a democracy in which public ignorance can be exploited is a democracy at risk: it’s a potentially dangerous place to be. A reasonable level of knowledge is essential to its functioning when and if its people are consulted on a major issue. We can now see how and why the truth becomes a casualty of this process.

There was good evidence before the referendum on how ill-informed the public was on such issues as the number of citizens living in the UK, the amount we pay into the EU budget, and the amount spent on welfare payments to EU immigrants. Late in the campaign, six million people, it is claimed, downloaded or streamed a lecture by Professor Michael Dougan of Liverpool University, telling them things that they do not seem to have been told elsewhere. That, like the BBC’s Reality Check – along with “committed” content ranging from “Brexit: The Movie” to John Oliver’s hilarious broadsides – could only be viewed online.

This was a “political” argument. There was nothing new about the process, but the impartiality rules enabled an extreme form of it. First they permitted politicians set the agenda. So both sides looked for simple messages to capture public support. They dumbed down the debate. The Leave side started with one message – unelected officials are telling us how to run our country – and then found a couple more: the money we spend on the EU could go to the NHS, and we will only be able to control immigration if we leave the Union. The Remain side tried to frighten people about the economic consequences of leaving, which became known as Project Fear. On TV there were really two modes of the “debate.” First, there was the forensic interview in which (1) the interviewer pushes arguments from the “other side” or (2) hosts a mini-debate between the antagonists. The second mode was the long-form programme – Jeremy Paxman on sovereignty, Mishal Husain on immigration – where different aspects of the issue were presented, but without conclusion. In short, the agenda was set by the politicians and the “rules” severely limited the range and type of journalism that could be applied.

I said in my previous piece for openDemocracy that what was lacking was “passion.” Bluntly, what the best TV journalists working in news and current affairs are passionate about is getting to the truth, which often is about finding out what politicians are hiding.

Independent TV journalism should have found all sorts of things, some potentially embarrassing to either side, to talk about. There was no proper investigation of the actual impact of EU-originated legislation, negative or positive. What are the forces taking EU towards a superstate? How serious are they? To what extent does the EU actually hold back our trade? Who really tried to get to the bottom of the costs and benefits of the single market? Or was ready to get the whole truth on immigration?…

The EU is a massively complicated issue. The “rules” prevented TV journalists from doing justice to it.

So what are the steps? A body of opinion may be forming. Peter Preston asked “how those BBC rules on fairness and balance helped public understanding.” Critics of my first piece on this issue have said change would mean that the broadcasters would become like newspapers, committed to a certain opinion. I completely disagree. I believe broadcasters would wish to remain “impartial,” but impartial in respect of the truth. The boards of the major channels would inevitably be very concerned to secure the highest standards of accuracy. That takes us to a key observation by Lord Puttnam in his recent interview with openDemocracy where he speaks of the importance of fact checking. That proposes a new approach where a regulator, such as Ofcom, imposes a duty of accuracy, with the resources to review and decide on complaints. Should there be some requirement for “balance” over time on Public Service Channels in particular? I remain unsure about that. Some, like Ray Snoddy, have suggested that a proper interpretation of “due” impartiality might work. I don’t think so. These rules have run their course. The world has changed.

As for newspapers, they have their role, but I am not equipped to speak on it. Just let’s release TV from these rules. If there is another seismic decision to be made, let us pray people are better informed.

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5 responses to “Brexit and the BBC

  1. Henry Lotin

    If true, this is truly sad. Brexit lies about EU were so outrageous and transparent. Costs, including Scotland independence and London’s threatened role in financial world so predictable from far. Canadian government and media got message out to Quebec in 1995 that it would have to negotiate back into NAFTA and an independent Quebec’s internal borders could be challenged by First Nations. Why were the Remain leaders and competent unbiased media so inept?

  2. There’s a movement (at least on social media – which means…?) to “bring back Fairness Doctrine” in the United States which dictated that both sides of a story should be presented on issues. They got rid of it under Reagan. Fox News version of “fair and balanced” was the result. I don’t think you should need to impose such rules on a competent journalism profession. What the BBC did was stupid – Full Stop. It allowed lies and deceptions to go unfiltered without sifting through them and for their fact-based truthfulness. That’s not showing “both sides” – that’s dereliction of duty. If some politician says “objects don’t fall at a rate of 9.8 meters per second square” the laws of physics will tell you he’s wrong. It would be nice if a journalist would make sure the story included Galileo’s settling the matter a few centuries ago, rather than letting the politician lie on TV.

    • Just to set the record straight, objects DON’T fall at a rate of 9.8 meters per second squared. That number measures the acceleration of a falling body, not its velocity. “…[I]gnoring the effects of air resistance, the speed of an object falling freely near the Earth’s surface will increase by about 9.8 metres (32 ft) per second every second.” [italics added] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravity_of_Earth

  3. mike holliday

    Food for thought, but this proposition is too dangerous and too difficult. It is also too easy to deride and destroy.
    It seems to suggest that an `elite’ vet statements and allow or disallow their distribution to the masses. We know where that can lead and we know how such a suggestion can so easily be attacked.
    Lies and misinformation flourish when ignorance reigns. Your education system has failed if, as you suggest, a significant number of the population is incapable of understanding issues and intelligently assessing claims.
    Perhaps you should be teaching people that they should research everything they are told before accepting its veracity.
    In the age of the internet this should be possible.
    In 30 years time you might just have a population able to make a valued contribution to the democratic process.
    Alternatively, you could have political and community leaders able to present facts in attractive, attention-grabbing and memorable ways.
    I think the 30 year option is more viable.

  4. mike holliday

    A further thought. Ignore the earlier two suggestions and instigate a system whereby a person in a leadership role (a politician, a community leader, an editor or a religious leader for example) suffers should they lie.
    A public humiliation and disbarment from holding office for a set period of time are two ways of doing this.