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David Keighley: Biased BBC will load the dice against Brexit


Alarmingly, the BBC’s coverage of the referendum will almost certainly be a key component in determining the results. For more than 60 per cent of the population, the Corporation – despite its incessant liberal left bias – remains their main source of news.

Polls this week, for example from Comres, show that more than 40 per cent of the electorate might still change their mind about how they will vote, and are looking for guidance about what has been achieved in terms of concessions. Their decision will be based substantially on what they hear on the BBC.

Against this background the BBC Trustees slipped out on Thursday, without fanfare, their editorial guidelines on the rules of coverage. They are absolutely crucial because they lay down how ‘fairness’ between the two sides will be determined.

Their publication followed a so-called public consultation exercise, in which observations were invited on the draft guidelines, which were issued in the autumn. The BBC claims in this way to be in touch with audiences and responsive – in reality the whole process was a sham. The guidelines that have emerged are no different from the draft.

One of the key concerns was submitted in a private capacity by veteran Eurosceptic MP Sir William Cash, who argued that in order to know that impartiality was being maintained, the news department must keep track of output through detailed monitoring that could be scrutinised.

He warned that failure to do this could result in criminal charges being brought against BBC journalists if coverage intentionally fell short of the requirements for balance. Monitoring, in an organisation which for almost 20 years has covered EU affairs without ever properly discussing the withdrawal case, and projecting it as xenophobic tosh, sounds like common sense and vital – the need was echoed in other submissions, including one from News-watch.

But this is the arrogant, patronising world of the gilded-cage BBC, and any sense of logic does not apply. The Trustees dismissed the request out of hand, using condescending, spurious and inadequate arguments hinged on that something superior, ethereal, beyond challenge, namely ‘BBC editorial judgment’ is all that is required.

Bombastic director of news James Harding is undoubtedly the source of such resistance. He recently told MPs on the European Scrutiny select committee (of which Sir William Cash is chairman) that any attempt at checking output through monitoring was mere ‘metrics’ and therefore irrelevant and inappropriate.

And thus the Corporation has steamrollered through referendum guidelines which are inherently inadequate, and will mean that that coverage remains totally biased.

If you doubt this, listen to Thursday’s edition of the Today programme as the Brexit summit got underway. At its heart, in the 8.10am slot, was an interview with the former European Commissioner Lord Kinnock, who, unchallenged by presenter Sarah Montague, uttered 900 words about the disaster that would engulf the UK if voters chose Brexit.  He had plenty of space to put his case.

A so-called balancing interview at 7.35am with Daniel Hannan MEP, was not equivalent. For a start, he was confined to only 650 words – almost a third less than Kinnock – and Montague’s question pushed him from the start into dealing with ‘Conservative splits’ rather than the meat of the summit or the Brexit case. Hannan did a credible job with what space and time he had, but there was no doubt Kinnock had pride of place and could air key arguments of the sort that influence voters.

Further imbalance was created in the programme, for at 7.11am, Montague conducted a vox pop with what she projected were typical students in Brussels. All of them – surprise, surprise – thought that the EU was wonderful, was about sticking together, and fairness – what David Cameron wanted was out of kilter with the rules of a club.

Then at 8.42am, in a report from Colchester, Matthew Price spoke to rafts of people who all supported staying in the EU for a range of reasons – ‘it’s better being in a collective than an island on our own’; there were ‘cultural benefits’ in being in a club of 28; outside the EU the UK would be a weaker ally to the US; and that there was ‘safety in numbers’.

Finally, at 8.55am, Montague spoke to the Europe editor of (the fanatically pro-EU) The Economist, and Ryan Heath, an associate editor of the Brussels federalist publication Politico. The latter warned that if Britain opted for Brexit, the EU would make it as painful as possible; the former argued that David Cameron’s demands could lead to ‘contagion’, paving the way for right wing organisations such as France’s Front National to demand the same.

Thus, to summarise, on the day that the summit started, the BBC self-declared news and current affairs flagship programme Today was totally dominated by pro-EU opinion. It showed yet again that the BBC does not have the faintest understanding of what balance in the Brexit debate is, and it has now set in concrete – in the referendum guidelines – its prejudice.

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David Keighley
David Keighley
Former BBC news producer, BBC PR executive and head of corporate relations for TV-am. Director of News-watch.

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