How biased is the BBC in the coverage of the referendum campaign? News-watch research, documented on our website, has shown that until this year, the withdrawal case has been massively under-represented.
In fact, the bias question is impossible to answer with any certainty, because no-one, least of all the BBC itself, can properly keep track of their hundreds of hours each week of Corporation news coverage. Achieving a genuine overview of their performance is a near-impossibility.
That said, there are some encouraging markers that the ‘out’ perspective – for the first time ever on BBC airwaves – is being taken into the equation. Certainly ‘outers’ are being asked on to shows, and not just the usual suspects. Not all of them are being treated as extreme right-wing loonies.
And on Today last week, Justin Webb took on, with a sharpness previously only reserved for figures such as Nigel Farage, energy secretary (and EU-fanatic) Amber Rudd over her ludicrous ‘Project Fear’ claims that withdrawal would automatically lead to massive rises in energy bills. He’d done his research, and as Guido noted, she was left looking distinctly foolish.
It was this interview that probably prompted in the Daily Mail at the weekend a once in a blue moon event: an editorial congratulating the Corporation on its unbiased coverage.
But, watch out. How the leader writer knew with such confidence that impartiality was now the hallmark of referendum coverage was not explained – and their apparent jubilation could soon turn sour. In this respect, the BBC has form.
Behind the scenes, the senior executives are already using the editorial as proof positive that they are getting things right. The Daily Mail has thus created a hostage to fortune. It means genuine complaints – already rejected in their thousand by the Corporation on the most spurious of grounds – have even less of a chance of succeeding.
News-watch is monitoring the BBC’s EU output during the referendum period with more intensity than ever before. We have set in place state-of-the art equipment which facilitates full tracking of all the news channels and programmes, and allows full transcripts of any of their relevant output to be made within minutes or hours of broadcast.
But unlike the Daily Mail, we have not reached any global judgments yet. What we have done is to look at elements of output in detail and systematically. Our work on 40 consecutive editions of Newsnight is an example, reported here. It found that the BBC leopard in one respect at least had not changed its spots.
There was a disturbing and pronounced bias against the Brexit case. While supporters of ‘leave’ were appearing regularly on the programme for the first time, they were heavily out-gunned by those who want to remain.
Another subject of early referendum coverage analysis has been one-off programmes specifically about Brexit issues. The findings are on the News-watch site. The latest in the line is of an edition of the environment programme Costing the Earth.
Making a half hour slot reasonably balanced should be relatively easy. But not in the BBC’s hands. It was massively and crudely skewed to the ‘remain’ side, and made it sound that remaining in the EU was vital in the interests of wildlife conservation, the UK farming industry and to ensure that windfarms continued to be built in preference to nasty smoke belching coal-fired power stations. Ranged against the views of a farmer and a fisherman who wanted Brexit were eight experts who in their different ways worshipped at the Brussels altar, most at a national campaigning level.
The full report on the Costing the Earth programme is here.
News-watch has now also nearly completed detailed analysis of 20 editions of the flagship Radio 4 news programme The World Tonight since February 22, the Monday after David Cameron announced his Brussels negotiating ‘triumph’. Preliminary impressions are not good. As with Newsnight, there have been far more supporters of ‘remain’ than ‘out’ and the Europhiles such as Alan Johnson and former French Prime Minister Edith Cresson have had far more opportunity to put their respective cases.
The BBC knows that it is under close scrutiny. The danger evident in the Newsnight and World Tonight surveys is that its ingrained, long-term bias is so deeply entrenched that they cannot see it and cannot acknowledge the problems in a way that will allow change. The need is to exert constant vigilance and to apply pressure whenever bias is sensed.
During the referendum, News-watch is monitoring almost all of the BBC’s news output for pro-EU bias. If you spot any examples, you can register them at a special website: www.bbccomplaints.com.
News-watch research is at www.news-watch.co.uk.