So farewell, then, Nigel Farage. The BBC will miss you.
Since 1999, when he was elected an MEP, the coverage of ‘leave’ in the EU debate was conducted very heavily through and in reaction to him. In News-watch surveys of BBC news output, he was the ‘exit’ case spokesman in 36 per cent of all interviews about withdrawal between 2005-2015, and he was Ukip spokesman in 52 per cent of appearances by the party.
The Corporation cast him and his party – on the very rare occasions they considered the ‘exit’ perspective at all – as maverick, ‘a one-trick pony’, ‘the BNP in blazers’, disorganised and above all, xenophobic.
Now that he has gone, who will take his place? The favourites to succeed him – Steven Woolfe, Diane James and Paul Nuttall – are all able in their own right. But the main question, surely, before they can assume the mantle of leader is whether they have thick enough skins to endure the BBC vitriol that comes with the turf.
An example of the perennial BBC negativity against Farage can be found here, when during the general election of 2015, with support for Ukip in polls running at 20 per cent plus, Evan Davis explored every potential weakness in his character and moral stance, but nothing about policy. Or here – with only a week left to the referendum vote – when BBC1 News at Ten focused on the ‘racist’ claims of his enemies yet again.
Critics have said Farage has never presented a coherent exit strategy – he stuck too simplistically to that he wanted his country back – but at least he was a vivid focus and a totem for the ‘out’ side. Against the BBC’s barbs against him, those pesky voters up North and in the Tory shires knew that they wanted to leave the EU, and for millions of them, he became a hero, the only sure rallying point for British freedom.
Despite the Corporation’s constant negative barrage, and a concomitant failure to report the ‘exit’ case, those blue shires and those red Northern towns voted for him and Ukip in increasing numbers and ensured that ‘withdrawal’ could not be ignored to the extent that in January 2013 David Cameron was forced to develop the referendum strategy.
What is now clear as a result of the referendum campaign is that the majority of Tory MPs who claimed to be eurosceptics are actually strong Europhiles. They threw everything they had in trying to stay in. And at the same time, the vast majority of the Labour MPs – despite their dissolving electoral base in urban areas – remain shackled to the EU like turkeys voting for Christmas.
The fall-out after the referendum has shown graphically, too, that Vote Leave was only a vinegar-and-brown-paper, tenuous alliance.
Now that the vote has been won there is no obvious leader of ‘exit’, whatever form it takes. Quite the reverse, it seems the very loose alliance that came together to meet the referendum challenge is dissolving before our very eyes into embittered factions.
Not only that, there is no clear ‘exit’ strategy, or no-one is articulating one. Every spokesman who hits the BBC airwaves seems to have a different vision and even a different set of priorities.
BBC coverage is taking advantage of that with a vengeance. Friday’s edition of Newsnight, for example, hit new lows of negativity. It was a continued full-on assault on Brexit.
First – in flagrant breach of editorial guidelines – it disgracefully distorted an Ipsos Mori poll to claim that vast numbers of ‘out’ voters had changed their minds. Then the programme gave pride of place to the Remains of the Day novelist Yazua Ishiguro to vent claims that the ‘leave’ vote was underpinned by Nazism and to demand a new referendum.
Next, a report from France focused on claims that the Brexit decision was a huge mistake linked to Marine le Pen. Finally, a panel of three ‘remain’ voters concurred that the way forward in the face of the disenfranchisement of the 48 per cent who voted ‘remain’ was both the formation of a new political party to represent their views, and – surprise, surprise (again!) – a second referendum or a general election.
On Monday night the coverage of Farage’s departure on main BBC outlets credited him for his achievements relating to the referendum. Do not be deceived, however. This rare acknowledgement was actually an example of damning by faint praise.
Farage’s successor as Ukip leader, as well as rhino hide, will need superhuman qualities to deal with a huge challenge: a governing Conservative party still dominated by pro-EU sentiment and not committed enough to win a satisfactory ‘exit’ deal that restores UK sovereignty; a riven, at-war Labour party hell-bent on ignoring its anti-EU grassroots and blind to concerns about immigration; and a BBC leading the charge of all those who feel that ‘remain’ should have won the day.
(Image: Gage Skidmore)
During the referendum, News-watch monitored 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.