Last week in BBC Watch, it was noted that as referendum polling day fast approached, that in 17 years of monitoring the BBC’s coverage of the EU, one factor had scarcely changed: the casting of Nigel Farage and the party he leads as xenophobic incompetents.
By both implication and direct association, that means – as a core feature of the BBC’s worldview – those who oppose the EU are prejudiced and irrational.
The Corporation’s treatment of Farage this week has taken this negativity to a new, menacing level. It is clear, unequivocal evidence of deep prejudice against the ‘exit’ side. Last Thursday, Farage unveiled a campaign poster based on a picture of immigrants on European soil that was aimed at drawing attention to the problems caused by the EU’s attitudes towards the issue. Controversial? Yes. Unsubtle? Maybe. But without doubt, a depiction of a legitimate aspect of a debate in which control of immigration has played a central role.
Two hours later, 150 or so miles away, a gunman with mental health issues cruelly killed the MP Jo Cox. Despite the dangers of ascribing rational motives to the deranged, the Left instantly hijacked the murder to create political capital, and this has continued relentlessly to the extent that it now defines the ‘Remain’ case.
David Cameron, the Kinnocks, John Major, Jeremy Corbyn, George Osborne and legions more of that ilk, each in his own way – as (it seems) an official part of the ‘Remain’ campaign strategy – have shamelessly suggested that Cox was slain as a result of an intolerance and ‘hatred’ of a type that fires Farage’s opposition to immigration.
Any fair-minded analysis would say that this is arrant nonsense. Even if Cox’s killer was pursuing an extremist agenda, it would not mean – as the Remain side has now assumed and is projecting en masse – that the whole of the case against immigration is discredited and illegitimate.
For the BBC – with its clear statutory duty to be impartial – the Cox killing should have set major alarm bells ringing about the special need to achieve balance in the referendum debate. Article 5:1 of the Corporation’s referendum coverage guidelines was written precisely to cover this. It warns that very rigorous steps should be taken to ensure no side obtains a special advantage from a major news event.
So did this happen? Absolutely not. Totally the reverse. Over the weekend, Farage came gradually under fire in BBC coverage for unveiling the poster. BBC coverage subtly amplified the idea that Cox was a victim of EU-related prejudice.
On Monday morning and then throughout the day this became a crescendo against him.
Starting with Radio 4’s Today, editors seized on a story that they clearly then bracketed with the fall-out from the Cox murder (despite the 5.1 guideline): the alleged ‘defection’ from the Brexit camp by Baroness Warsi. A main fulcrum of the BBC’s writing of the story was the ‘xenophobia and hatred’ Warsi alleged Farage had displayed in the choice of the poster.
No matter that The Times story began to unravel before the ink was even dry on the first edition, as it emerged that Warsi had never been part of the ‘Leave’ campaign. This was an opportunity to kick Farage. It was not to be missed.
So first off, the headlines of Today made the Warsi claims about xenophobia the lead item. Then at 7.10 am, Warsi was interviewed by Mishal Husain. She put it to her that she (Warsi) had never really been part of ‘Leave’ but allowed her to wriggle off the hook and then gave Warsi ample space to ram home the nastiness and xenophobia of the Farage stance.
Nick Robinson interviewed Farage at 8.10am. From the outset the presenter’s tone was aggressive. Robinson’s rate of interruption was as high as it gets in such exchanges. The bottom line was that Farage was put firmly on the back foot. He mounted a vigorous defence, but Robinson relentlessly pushed that the poster was based on what amounted to racism and was designed recklessly to inflame opinions.
BBC-1’s News at One continued the Farage attack. There was a quote from Farage. He stated:
“I will tell you what’s really going on here and that is the Remain camp are using these awful circumstances to try to say that the motives of one deranged dangerous individual were similar of half the country, perhaps more, who believe we should leave the EU and . . .
Deputy BBC political editor Norman Smith was almost apoplectic at this assertion. He demanded that Farage tell him who on the ‘Remain’ side had said that. Smith then summed up:
“Another incendiary intervention by Mr Farage, accusing the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of seeking to link the murder of Jo Cox to the way the Brexit campaign has pursued its arguments, suggesting that it has created an atmosphere which perhaps contributed to her killing. Now, privately those around Mr Cameron have reacted with contempt and fury to that suggestion; in public they are urging everyone just to focus on the tributes to Jo Cox this afternoon.
“But, of course, Mr Farage’s intervention follows that poster, the ‘breaking point’ poster, which Mr Farage this morning expressed no regrets about, saying the only thing wrong with it was the unfortunate timing. He unveiled it just a couple of hours before Mrs Cox’s killing. And all that after the former chairwoman of the Conservative Party announced she was quitting the Leave side because of what she called its nudge-nudge, wink-wink, xenophobic approach. And you sense a real gulf is opening up on the Leave side between Mr Farage and the official campaign – their fear that they become seen as indistinguishable from Nigel Farage’s much more abrasive and inflammatory campaign, and that his interventions undermine their attempts to presents a more optimistic, outward-looking approach.”
That’s quoted in full because it illustrates the depths of the BBC bias. They decided to elevate the Warsi story to the main theme of the day, then gave her the headlines and a platform to chant her ‘xenophobic hatred’ line. Farage was given by Robinson a back-foot opportunity to try address some of the claims against him, but was severely constrained by the rate of interruption and Robinson’s clear aggression. During the morning, Farage explained that he believed the attacks against him were being in effect orchestrated by the ‘Remain’ side. There is clear evidence in Will Straw’s BSE conference call that that they were. But Norman Smith’s assessment side-stepped that point. Instead, he described Farage’s approach to the whole issue as ‘inflammatory’ and both pessimistic and inward looking.
To the BBC, from the very beginning, Farage has been regarded as a xenophobic, dangerous maverick. This week they fully reverted to type. How much has their treatment of this issue swayed the referendum result?
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.