James Harding, the BBC’s director of news, has fired a broadside against those poor, misguided souls who have dared to think that the BBC’s coverage of the referendum and its aftermath have been out of kilter.
His chosen medium for this homily? Why, where else but that neutral newspaper so loved by the BBC – The Guardian.
For those not versed in BBC obfuscation (otherwise known as complaints handling), this was a classic piece. His wheeled-out-a-thousand-times trebuchet defence was that he and his battalions of heroic, do-no-wrong journalists have received complaints from both sides in the referendum debate, so the coverage must therefore have been balanced.
For good measure, he also quotes BBC audience research, which he says shows that 90 per cent of the UK population tuned into BBC programmes – further ‘proof’ that everything in the impartiality garden was rosy. That’s alright then.
Never mind that the BBC audience domination is only achieved because of the enforced regime of the television licence fee.
Harding, in fact, takes up most of the space in his article in dealing with those on the Remain side who think the BBC gave too much prominence of the lies and distortions of the Brexit side. What does that say about unconscious bias?
His defence here is that the BBC (from dear Newsnight presenter Evan Davis to that nice economics editor Kamal Ahmed) made it abundantly clear that the weight of economic opinion overwhelmingly showed – just like the ‘consensus’ of scientists in the climate change debate – that leaving the EU was foolhardy.
In Harding’s book, the BBC had thus fulfilled its duty – and it was voters who got it wrong by having the temerity to ignore ‘the facts’.
Harding’s analysis of the Brexiteers’ complaints, in sharp contrast, take up only one paragraph, so little space that it can be quoted in full. He declared:
‘The Leavers’ complaint will, in no small part, be answered by what happens next and how we report it. The fact is that, since the EU referendum, there has been a revaluation of sterling, the Bank of England cut interest rates because it says the outlook for economic growth has weakened markedly and the Government’s plans for Brexit are unclear. But consumer confidence has bounced back and manufacturing and services sectors have rebounded accordingly. In the months ahead, our job is to understand what Brexit actually means – without relish or alarm.’
This is more obfuscation. Of course, no one can yet tell the outcome of Brexit, and the ‘Out’ side’s complaints are not rooted there.
The reality is that since the referendum vote, there have been mixed signals about the economy, but the IMF, the OECD , the Treasury and all those who the ‘Remain’ side wheeled at as ‘proof’ that Brexit would spell immediate disaster for the British economy have been proved wrong.
The nub of the ‘Out’ side complaints is that the BBC has been, at best, mealy-mouthed and begrudging about reporting this slow-motion car crash of economic forecasting. Night after night during the referendum campaign, Davis, Ahmed and Co trumpeted the predictions of doom with relish; the reporting of the retractions and the back-tracking have been delivered through gritted teeth.
The reality, too, is that since Brexit, there has been a torrent of BBC negativity about the consequences of Out, and all normal rules of reporting seem to have been suspended to ensure that those 90 per cent who Harding claims watch BBC bulletins can be in no doubt that they have made a grave mistake in ignoring the economic forecasters of the OECD and elsewhere in the BBC canon of approved sources.
Take, for example, the series of reports launched on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme called Brexit Street, which is supposedly a typical ‘Out’-voting area in Thornaby-on-Tees. The reality is that this is a hugely deprived inner city area with a highly atypical quota of asylum seekers. The purpose seems to be to show primarily that ‘Out’ voters are bigoted, bitter, irrational xenophobes.
And what of the killing of a Polish man in a Harlow pizza parlour at the end of August? BBC reports immediately speculated that there was a fear that this was is was a racial attack triggered by Brexit – even though police had made no charges, and had only confirmed that they had not ruled out such motivation from their inquiries. John Sweeney muttered darkly on Newsnight that Nigel Farage might now have blood on his hands.
Such sensationalist reporting gave European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker the ammunition to attack the Brexit vote and to insinuate it had unleashed a tide of racism.
James Harding has thus – as is usual for the BBC – ignored the elephant in the room. The BBC has never reported the EU impartially, fundamentally because they totally do not acknowledge or understand the case for ‘Out’. Harding’s clumsy obfuscation confirms that – in spades.
Diane Abbott has reportedly asserted at the Labour Party Conference that those who voted ‘Out’ were racists. How much has the BBC led her to that conclusion?