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David Keighley’s BBC Watch: Purnell for D-G? No joke as impartiality over Brexit is junked


It’s challenge time on TCW!

When – if ever – will the BBC make and broadcast a programme that is genuinely positive about Brexit?

Not an uncritical one; simply, something that robustly explores Britain’s out-of-the-EU future from the perspective of potential beneficial outcomes, and also prominently brings into the equation the negative impact of the EU on Britain over the past 43 years.

Something that does not swallow the insidious EU we-are-responsible-for-peace myth, or see disaster round every corner, that does not automatically assume that all the negotiating cards are in the EU’s hands, and that shows – as this Civitas paper does – that ‘Europe’ desperately needs to continue exporting to us for its own economic interests.

This article in Standpoint, by Brian Griffiths (Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach), who was head of Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit, is exactly the kind of incisive overview analysis that the BBC has never translated into programme form. Surely, if it was an impartial broadcaster, it should be doing so.

John Redwood is among the prominent ‘out’-supporting MPs – others include Labour’s Kate Hoey – who have now reached breaking point because of the intensifying torrent of BBC bias against Brexit. Redwood wrote on his blog:

‘They still seem unable to grasp that there is no such thing as the Single Market detached from the full panoply of EU laws and policies which a state can belong to, nor that the debate is only about access to each other’s markets which should be relatively straightforward…. the BBC seem caught in a time warp. So often their idea of news is based on reheating old Remain stories and lines from the referendum debate.’

The Corporation’s negativity is so strong and so consistent that there is now speculation in Westminster that a group within BBC senior management have decided that they see their job as actively campaigning to thwart Brexit.

It seems that, in the Corporation’s warped estimation, leaving the EU is seen as such a threat to the nation’s economic wellbeing that ‘due impartiality’, the self-devised distorted framework through which the BBC interprets its approach to impartiality, regards those who think otherwise as dangerously unhinged – and thus not entitled to equal airtime.

Nothing else, it is argued, can account for the now relentless minute-by-minute search for story angles that suggest that Brexit is a dangerous gamble.

Last week’s confirmation of the appointment of former Labour Culture Secretary James Purnell to the £295,000-a-year job of director of radio – despite his lack of programming experience and the absence of a proper selection process – has added an extra twist of credibility to the speculation. Never in the BBC’s history has a former cabinet minister been appointed to such an editorially sensitive executive role, and he is now openly being groomed as the next Director-General.

Current D-G Tony Hall went ahead with the appointment despite concerns from the former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, who warned that the appointment would set a ‘dangerous precedent’ and observed that there would be ‘howls of protest’ from supporters of the BBC if he (Whittingdale) made a similar transition to an executive role at the Corporation that included editorial decision-making.

Abundant disturbing evidence of the unmitigated BBC bias of the type that has fuelled this speculation about BBC plotting to derail Brexit can be found in the latest News-watch survey that can be read in full here.

The survey is based on detailed analysis of the Brexit Collection, a selection of BBC Radio 4 programmes placed on the BBC iPlayer and said to be a reflection of the channel’s post-referendum programming.

The News-watch report summary states:

‘Overall, there were no attempts in any programme to explore the benefits of leaving the EU, but conversely, Brexit came under sustained negative attack. This was reflected in the balance of contributions and comment contained within the items. Analysis by News-watch shows that only 23 per cent of contributors in the programmes as a whole spoke in favour of Brexit, against 58 per cent in favour of Remain and 19 per cent who gave a neutral or factual commentary.’

 What the programmes contain amounts to a barrage of negative comment about ‘exit’, including unchallenged predictions of rioting on the streets, the collapse of whole swathes of business, the flight of ‘art’ and artistic endeavour from the UK, a rise of xenophobia, unprovoked attacks on foreigners, escalating racial tension and worse. 

News-watch has also been further surveying elements of the BBC’s coverage of referendum issues during the campaign itself.  The Corporation’s coverage guidelines stipulated that both sides of the debate should have broadly equal treatment. On BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat (the Corporation’s primary news programme targeting 18-25s), that certainly was not the case. 

Among the conclusions is that:

‘238 guest speakers contributed to the various discussions on the referendum. The analysis shows that 45 per cent spoke in favour of Remain, 30 per cent in favour of Leave, with a further 25 per cent giving a neutral, undecided or factual perspective. Newsbeat audiences were 1.5 times more likely to encounter a Remain supporter than a Leave supporter.

(Image: Adrian Scottow)

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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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