When it comes to impartiality, which planet does Newsnight – the BBC’s television news and current affairs flagship programme – inhabit?
Over the past six weeks the programme has run six separately-themed referendum specials, a marathon six hours of broadcasting in which it has discussed sovereignty, the impact on the economy, security, immigration, how the EU works, and the options post-Brexit. The final one was on Monday night.
Each programme on the surface was carefully balanced with prominent politicians from both sides of the debate, together with a weekly sprinkling of pro-EU and pro-Brexit experts. A feature throughout was a panel of eight allegedly undecided voters chosen, host Evan Davis said, by the Ipsos Mori polling company.
Was the series as a whole properly impartial? Measuring bias across six hours of broadcasting is immensely complex and labour intensive.
News-watch has already noted in previous postings major issues of negativity towards the Brexit case, for example choosing Sealand, an obscure, decrepit ‘independent’ platform in the North Sea to depict what the UK post-Brexit might look like, and opening the programme on immigration from Boston in Lincolnshire with a heavily pro-EU selection of views.
Further bias problems arose in the final programme. Tory MEP Daniel Hannan presented a short piece to camera about what Brexit would achieve and look like. This was the first time in the series that a deliberate production effort was made to explain this perspective.
However, it clearly did not work as intended. Seven of the eight ‘independent panellists declared at the end that they favoured ‘remain’ (of which more later) and when asked by Davis said they had found Hannan’s film ‘unconvincing’.
Part of the reason may well have been the gut-busting production counter-effort put into establishing the ‘remain’ case. This was another piece of film shot in advance by Newsnight. It was undoubtedly the centrepiece of the programme – if not of the series as a whole – and featured Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell – who has come out strongly on the ‘remain’ side – in a staged reconstruction of what post-Brexit negotiations might involve. His ‘opponent’ in these talks was Antonio Vitorino, the (Italian) European Commissioner for Justice from 1999-2004.
What emerged in the tortuous ten minutes was that whatever the UK opted for, it would be very costly, would not work and would lead to economic disaster. The Norway option? Forget it. Switzerland’s? If you choose that, certain penury and an overwhelming tide of immigration. Canada’s trade agreement? Even worse. EFTA-style arrangements? Britain might as well jump into a pit of vipers.
This was weirdly compelling television, deliberately staged to be so. Every penny of the production budget was squeezed to maximum extent to show that ‘out’ was horrendous, and no matter what the UK said, or hoped for, the EU would undermine it or put obstacles in the way.
It was clear that Powell was not really trying, to the extent that Davis was forced to say so after the film was shown, but the point was made with a vengeance: ‘out’ for the UK would be worse than anything that Dante ever remotely imagined.
A further issue on Monday night was that one of the guest experts in the final programme was a prominent Norwegian campaigner against the EU, who led the relevant parliamentary group. But she was scarcely asked to contribute, and even then, her command of English was relatively limited, so her points did not come across as fluently as the ‘remain’ case. Another reason why the Newsnight panel voted in.
Another big – and unanswered – question here is how Newsnight selected the so-called ‘undecided’ panel. How their status was established by Ipsos Mori was not revealed. Were they in any sense representative of the electorate? Three of the eight were obviously from ethnic minorities and one was an Irish national. There were three white women, but only one white man (the Irish national) and none was clearly over 65. Alarm bells ring here. Was the choice to meet the BBC’s version of ‘diversity’?
Analysis of what they said over the six programmes shows that they raised or made (unprompted) pro-EU points more often than Eurosceptic ones, and in the final edition, a typical contribution was this:
Undecided panellist: “Basically, I cannot see any, any (fragments of words, unclear) leaving the EU it makes us safer, it makes our economy stronger, and I can’t see any of that. In any case, I . . . I trust my Prime Minister with what he says . . .”
Panellist: “We have elected the government and he says, and he cannot make anything . . . make it up. So I (fragment of word, unclear) put my trust in him, and what I hear (fragment of word, unclear)”
Those do not sound like the words of someone who was deeply ‘undecided’. Whatever else is involved in the referendum saga, David Cameron has been staunchly pro-EU throughout, and is now emerging – in his Project Fear utterances – as probably more fervent in his adoration of Brussels than even Edward Heath.
(Image: Chatham House)
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.