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HomeBBC Watch‘Hardline’ Hoey and the BBC at its slippery worst

‘Hardline’ Hoey and the BBC at its slippery worst


ONE of the huge frustrations about the BBC is that they have a defence for every complaint, made up according to their own ever-shifting rules, and adjudicated mainly by their own staff.

When David Cameron formally announced that he would hold an EU Referendum, Newsnight reported the development with a programme which included 18 Remainers (one who was said to be a businessman but actually was a Liberal Democrat politician) and just one who wanted Leave.

News-watch complained. The BBC’s response? Months earlier, Newsnight had presented an edition which contained someone who put the case for withdrawal. The programme with blatant 18-1 stacking was thus fine because this was ‘due impartiality’. Of course.

And so it was on Sunday when Labour MP Kate Hoey – unlike most in her party, a firm supporter of implementing the 2016 referendum result – heard in the BBC1 news bulletin that people like her were ‘hardliners’. This, according to the Collins dictionary, equates to being of rigid views which are often ‘extreme’.

Ms Hoey decided to complain and she wrote to Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s director of news. Ms Unsworth was away so Jonathan Munro, head of newsgathering, responded. He wrote:

‘I’m sorry you were unhappy with the scripting of our early evening bulletin on Sunday. We do take great care in our language on Brexit, so I was keen to understand the context of our choice of words in our coverage. The term “hardliner” is in use across the media, including most newspapers, generally to distinguish the views of members of the European Research Group from their Conservative colleagues who support Brexit, but have indicated they are more flexible about the terms the Prime Minister is negotiating.

‘In this case our headline referred to “Tory hardliners” and the introduction to the report made clear the term was being used in the context of the debate over the Northern Ireland backstop. The report itself did not use it.

‘We weren’t accusing you of anything, of course, but I think you are right to remind us that adjectives should be used carefully in our coverage, and that where time permits explanation is preferable to shorthand. I hope this answers your concerns.’

His statement boils down to that it is permissible at the BBC to use a word with ‘extremist’ connotations to describe those who want a clean break from the EU because others use it. But what about accuracy? Is Mr Munro unaware that the most of the newspapers he mentions, including the Daily Mail, have a clearly biased agenda? Many want a second referendum. Others support Theresa May’s so-called ‘deal’ – but many regard that as remaining shackled to EU regulation, and a reneging of the referendum result.

Mr Munro’s defence thus arguably amounts to a political judgment, as does his linked assertion that those in the Conservative party outside the ERG are simply ‘more flexible’. The BBC has a special duty to ensure rigorous impartiality because it receives £3.5billion a year from a tax on the public. Because of that, it has a Charter which requires it. In that context, how how can Mr Munro even begin to believe that simply following the at best lazy and at worst partisan use of language of the MSM is acceptable?

Just as slippery is his assertion that adjectives must be used with care. On one level, it comes as a relief that a public service organisation so cavalier with the use of ‘hardline’ at least thinks this is an important principle. But then comes his proviso: ‘where time permits, explanation is preferable to shorthand’. So does that mean that, in the BBC’s journalism, the use of highly dubious adjectives such as ‘hardline’ is justified by time constraints?

The lazy and perjorative use of language is certainly a defining feature of BBC Brexit coverage. Ms Hoey spelled out this out in more detail in a piece for the inews website. She wrote:

‘The Corporation was warned about its biased use of language about the EU in 2005, when the referendum was first mooted. Lord Wilson of Dinton conducted an independent inquiry into bias claims, which concluded that the BBC was “not succeeding” in being impartial in its coverage of Europe.

‘The BBC promised to do better but the sloppy and loaded approach has become worse since the referendum. First came the phrases “hard” and “soft” Brexit. This painted those who wanted a clean break with Brussels as hard and unyielding, and those who did not as cuddly and reasonable.

‘Another term picked up by BBC journalists to describe leaving the EU was “divorce”. Jean-Claude Juncker frequently refers to the EU as a “family”, and in 2016 began referring to Brexit as a “divorce”. By autumn 2017 a survey by News-Watch, which searches for BBC bias in coverage of the EU, showed BBC presenters and correspondents using “divorce” as the core definition of what Leavers wanted. Not only were Leavers xenophobes – they were now home-wreckers, too. The term “hardline” has been used by BBC journalists to describe President Trump’s immigration policies and a highly divisive wartime Japanese governor. It is clearly not intended as a compliment.

‘News-Watch surveyed the coverage on Radio 4’s Today programme of Parliament’s defeat of the Withdrawal Deal. Only a handful of the 111 contributors were firm supporters of implementing the referendum result. And the main one – Steve Baker, spokesman for the ERG group – was introduced as – surprise! – “hardline”, a term never applied to figures such as David Lammy or Dominic Grieve, who are “hardline” in trying to thwart leaving the EU. The word “Brexiteer” – with its echoes of “mutineer” – is another biased description used routinely by the BBC. The Financial Times manages to use the more neutral “Brexiters” – you’d think a supposedly impartial news organisation would do the same.’

Taking all this together, the email exchange with Ms Hoey speaks volumes about the BBC’s sense of self-righteousness and confirms its relentless support of staying in the EU. That stance has not changed one iota over the decades of the EU debate. The Corporation is so blinkered that those who run it are disturbingly unaware of the bias they peddle. Their hugely negative use of the ‘hardline’ label is astutely chronicled on the Is the BBC Biased? website here.

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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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