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New watchdog turns out to be the BBC’s poodle


THE media and telecoms regulator Ofcom has published its depressingly predictable rejection of News-watch’s comprehensively researched complaint about BBC Radio 4’s Brexit bias which we lodged with it in May last year.

In this, its first major ruling on BBC impartiality since it became BBC complaints watchdog under the 2017 BBC Charter, Ofcom starkly rejects any suggestion of bias in the Corporation’s news and current affairs coverage of Brexit.

Played out behind the scenes and with sadly little media attention, this is the latest and highly significant stage in our quest to get the BBC to treat evidence-based complaint of bias seriously and responsibly (as opposed to dismissively). There was some hope of a reformed system and proper accountability when the BBC Trust was replaced by Ofcom as the ‘regulator’. But the total inadequacy of this response reveals a regulator firmly allied with the BBC, and no mechanism existing to call the overweening compulsory taxpayer-funded broadcaster to account. It confirms that on Brexit, as on climate science, Ofcom, far from holding the BBC to account is its champion. The ruling leaves the BBC, as it has been for over 20 years, impervious to complaint. News-watch’s full response can be found here.

According to Ofcom, the BBC’s requirements of ‘due impartiality’ in the Brexit debate were met in the 50 hours of BBC Radio 4 programmes News-watch monitored and analysed. These included 24 editions of the ​Today programme as well as ​Britain at the Crossroads​, a special day-long strand of Brexit-related material.

Ofcom’s programme standards team – which took nine months to consider its response – ruled that because the debate about Brexit in the period involved (autumn 2017 to summer 2018) was no longer ‘binary’ (divided into Leave and Remain, as it had been during the 2016 referendum campaign), there was no requirement to ensure that coverage reflected these viewpoints on an equal basis. It said the debate about Brexit was now ‘a much more complex and nuanced discussion comprising many different viewpoints on the form that the UK’s exit from the EU should take.’

Major problems in Radio 4’s coverage were uncovered by a rigorous scrutiny of every programme transcript, which across three surveys of the BBC output conducted revealed the following dramatic imbalance:

  • Pro-EU and Remain outnumbered figures who wanted a decisive Brexit by ratios of up to 5:1 and never less than 2:1;
  • BBC presenters and correspondents were not neutral in reports and interviews, exaggerating the problems of leaving the EU while ignoring the potential benefits of developing new trade policies and restoring national sovereignty.

By sidestepping the evidence based on internationally-recognised techniques of assessing media content that was supplied to it, Ofcom gives the BBC a clean bill of health despite the abundant evidence to the contrary. Either naive, or disingenuous, it appears to believe that simply to include a range of opinions creates ‘due impartiality’ – an absurd stance at odds with agreed research practice, and for which there is no excuse.

The first report sent to it concerned 24 editions of the Today programme from October 9 to November 4, 2017, a period of unusually high Brexit coverage mainly hinged on the unfolding negotiations.

Bias was evident in the presenters’ pejorative use of language – the word ‘divorce’, for example, was used on average twice during every programme to describe Brexit, in favour of the neutral exit or departure. It was evident in the almost complete absence of participation by ‘ordinary’ people who’d voted Leave, or of UKIP, the only political grouping with substantial electoral backing which supported without reservation the need for a decisive Brexit. Their opportunity to speak comprised just 76 words.

It was evident in the news bulletins. Thirteen items projected major problems in the Brexit arena (including plummeting registration of nurses from across the EU, a Brexit cost to every household of £500, the loss of thousands of jobs in the City of London and claims by Hillary Clinton that the Brexit vote was based on a ‘big lie’). Against this, none featured that was positive.

Finally, it was evident in the selection of guests. Of the 199 speakers in Today’s EU coverage, 102 (51.3 per cent) were broadly pro-EU or were negative about Brexit, against just 54 speakers (27.1 per cent) who were positive, a ratio of 2:1. The remainder were neutral.

Outside the political parties in the House of Commons, only 16 supporters of Brexit or ‘anti’ the EU featured, against 52 from those opposed to Brexit or in favour of the EU – a ratio worse than 3:1 and in terms of the word counts, a ratio of 4:1.

The latter predicted a litany of woe and doom for the UK, including the intractable difficulties of reaching new free trade deals; collapsing farm incomes; exports hit by new red tape, tariffs, customs delays and rising prices; long-term decline; that the cost of dairy exports and imports could soar; and that Brexit was hitting car exports from the UK and so on.

This picture of negativity against Brexit was worsened by comments from BBC correspondents and presenters. Of course, the government’s progress towards negotiations was not smooth, but the BBC’s editorial focus was disproportionately and relentlessly negative, as we found too in our analysis of the third series of the BBC Radio 4 programme Brexit: A Guide for the Perplexed, broadcast on five consecutive days between 19 and 23 February 2018. Each programme, 12 minutes long and presented by the BBC’s EU ‘Reality Check’ reporter Chris Morris, dealt with the projected impact of Brexit on the UK pharmaceuticals sector, food and agriculture, the future of British Overseas Territories, the regions of the UK outside London, and the so-called ‘transitional phase’ after March 2019.

It was not an objective examination of the issues of Brexit but an edited assemblage of contributions which were overwhelmingly biased against Brexit and pro-EU in their outlook. The imbalance in speaker bias was again startling. The ratio of pro-EU to anti-EU speakers in this category was 6:1 and the anti-Brexit to pro-Brexit word count ratio was almost 11 to one.

Bias in broadcasting, of course, is not measured by metrics alone, but transcript analysis confirms that the negativity from these contributors against Brexit was very strong. The overall pessimism was compounded by the comments and opinions of Chris Morris, who himself spoke 49 per cent of the words across the five programmes. Mr Morris amplified the negativity of those gloomy about the impact of Brexit, challenged or cut short those who made positive points, his primary intent seeming to echo a ‘walking the plank’ metaphor introduced in the final programme. Nor did Mr Morris alert his listeners to the clear pro-EU views of his guests or that many had been campaigners for Remain since before the EU Referendum. One, Professor of Law Catherine Barnard, held the Jean Monnet chair at Cambridge, and was thus at least partly paid for by the EU. Thus, BBC ‘Reality Checking’ is a complete misnomer.

On March 29, 2018, BBC Radio 4 broadcast eight separate programmes about Brexit designed to reflect the issues involved one year before the EU departure date. News-watch transcribed and analysed all the programmes. The overall word-count added up to 15,554 from those who broadly favoured Remain against 6,889 from those making contrary points. The Today programme that day – which accounted for one third of the day’s output – exhibited even worse bias, with only eight contributors pro-Brexit against 26 negative towards it, or positive about the EU.

The presenters’ mission seemed to be to highlight every possible snag in the Brexit process, and play down or ignore the opportunities. The sequences which explored the future of the EU were at core in different ways all strongly in favour of the EU. Entirely missing were any commentators calling for drastic reform – or withdrawal – or any who were part of so-called ‘populist’ or ‘Right-wing’ movements from within the EU.

With the exception of one programme, The Brexit Lab, the overall coverage in Britain at the Crossroads was deeply skewed against Brexit. This has been the case in all eight News-watch surveys completed since the EU referendum.

It is a matter of major national concern that the BBC is breaching its Charter requirements towards impartiality in this way. What Ofcom has done has the direst of implications. Yet very few out there in the media or in Parliament seem to care.

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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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