Readers of TCW will need little persuading that the BBC’s coverage of Brexit is biased. The Corporation vehemently denies it of course, but since the referendum vote, it has seemingly been on an all-out mission to find every reason why leaving the EU is disastrous for the UK – and to avoid reporting the benefits.
Hillary Clinton, on a book-plugging visit to London, claims the Brexit result was based on a ‘big lie’? Immediately it’s a BBC headline. Wages aren’t rising in pace with the cost of living? Another ‘hold the front page’ moment ‘because of Brexit uncertainty’.
What is surprising, however, is the sheer scale of the Corporation’s failure to meet its Charter requirement of impartiality. A paper by News-watch published today by Civitas, based on a collation of research conducted into the BBC’s EU coverage over the past 18 years, chronicles the immense problems for the first time.
The report, The Brussels Broadcasting Corporation? – How pro-Brexit views have been marginalised in the BBC’s news coverage, can be read in full here.
The paper also demonstrates that the Corporation’s complaints process is not fit for purpose. It is a self-serving mechanism for kicking impartiality issues into touch rather than dealing with them honestly, independently and robustly. The only remedy, the authors argue, may be a judicial review or a public inquiry.
News-watch has been monitoring BBC output since the European Parliamentary elections in 1999. This work is based on rigorous academic principles followed by university media schools around the world. There are 38 reports covering hundreds of hours of EU output and 8,000 programme transcripts, and it is believed to be the largest systematic study of the media ever undertaken.
The key findings, which show that supporters of withdrawal from across the political spectrum have been severely under-presented, include:
- Of 4,275 survey-period guests talking about the EU on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme between 2005 and 2015, only 132 (3.2 per cent) were supporters of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
- In 274 hours of monitored BBC EU coverage between 2002 and 2017, only 14 speakers (0.2 per cent of the total) were Left-wing advocates for leaving the EU, and they spoke only 1,680 words.
- In the same period, Tory pro-EU grandees Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine made between them 28 appearances, with contributions totalling 11,208 words – over nine times the amount of airtime allocated to all Left-wing supporters of Brexit.
- In Today’s business news covering the six months after the EU referendum, only 10 (2.9 per cent) of 366 speaker contributions were from supporters of withdrawal from the EU. http://news-watch.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/News-watch-Business-News-Survey-.pdf
- More recently, in October-November last year, of 68 non-politically allied speakers in the Brexit-related coverage on Today, 52 were anti-Brexit or pro-EU, and only 16 were pro-Brexit or anti-EU, an imbalance of worse than 3:1 – despite the Leave vote.
Of course, measuring bias is not solely about numbers. They are one factor among many in News-watch assessment methodology.
The News-watch reports also include detailed textual analysis which confirms that these blatant numerical imbalances are indicators of across-the-board bias against EU withdrawal.
Equally as disturbing is the BBC’s attitude towards this work. Over most of the 18 years, successive figures from the senior hierarchy have refused point blank even to consider the News-watch work. The one exception, in 2007, was a travesty.
The Corporation’s stone-wall excuse boils down to that they are the wrong kind of complaint because the internal BBC process deals only with issues arising from single programme editions.
The most recent dismissal of a News-watch report – about coverage of the EU and Brexit issues in last year’s General Election – was derisory. Without providing any evidence, the BBC press office claimed that it ‘would not pass basic academic scrutiny’. The speed and content of their response suggested that they could not have properly read it.
Another key point in the equation is what the BBC has not covered in the Brexit terrain. The News-watch work has been championed in Parliament by a cross-party group of MPs which includes Kate Hoey and Kelvin Hopkins from Labour, Philip Davies and Philip Hollobone from the Conservatives and Ian Paisley from the DUP.
Sir David Clementi, the BBC Chairman and his predecessors, and Lord Hall, the Director General of the BBC, not only have refused to meet the group to discuss the bias issues – but they also have been unable to supply to the cross-party group a single BBC programme since the referendum which has examined the opportunities of Brexit.
News-watch has been scouring the schedules to spot one – but in vain.