Ryan Bourne: Just three per cent of BBC guests back Brexit

(This article was first published by City A.M.)

The EU referendum debate is well underway. David Cameron has abandoned any pretence of attempting  fundamentally to alter our EU relationship – with previous promises to repatriate employment law, clamp down on free movement, and change EU treaties all jettisoned. What tweaks Cameron is seeking look largely cosmetic or trivial, but even these seem difficult to achieve.

The choice facing Britain is therefore clear: remain in an EU committed to ever more harmonisation and integration, or become an independent, sovereign nation again. This is an historic decision and, given its importance, it is vital that we have an open and fair debate about it. In particular, it is crucial that Brexit advocates from across the political spectrum are heard fairly on broadcast media.

For this to happen, it will require a culture change in the way many political and economic journalists approach this issue. For years, much of the media, and particularly the licence-fee funded BBC, has examined the EU purely through the party political prism. In both the selection of guests and their presentation, “withdrawalist” voices have been under-represented and maligned.

Forthcoming analysis by News-Watch for a book chapter of mine outline some examples of this quantitatively. Knitting together all of News-Watch’s samples of EU coverage on Radio 4’s Today programme between March 2004 and June 2015, we found that, of 4,275 guest speakers on EU themes, a paltry 3.2 per cent (132) were identifiably in favour of leaving the EU. Of these, 72 per cent were representatives of Ukip and 37 per cent were Nigel Farage alone. In that time, just three left-leaning withdrawalist voices appeared.

True, many of the debates were on particular EU-related issues rather than membership per se. But the impression of this “drip, drip, drip” of guest selection is that support for Brexit is a fringe issue linked irrevocably to Ukip, even though between a third and a half of the British people have favoured exiting throughout that period. Even in a January 2013 edition of Newsnight devoted to discussing Cameron’s announcement of an In-Out referendum, Farage was the sole declared Brexiteer of 19 guests.

Doubts remain about how the BBC uses business voices too. The Today programme had 25 business speakers who answered questions on the EU referendum during the general election campaign. Of these, 19 said the referendum was a worry or a threat. None openly backed leaving. Given Business for Britain and YouGov polling suggests business backed the referendum by 66 per cent to 25 per cent, it is reasonable to assume that a substantial proportion believed Britain would be better off economically outside the EU or at least that the referendum would not be overly damaging for their business. Yet they found no voice on the Today programme in the crucial election period.

It’s essential that the BBC breaks out of that mind-set now that this is a full referendum. In referenda, the views of the political class matter far less, and it is clear from the establishment of the campaigns that support for Brexit spans people of vastly different ideologies. Though economic and business journalists may talk more frequently to big pro-EU multinationals, business opinion is sharply divided too.

Given this evidence, Brexiteers must hope and monitor for the best but prepare for the worst in regard to how their case is covered. Rather than resting on their laurels and relying on the BBC and other mainstream media, they should seek to establish genuine grassroots movements, effective social media campaigns and, where possible, provide alternative sources of information.

Documentary film-maker Martin Durkin’s attempt to crowdsource funding via Kickstarter for his “Brexit: The Movie” looks like an excellent opportunity to contribute to the production of a high-quality documentary ready for broadcast. His promise to shine a light on how the EU operates and to analyse some of the key significant economic costs associated with trade protectionism (which, according to Patrick Minford’s new IEA book today, costs us up to 4 per cent of GDP) could be an important counter-balance to the likely highly negative picture of Brexit painted in other outlets.

Quite simply: the once-in-a-lifetime nature of the referendum means it is too important for us to assume that the BBC and others will provide fair and balanced coverage.

Ryan Bourne is head of public policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs

Ryan Bourne

  • Mike Fowle

    Well said

    • Benthos

      Seconded.

  • Ah, the BBC, recently I complained that in a medical programme they recommended the use of a substance that is known to cause fatal reactions in some cases. Their reply was to the effect that as the number of deaths was small it did not matter.

    • Cynical Ex Academic

      What was it?

  • Allyup

    The TTIP involves the richest 1% and EU bureaucrats.The 1% can only be interested in something that increases their take and its likely the public sector will be up for grabs. The biggy is the NHS which is likely to be privatised one way or another. The BBC is such a huge public sector organisation it has to be a target as well.
    It is amusing to think the EU which the BBC backs avidly could lead to its downfall via the TTIP.

  • Bluesman_1

    The (BBC) science is settled so no need for further debate.

  • Vera

    Well, what did you expect? BBC receives many millions of euros from the EU every year.
    ‘EU committed to ever more harmonization’. Harmonization I suppose is derived from harmony, a word which doesn’t sit easy applied to any part of the EU that I recognize.

  • gildedtumbril

    I was recently asked how it feels to be an eu ‘citizen’. My reply; I feel like I am a twelve year old
    Yazidi girl captive who has just discovered she has 1,000 ‘husbands’.
    I am male.

  • Otto Crum

    The BBC in common with much of the media wants to break the morale of those who want to leave. That seems clear now.
    The latest reporting on the G20 scaremongering makes this obvious. I think it was the ex Czech president who recently declared that many EU governments and their media lackeys have declared a sort of war on their people. Our government has done exactly that. Reluctantly giving us a referendum for party political reasons the Cameron clique is making every effort to ensure that we do as we are told that is vote as they direct. . The centuries old contempt of the ruling class for the serfs.

    I really hope it blows up in their faces. Whatever happens one of the results will be increasing cynicism and alienation from the political process.