The BBC and pro-Brexit bias: the subtle consequences of liberal guilt.

An exclusive new piece by Professor Chris Grey on the pro-Brexit bias at the BBC.

I’m a great admirer and supporter of the BBC, and think it is one of not just this country’s but the world’s greatest institutions. I also think – and the two things are not incompatible - that its Brexit coverage during, before and since the Referendum has been skewed in favour of Brexit and those campaigning for it. That isn’t the same as saying that it has been flagrantly biased or unbalanced: it is more subtle than that. In this essay, I will try to explain my reasons for saying this, and what I think has caused it.

Before doing so, a few caveats. First, I don’t think the BBC is somehow under the thumb of the government, or of the Leave campaign, or of UKIP. Second, I’m not a specialist in any way on the media – the basis of this essay is only that I am closely interested in and write extensively about Brexit, mainly focussed on its implications for organizations and trade. I’m well aware that the whole issue of BBC political impartiality has been endlessly discussed by people much better qualified than I. And I certainly don’t mean to imply that the BBC doesn’t think carefully and seriously about the accuracy, balance and impartiality of its Brexit coverage or that it needs my help to do so. Indeed, it would be absurd to imagine that an organization like the BBC is not alive to such issues which are a basic staple of journalistic theory and practice.

Yet perhaps that also carries the dangers of complacency, precisely because the BBC is so attentive to those issues. I have seen many BBC statements referring, with rightful pride, to its continuous striving for balance but these sometimes sound as if to strive at something is to succeed at it. At all events, I think that, as regards Brexit, the BBC has in some crucial respects got its approach to these issues wrong. I don’t pretend to have undertaken any kind of systematic study of their coverage – like most people I dip in and out of it, and then only parts of it (mostly: R4 Today, R4 Westminster Hour, R4 The World Tonight, BBC2 Daily and Sunday Politics, BBC1 News and BBC News Channel). I also dip in and out of other broadcasters, mostly Channel 4 News, Sky News and ITV News. None of those three seems to me to have the same problems as the BBC in their Brexit coverage and I think that comparison is important as it is suggests that other, equally serious, news organizations, which will also have asked the same questions of themselves as the BBC, have come to different answers.

I’m obviously very well aware of the possibility that my estimation of the BBC’s approach is no more than a reflection of my own views and biases about (and against) Brexit. Yet if I only saw through that prism then presumably I would be one of those who sees the coverage of Sky, ITV and Channel 4 as pro-Brexit, which I’m not. I’m equally well aware that there are very many people who regard the BBC as being systematically biased against Brexit (and will discuss that later). That isn’t, though, to accept the argument that since both Brexit sides accuse the BBC of bias this suggests that the position is about right. Precisely because of the polarisation of views over Brexit, the BBC would attract criticism from both sides almost whatever it did, so that criticism cannot in itself be taken to prove their approach is the right one since it would occur even if they had a different one.

In any case, as regards the Referendum campaign itself Nigel Farage, no less, stated (with surprise) that the BBC’s coverage had been “fair and balanced”. That should actually have set alarm bells ringing because if someone so far on one side of the debate, and so pre-disposed to see the BBC as biased against his cause, thinks that it does tend to suggest that the BBC went further in the pro-Brexit direction than impartiality would dictate.

Balance and impartiality.

A standard way to think about balance is the amount of air time given to each side and whether each side is allowed to reply to the other. This seems to be how the BBC have dealt with Brexit, effectively using the approach adopted to party politics, especially in General Elections, with the two main parties getting equal airing. So, for every ‘remain’ statement there is a ‘leave’ response and vice versa and this supposedly ensures impartiality.

The trouble is, this doesn’t really work very well for Brexit. Many of the technical issues of law, public policy, political theory and economics around Brexit don’t sit well with normal electoral senses of balance. Taking economics, whilst it is not a precise science – if indeed it is a science at all – the overwhelming balance of opinion amongst economists, including those employed by the Government, is very clear: Brexit will be economically damaging and the main debate is the extent of the damage. Yet ‘balance’ suggests that the pro-Brexit minority of economists be given equal billing with the anti-Brexit majority.

During the campaign I gave several public talks where audience members believed that the economic evidence was equally split, with as much to be said on one side as the other and so voters might as well toss a coin on the economic issues. This seemed to be true regardless of whether the people were for, against or undecided about Brexit and I believe was a direct result of the ‘balanced’ approach to reporting by the BBC (and others, perhaps, but the BBC matters most as being still the most widely accessed and trusted UK news source). Of course, one could say that the minority of economists might be right; what one couldn’t say is that they were anything other than a minority. By giving equal weighting to bother sides, the BBC repeated of the mistake made in coverage of climate change: equating balance with due impartiality (the word ‘due’ has to do a lot of heavy lifting in these debates, and lies at their core).

Beyond this, there is a more subtle point: normal electoral rules did not translate well to the Brexit referendum because the boundaries around what was and wasn’t part of the ‘campaigns’ were not clear. This was shown by, for example, coverage of Obama’s ‘back of the queue’ intervention, treated in many BBC bulletins as if it was statement by the ‘remain’ campaign with a response given from a ‘leaver’. Actually, it may or may not have been helpful to the remain cause but it was an important new fact – the fact being not that Obama was necessarily right in what he said, but that he had said what he said - to which both sides should have been asked to respond. Not doing so was subtly to endorse a key Leave campaign claim that the opposition was not simply the Remain campaign but the massed ranks of the global ‘establishment’.

Beneath this is a deeper and probably much more controversial point: almost all of the factual arguments made by the Leave campaign were untrue (£350M a week for NHS, Turkey is joining the EU etc.), but ‘balance’ required the BBC to treat them as being as valid as the opposing arguments. Typically in an electoral campaign the division is between competing claims of ‘what we should do’, and those can reasonably be treated equally. They may often draw upon disputed facts, of course, but that’s almost always because the facts are susceptible to reasonable differences in interpretation.

It could be argued that the Leave campaign’s ‘take back control’ slogan was of that sort: after all, what ‘control’ means and what the underlying issue of sovereignty means are contestable and indeterminate. I don’t think – even though I would have agreed with it – that the BBC could reasonably have reported as fact that Brexit would not mean taking back control. But the same isn’t true of the £350M claim for well-attested reasons, and indeed the BBC’s Reality Check said so. But what it didn’t do was report as headline news that it was not true in the same way as it would (if necessary) report that the claims the earth was flat are untrue.

I’m not so naïve as to think that Hume’s Fork – the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ – is anything other than a rusty old implement. Yet, for all the indeterminacy around economics and politics, the £350M claim – which, don’t forget, wasn’t an incidental detail in the campaign, but one of its headline slogans, is still periodically defended by Boris Johnson and is being recycled as the 'Brexit dividend' by the government - was as untrue as saying the earth is flat. It was just a matter of arithmetic, but couldn’t be treated as such by the BBC because it was regarded as a matter of opinion, to be treated in a balanced way.

The consequence was that the ‘let’s take back control’ and the ‘let’s spend £350M a week on the NHS’ slogans were treated in the same way, when they were entirely different kinds of claim even though they appeared to be versions of the same thing (i.e. if we take back control then we can spend £350M a week more on the NHS). Due impartiality would have led to them being treated differently (one as debatable, the other as untrue); balance meant that they were both treated as being legitimately debatable.

What news and whose voices?

Even if ‘General Election’ approach to balance could be justified during the Referendum, it’s less defensible in ‘normal’ news reporting rather than campaign reporting. Here what matters is what gets reported and what doesn’t and/or with what prominence. Such judgments are invariably difficult and contestable, but my overall sense is, again, that the BBC have erred towards a subtly pro-Brexit stance. A recent example of under-reporting was the heavily criticised lack of coverage of large anti-Brexit marches in various cities. It’s difficult to be sure, but I think that had comparably sized pro-Brexit marches occurred they would have been more prominently reported. With more certainty, it can be said that other broadcasters gave the marches more prominence, and did so earlier, and that exactly the same criticism was made of the lack of BBC coverage of an anti-Brexit march in March 2017.

To take a converse case, last August the BBC gave prominent coverage to the Patrick Minford and Economists for Free Trade (formerly, Economists for Brexit) report claiming huge benefits from hard Brexit. The question arises as to why their work was selected for coverage? There would be two reasons not to do so. First, because it was not new. It was based on work that had been reported before the referendum and although it was being re-published in new form it was not in itself anything that had not been reported before. Secondly, the underlying work had been heavily and extensively criticised by several leading economists from the LSE and Sussex University amongst others. Thus, however it was covered, it is questionable whether it should have been covered at all. That is not, as Nick Robinson suggested at the time, a ‘censorship’ argument - every day all kinds of research are put into the public domain but it’s not censorship that very few are selected for reporting by the BBC. I am not certain, but my memory is that no other broadcaster gave any prominence to this story.

This feeds into a wider issue of the prominent platform given by the BBC to certain pro-Brexit figures. The most egregious example is the joint highest tally of 32 appearances on Question Time by Nigel Farage, which continued even after he ceased to be UKIP’s leader. It has also emerged that the only MEPs who have appeared on Question Time since 2012 are from UKIP, with the sole exception of the equally pro-Brexit Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. It could perhaps be said that UKIP’s voter numbers (at least until recently) justified representation on the programme and that since they have had no MPs (except, for a short period, Douglas Carswell who defected from the Tories), it would be to their MEPs that the BBC would have to turn. But that doesn’t explain the absence of the MEPs of other parties. UKIP has been represented on Question Time in a staggering 24% of the programmes since 2010, compared with just 7% for the Green Party. Similarly, I think that the first time I really began to wonder about the BBC’s approach to UKIP was when, two or three years ago, the Westminster Hour’s regular MPs panel became just a ‘panel of guests’ (so, not Westminster?) which appeared to coincide with, and so perhaps was explained by, the regular inclusion of UKIP spokespeople.

UKIP aside, the BBC seems to give an extraordinarily regular platform to Jacob Rees-Mogg, and this goes back to well before he was the chair of the ERG which is sometimes given as the justification for the attention given him. He is hardly the only pro-Brexit Tory backbencher, let alone the only Tory backbencher, and yet his presence is ubiquitous on the BBC. Of course, he features on other news outlets as well but – again, it’s only my impression, but something that the BBC could easily verify – to nothing like the same extent. Maybe this isn’t so much pro-Brexit bias as some idea that he is an ‘entertaining character’. If so, that is to miss the serious political intent his persona conceals. At all events, there is no one individual on the remain side to whom the BBC gives the same exposure and this means that even if each Rees-Mogg appearance is balanced with a remainer, the public are not presented with a readily identifiable speaker – another subtle but significant skew towards the Brexiters.

There is another issue about the BBC’s extensive use of Rees-Mogg, especially since the Referendum. He, like other regularly featured Brexiters such as Iain Duncan Smith and Bernard Jenkin, is not a member of the government. It had not occurred to me before, but the LBC journalist and presenter James O’Brien recently made the point that the government are unwilling to put up ministers to defend Brexit policy. In their absence, Brexiters outside the government get used instead. But that is a major failure of political accountability and, as O’Brien says, it would be better to empty chair the government rather than to use proxy spokespeople. For that matter, if such proxies are to be used, why almost invariably look only to the Ultra Brexiters of the ERG? There are, after all, many who support Brexit but in its soft rather than hard variant and by ignoring them the BBC, again subtly, skews not just towards Brexiters but to the most extreme amongst them.

Interviews: how to ask and what to ask?

Beyond who is on programmes, there is also a problem in the way that they are interviewed. Here I think there are two issues. The first is that of interviewer bias, but again I think this is a far more subtle matter than is sometimes acknowledged. I don’t think it is a problem in itself that journalists in the BBC or elsewhere have discernible political views. We expect them to be serious, thoughtful people and serious, thoughtful people have opinions of their own. And they are not robots, so we get glimpses of those opinions. I certainly don’t pretend to know for sure, but I have the impression that, for example, Sky’s Faisal Islam and Jon Snow of C4 News are remain-inclined, whereas I have the impression that John Humphrys and Andrew Neil of the BBC are leave-inclined.

That isn’t an issue, but what is an issue is how it affects their conduct. Taking that BBC duo, I have never heard Andrew Neil conduct an interview on Brexit which is not tough and well-briefed, regardless of what side of the debate the interviewee is on. To my mind (and I’m not alone) he’s an exemplar of effective political interviewing, and if I suspect he has opinions I disagree with that’s neither here nor there. John Humphrys, by contrast, inserts his own implicit views about Brexit rather obviously, and that does affect the way he conducts interviews – recent examples include his widely complained about interview with Tony Blair and, most bizarrely, his asking the Swedish Ambassador if Sweden will end up speaking German after Brexit. Humphrys has a particular importance, because he is perhaps the Corporation’s most senior journalist, and Today is an agenda-setting programme, so in a way he is the flagship political interviewer and his conduct has a significant reputational consequence for the BBC.

However, the second issue about interviews is more structural than personal. Whereas the BBC has some truly excellent journalists specialising in the EU and Brexit – Katya Adler, Adam Fleming and Damian Grammaticus all come to mind, but there are others – the headline interviews are almost invariably undertaken by generalists. Understandably, they don’t always have enough knowledge to hold interviewees to account on technical issues. To take a basic example, politicians talking – as very many do – about ‘access to the single market’ should always be, but rarely are, taken to task. Everyone has access to the single market, the issue is on what terms. The largely unchallenged use of the term has seriously damaged public understanding, since access is compatible with any and every version of Brexit.

Much the same could be said about persistent confusions on basic issues such as goods vs services, tariffs vs non-tariffs or border control vs freedom of movement. No doubt this is not just a problem for the BBC but it’s notable that, for example, Faisal Islam, Sky’s Political Editor, was able to extract significant new information in an interview with Theresa May last April, precisely because whilst being a generalist (in the sense of covering the full spectrum of politics) he is also very well-versed in the technicalities of Brexit.

It might be said that the issue of specialist knowledge is as relevant for interviewing remainers as it is for Brexiters, and so this doesn’t signify anything for impartiality. But, again, it’s more subtle than that. The Brexiter case is very often that it will be simple, quick and technically easy (e.g. to secure a trade deal) whilst the remainer case is often that it will be difficult, slow and technically complicated. It’s very difficult without specialist knowledge to probe assertions that things will be simple because the interviewer needs to know the complexities to put the counter-case; by contrast, it is fairly easy to probe assertions that things will be complicated since it can be done by putting forward the simplicities as the counter-case. So, in this very subtle way, the high profile set piece interviews are almost invariably easier on Brexiters than remainers.

The problem of ‘liberal guilt’.

Whatever the details of coverage, guests, interviewers and so on, and with the various caveats that I’ve made, my overall sense is that what has happened at the BBC, going back over at least the last ten years or so, is that it has been stung (or perhaps worn down) by the very vocal criticism of the anti-EU movement and of the political right more generally. I think that reports alleging liberal-left bias, such as that by the Centre for Policy Studies, relentless accusations of the same charge from the right wing and Eurosceptic press, as well as from insiders such as Andrew Marr, Peter Sissons and, yes, John Humphrys, led it to a kind of ‘liberal guilt’ which has even been described as self-hatred (this as far back as 2006). That sense of a kind of cultural bias is inevitably much more difficult for the BBC to push back against than the more familiar one of being accused by this or that party (or government) of bias, something it has been robust and self-confident in standing up to over the years.

This was the backdrop to the BBC Trust’s impartiality review of 2013, with the UK’s relationship with the EU identified as one key strand for review (the others being religion and ethics, and immigration), and I think that at least since then the BBC has bent over itself backwards to avoid accusations of pro-EU and, in the current landscape, anti-Brexit bias. About time too, its Brexiter critics will say. But there are two problems.

First, the research undertaken for the 2013 review actually showed that the evidence pointed in the other direction, both as regards EU coverage and the other issues, something reflected in the report. Despite that, what seemed to persist (for example in the 2014 follow up report to the impartiality review) was a sense that, even so, there was a kind of question mark hanging over the BBC; a need always to compensate for a crime even if it hadn’t actually been committed. This of course is entirely anecdotal, but friends who have worked at the BBC have told me that something like this has been the mood music in recent years. So by pushing even a little further away from anything that could be accused of being a pro-EU stance the BBC has actually become more imbalanced.

And the second problem is that, despite doing this, the BBC is still accused of having an anti-Brexit bias reflecting, I think, the fact that for a very vociferous group of people in politics and the media anything other than uncritical cheerleading for Brexit – which I certainly don’t think the BBC can be accused of – will be regarded as bias against Brexit.

The need for research and the limits of research.

In this regard, there are some interesting findings in a recent YouGov poll. This showed that 45% of leave voters think the BBC has an anti-Brexit bias, compared with 14% of remain voters; meanwhile just 13% of remain voters and 5% of leave voters think the BBC has a pro-Brexit bias. Overall, this means 27% think the BBC anti-Brexit and 8% think it pro-Brexit and 24% think it is neither. On the face of it, this goes against the argument I’m making here, but what is also shown is that 37% of remain voters think the BBC has neither a pro- nor an anti-bias, compared with just 13% of leave voters. I think that what this codes is, first, that leave voters are likely to interpret anything that isn’t wholeheartedly pro-Brexit as being bias against Brexit and, second, that hostility to the BBC is linked with the range of socially illiberal attitudes associated with support of Brexit (as shown by the Lord Ashcroft Polls immediately after the Referendum). There is a lot that is unclear about the YouGov results and what they mean, but my suggestion is that what different people mean by bias and also how they regard the BBC (for example, the extent to which it might be coloured by the papers they habitually read depicting it as a bastion of social liberalism) is highly complex and likely to be an artefact of the issues underlying Brexit rather than of BBC Brexit coverage per se.

The YouGov survey is also interesting in its comparison of the BBC with other media outlets which, as regards broadcasters, have figures for Sky News of 12% pro-Brexit, 11% anti-Brexit, 14% neither; ITV News (6%, 13%, 24%) and Channel 4 News (3%, 18%, 19%). But what is important here is that the BBC score for ‘don’t know’ is far lower (41%) than for the others (63%, 58%, 60% respectively): people know, or think they know, more about the BBC, reflecting perhaps its wider audience and/or its larger place in public consciousness. I honestly can’t think that it makes sense that the BBC’s coverage is regarded as anti-Brexit by 27% when Channel 4’s is only regarded as so by 19% so, again, I suspect that the results reflect some particularities of how the BBC is regarded in general by leave voters, irrespective of Brexit, as well as the demographics of the different news outlets. At all events, the meaning of the data needs further exploration, and probably the use of methods other than, or additional to, surveys.

It would surely be worthwhile for the BBC itself to undertake comparative research on this (perhaps it has, and I am unaware of it). The 2013 impartiality review, although written by the former CEO of ITV, did not really do so. The underlying research did provide comparative data, but mainly on the kinds of topics covered and sources used by different news providers and it also provided qualitative case studies of the way that two stories were covered, but neither of these was an EU story. Thus in the report itself, whilst there was a lot of interesting and insightful discussion of BBC coverage of EU stories there wasn’t any systematic comparison of how the same stories were covered by other broadcast media. And, of course, this research predates the Referendum campaign by some three years. It would be instructive both for the BBC and for the general public to have some detailed, comprehensive and systematic research into how Brexit is covered by the major networks.

Of course no amount of research can provide definitive answers. The concepts of balance, due impartiality, bias and so on are too slippery, and the volume of the BBC’s output too great, for that to be possible. Yet I am not alone in sensing that it is skewed in favour of Brexit and that there is, as Henry Porter put it in a recent article, “a chill” surrounding the BBC’s Brexit coverage. Certainly social media is awash with such criticisms and they have even been made publicly by at least one overseas politician, whilst Andrew Adonis has gone so far as to say that the BBC is in breach of its Charter. I think the BBC needs to take seriously what seems to be a growing volume of these criticisms.

In this essay I’ve tried, with as much fair-mindedness as possible and with regard for such evidence as I’ve been able to find, to explain why there are legitimate criticisms to be made. I suspect that when historians come to tell the story of Brexit they will conclude that the BBC’s coverage played a part – I am not sure how great a part, but I don’t think it is insignificant – in the outcome of the Referendum and of the subsequent process. I think they will conclude that a combination of liberal guilt that grew out of the climate in the years before the Referendum, and of the misapplication of a certain conception of balance during and after the Referendum, led to a subtle skewing of the news agenda in favour of Brexit and/or against remain.🔷

Comments by Professor Chris Grey after the publication of his article on and the reactions that followed on social media — 6 April 2018:

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Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.

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