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

Read again this exclusive 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.

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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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(This is an original piece, first published by the author in on 3 April 2018.)

(Cover: Dreamstime/Dennizn.)

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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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