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BBC ‘Brexit bias’ claims need to be based on hard evidence

The recent letter to the BBC by a group of MPs accusing it of anti-Brexit bias looks like the latest attempt by politicians and press magnates to intimidate the public broadcaster. The letter complains that the BBC has, since the vote, been unduly “pessimistic” about Brexit.

It makes a series of assertions about BBC coverage, such as focusing on regretful Leave voters, reporting the views of EU officials as “facts”, or downplaying the health of the UK’s economy since the referendum. But, as is often the case with criticism of the BBC, there is no systematic evidence used to support or justify these claims.

What is needed, as the new BBC chairman has suggested, is a more scientific approach to interpreting the impartiality of broadcast news. Without it, it is hard to determine whether the MPs are trying – Trump style – to intimidate the BBC, or whether there is some truth to their assertions. Criticism of the media is healthy, but it needs to be informed by hard evidence – not disgruntled politicians with an axe to grind.

Our own study on the broadcast coverage of the EU referendum campaign found that broadcasters were fairly scrupulous in balancing Leave and Remain points of view. But this balancing act concealed two problems – both of which may be exacerbated by this kind of political pressure.

First, the broadcasters privileged right-wing (mainly Conservative) voices on both sides of the argument – Conservative and UKIP politicians received, between them, four times more coverage than Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, Plaid, the Greens (and all other parties) combined. A left-of-centre case for Remain was thereby sidelined by a “blue on blue battle” for the nation’s future.

Sample: BBC News at Ten, ITV News at Ten, Channel 4 at 7pm and Channel 5 at 6.30pm. University of Cardiff, Author provided

The consequences of this imbalance may have been decisive. Many of those Labour heartlands that voted heavily to leave were responding, in part, to a predominantly Conservative case for remaining. While the Labour leader’s support for Remain may have been lacklustre, there was no shortage of Labour “big beasts” on the campaign trail, as well as fulsome support for Remain from the other centrist or left-of-centre parties. Their absence from the broadcast campaign undoubtedly narrowed the debate.

Misleading claims

The second problem confirmed the concerns of a number of experienced broadcast journalists (such as John Simpson and Justin Webb), who felt that truthful and informative reporting was drowned out in the political tit-for-tat between the two campaigns. We examined 517 statistical claims made on news bulletins, and found that very few were challenged or contextualised by journalists or other independent sources.

We have known for a while that the UK population is one of the least well-informed of the 28 member states about the EU. Broadcasters could have seen it as their role to address this widespread lack of knowledge – but informative reporting was drowned out by the decision to pitch one set of (mainly Conservative) politicians against another.

This meant that palpably misleading claims – such as the £350m a week the UK was sending to the EU – had much the same status as the consensus view from most economists that withdrawal from the EU was likely to have a negative impact on the UK economy. Indeed, a survey by Ipsos Mori shortly before the vote, found that while most people (70% to 17%) did not believe a claim that British people would be significantly poorer outside the EU, they were more likely to accept (by 47% to 39%) the £350m a week figure.

Bully pulpit

Most sections of civil society – economists and most academic experts, businesses, trade unions, NGOs – are more likely to be in the Remain camp (the one glaring exception being the UK press). The tit-for-tat style of coverage cancelled out this advantage. So, for example, we found that a significant proportion (42%) of the reported claims favouring Remain came from outside politics – from business, trade unions, financial institutions or other professions – compared to only 2% of the claims on the Leave side. But in the broadcast coverage, these voices were simply absorbed into the Remain side of the ledger – “balanced” by dismissals of “Project Fear” by Leave campaigners.

The MPs’ letter to the BBC is clearly an attempt to retain this kind of “balance” regardless of the weight of evidence. If the experts turn out to be right and the fall in the value of the pound makes us all poorer, prolongs government austerity and, over time, puts British business at a competitive disadvantage (all of which seem likely) will broadcasters sugar-coat these realities by consistently offering a Leaver’s alternative view and claiming balance?

Let us hope not. Our recent taste of post-truth politics has been depressing. Those of us who value deliberative and informed debate find ourselves scrambling to unpick a series of now well-established myths – such as the idea that immigration, which has fuelled GDP growth and given us well-qualified workers for free, is bad for the NHS.

And yet there are worrying signs that, having seen off the Leveson enquiry, the anti-immigrant, virulently pro-Brexit press are increasingly influential. Research suggests, for example, that they set the agenda for the BBC and other broadcasters during the 2015 election campaign.

In asserting impartiality, broadcasters need to be aware of those who threaten it. Our press barons – a powerful elite if ever there was one – want to shift the centre of gravity of British politics to the right. The recent appointment of George Osborne as editor of a (Labour-voting) London newspaper is a reminder that these newspapers too often reflect the views of their proprietors, not their readers. Our broadcasters, we fear, need reminding of that.

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