Making the broadcasters raise their game

I have just finished reading ‘Unleashing Devils’ by by Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s former spin doctor (Director of Politics and Communications to give him his official title, a position which he held from September 2011 until Cameron’s resignation in July 2016). It’s an insider’s story of the decision to call the ill-fated (and in my view irresponsible and divisive) referendum and other key moments, through to defeat and resignation. It may seem odd that I’ve read a book written by someone who is diametrically opposed to most of the things I believe in, but it’s fresh history, published just a few months after the victory for the leavers and there are many questions and deeper concerns posed by it, regardless of how you voted in the referendum.

It is also packed full of revelations about the tensions within the hierarchy of the Tory Party and No.10, the problems they had with ‘blue on blue’ encounters (how to deal with Johnson and Gove); the attitude to the Labour leadership’s stance during the referendum, the problems working with other parties who backed the ‘remain campaign’ and just how they dealt with a hostile right wing press and the BBC (not very well it seems)

The book goes into some detail and much criticism (much of it justified in my view) of the way the BBC attempted to stand by it legal fairness obligations – the requirement to be balanced and impartial. Much of his criticism is backed up by Nick Jones, the veteran former BBC political correspondent writing in his blog of 1 July “EU Referendum: a cowed BBC, hardly the broadcasters finest hour”. Written well before Craig Oliver’s book was published, Nick pointed out that: “During the 1970s and 1980s there was always a clear divide during election campaigns between news stories and campaign reports. Major announcements and developments were treated on their news value, as self-standing items, and any political ramifications were covered in separate balanced packages on the day’s campaigning,.. But in the 2016 referendum campaign the BBC’s news value judgement seemed to be totally awry.” He continued: “Any significant assessment of the consequences of Brexit, whether from the Governor of the Bank of England or the head of major company, was immediately “balanced” by equal air time from a Leave spokesperson who was allowed to dismiss what had been said simply on the grounds that the UK was the fifth largest economy in the world, and had every right to “Take Back Control.”

In Chapter 33 ‘Like Jokers at an Auction’ Craig, himself a former TV journalist, and editor of the BBC’s News at Six and Ten as well as controller of BBC World Service, reflects on how important the role of the BBC was, especially when large sections of the press were campaigning for Leave. He claimed that too often: “BBC output led on stories that were simply wrong”. Senior editorial figures needed to step in and say; “Yes we will do this story, but we will make it clear that it is factually inaccurate from the outset.” He was also critical that more often than not the BBC followed the agenda from newspapers with ‘an axe to grind’ rather than setting the agenda itself. And on the question of conflicting statistical claims; “…the BBC needs to get better and braver in interpreting and explaining rival statistics and guiding the audience.” Maybe this goes some of the way in explaining the point made by Nick Jones in his blog that: “As a former BBC journalist I am ashamed to read the opinion poll findings about the lack of awareness among so many of those who voted about the real issues at stake.”

The role of the press in the campaign is in itself the subject of endless comment and debate. I recall in 1975 when we had the Wilson referendum on whether to remain in the Common Market (not as David Dimbleby announced on 24 June at 4.39am on the BBC that; “The decision taken in 1975 by this country to join the Common Market has been reversed by this referendum…”) only the Communist Party paper the Morning Star campaigned to leave and unlike many of the national press some fifty years later, they did not change their minds.

So just how well did the national press represent the views of their readers? A survey by the National Centre for Social Research (http://www.natcen.ac.uk/media/1319222/natcen_brexplanations-report-final-web2.pdf) into what delivered the Leave vote and reported in the ‘Remain’ weekly newspaper the ‘New European’ 9 -15 December, found that 70% of Sun and Express readers voted out, as did  66% of Daily Mail readers, 65% of Star readers and 55% of Telegraph readers,. At the other end of the scale 9% of Guardian readers voted out, 15% of Indie readers, 22% of FT readers, 30% of Times readers and 44% of Mirror readers. So it found that people were more likely to follow the line of the paper they read than political parties they supported, the vote being split across traditional party lines (except for Ukip voters of course).

Under the heading ‘Objectivity overboard’ (reported in Free Press 208) “Britain’s broadcasters abandon objectivity in their coverage of the EU referendum campaign, according to research at Cardiff University. Instead they resorted to impartiality. The difference was clear, between the responsible juxtaposition of rational arguments and the thoughtless repetition of tit-for-tat. The public were confronted by a blizzard of facts and figures, with exaggerated claims from both sides. Some statistics were inevitably more credible than others, but broadcasters were afraid to make a judgement.”

The article reported that “Cardiff University carried out a content analysis of evening news bulletins on the five main channels over ten weeks. They found that half of the 571 news items examined related to the process of the referendum itself, rather than the issues at stake. There was also a focus on Conservative Party infighting.” The article concluded: “Broadcasters have to abide by “due impartiality” guidelines but this does not necessarily mean they have to be strictly balanced when reporting facts and figures. The editorial goals of accuracy and objectivity should have involved challenging the claims.” (And see http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2016/10/broadcasters-were-biased-during-eu-referendum-campaign-not-way-you-think

So does this all matter? Yes it does. We know where much of the press stands on the EU, how they covered the referendum and that they are not regulated in the same way as the broadcasters. This means the broadcasters have a greater responsibility to clearly set out the issues in a way that does not leave viewers and listeners confused and ill informed. In March Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will be implemented, which will be followed by months of negotiations around the terms of Brexit. In two years time we must not be reading opinion poll findings showing a lack of awareness about the real issues at stake in this process. This will only happen if the broadcasters, especially the BBC, step up their game, and we the public, regardless of how we voted in the referendum, make sure they do.

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