How did the BBC cover the one political topic that overshadows all others? Photo: Prospect

Could Brexit break the BBC? The tensions, the bewildering question of ‘balance’—and how to get it right

How our national broadcaster has tried—and sometimes failed—to cover the biggest political crisis of our time
March 5, 2019

I need to begin with a confession. I am a BBC believer. Public service broadcasting, which extends beyond the BBC but has the organisation at its centre, is one of the best things about Britain. It was my teenage ambition to work for it when growing up in a north London suburb, devouring Match of the Day, Top of the Pops and also the news. My parents were not British but they were BBC-shaped and the BBC represented truth, respectability and—well—Britishness.

I eventually got my BBC staff number—and ended up in charge of various news departments and then Radio 4, leaving in 2010. Five years later, I joined the BBC Trust (its then governing body) where, along with others, I had oversight of the BBC’s editorial performance during the Brexit referendum.

That referendum—and its unfolding aftermath—is, as one senior BBC presenter put it to me, “the biggest political and national story of our age, raising huge and deep questions about identity, destiny and the role of parliament.” What’s more, he added, it has raised huge and deep questions about the BBC too—questions that could become more explosive amid rising talk of a fresh public vote. “This could not be a more important, more difficult time for the BBC—heightened and emotional partisan debate, belief in fake news, distrust of ‘mainstream media,’” was the view of this famous face on the inside. So can it survive this maelstrom?

In the eye of the storm

Every senior editorial manager I spoke to believes that it has become more difficult to persuade both the public and politicians that the BBC is doing its impartial duty on Brexit. The data reflects this rising difficulty. The BBC is still way out in front of allcomers when the public is asked which news source they trust the most. But the numbers who think the BBC is biased are rising. Not hugely, but clearly enough—and the overall impartiality score is falling.

The BBC’s Director of Strategy, Gautam Rangarajan, an appropriately scholarly former Radio 3 man, is in charge of crunching these numbers. He thinks that even in the divisive Thatcher era, when the BBC was often vehemently attacked from near the top (think Norman Tebbit from one end of the political spectrum, Tony Benn from the other) more of the public understood that it was simply the BBC’s job to interrogate politicians. “The rise of polarising issues that don’t map closely to traditional political allegiances has made the job more difficult.” To much of the audience, he says, it probably “feels more personal.”

And Brexit is heaven for BBC baiters on social media. There are running commentaries on the casting of experts on the news and panellists on Question Time. Why expose yourself to something you may not agree with when you can go to Facebook or Twitter and bathe in the warm water of your own prejudices? As Fran Unsworth, director of BBC News, said to me about social media: “It’s not only that [many people] can get their news from these sources but they prefer them to us.”

Just over a year in post, Unsworth—known within the BBC as being honest and decent—did not arrive at her current eminence via a posh school, Oxbridge or the notoriously competitive graduate schemes which some Brexiteers like to imagine as breeding grounds for the liberal elite. Instead, she worked her way up from local radio and Radio 1’s Newsbeat, through the News division to end up in charge of 600 hours of news a year on BBC One, the dedicated news channel and website, plus current affairs programmes like Today, Newsnight, Panorama, The Andrew Marr Show, and over 3,000 staff.

So how does she feel about the many and various complaints levelled at the BBC about its Brexit coverage? From the Brexit camp, that the BBC is a Remain organisation in its palpably metropolitan soul, or as Michael Gove more subtly told me: “It is way too keen to represent the Brexit voice via the stereotype of angry white old men driven by irrational sentiment.” Or, from the Remainers’ perspective, that the BBC’s output is riddled with “false equivalence,” giving equal time and respectability to Brexit arguments that have no facts to support them.

She says she is sometimes phoned by the parties at 6am to be told that the BBC has the wrong angle on the Brexit lead story. But she seems neither angry (except about the personal abuse meted out to the estimable BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg) nor wounded. Nor does she resort to the trope that all must be well because the BBC is getting it in the neck from both sides. Instead, she takes a deep sigh before she draws on decades of history. “It’s been much bumpier than this before: the report by Kate Adie of the American bombing of Tripoli in 1986 or the 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath,” and more recently the Scottish referendum was “fraught” too.

But as she’s drawing comfort in this longer view, she acknowledges that “the difference now is that this debate has divided the UK, everyone has a stake in it and the BBC is being tested by all, not just by politicians.” Oh, and then there’s the new twist: “the social media whirlpool makes it all happen faster,” which creates “stormtroopers,” and “amplifies the noise.”

The bus and beyond

Looking back, the referendum itself was tense for the BBC—but navigable. Everyone knew the stakes were huge. Eurosceptic MPs wanted every second of output during the referendum monitored by an external agency. The calls to the BBC hierarchs rained down—the Cameron heavyweights grumbling privately from the outset that the BBC was so keen on balance that it was subverting truth.

But the BBC had deep experience to draw on—especially from general election campaigns, which it has normally come through in one piece, although it is always bumpy. Indeed, it had been just a year earlier, and the incoming flak had shocked the then newish head of BBC News, James Harding, who admitted to being “quite astonished by the ferocity and frequency of complaints from all parties… I was struck by how many politicians and spokespeople paid lip service to the idea of the BBC’s editorial independence, but, nonetheless, did think it was their place to say what should be leading the news, what questions should be asked and how.” Quite so—and in spades with Brexit.

A policy decision had been taken by the BBC Trust to give broadly equal time to describe and interrogate the Remain and Leave campaigns. It was a decision easily reached, and yet it sowed the seeds of some of today’s difficulties. Because many senior Remainers, in particular, were unprepared for the sheer volume of Brexit voices that the half-and-half policy would introduce to the airwaves. For decades the overwhelming (if sometimes grudging) balance of opinion within parliament for staying in Europe had moulded, perhaps too much, the BBC’s coverage. Even during the euro-turmoil of the Major years very few MPs actually wanted out. Things changed somewhat with the arrival of Nigel Farage—whose mixture of novelty, bombast and cheery frankness got him a lot of air time—but he was still brought in as one voice of several, not half of the game. As soon as the BBC was tasked with officiating an In/Out referendum, however, that balance was bound to change.

In the campaign the BBC had to absorb heat from Remainers about, in particular, its handling of the £350m a week bus, and Brexiteers who thought, among the BBC’s failings, that there was too little probing of George Osborne’s strikingly specific claims about the economic consequences of voting “out.” But some of the hue and cry seemed synthetic. A senior journalist told me that he had been told by a voluble and powerful Remainer how well they were covering the story, but that [he] nonetheless had to moan vigorously in public to ensure that pressure was being applied—and seen to be applied. Remarkably, the BBC’s impartiality scores went up during the campaign.

It wasn’t perfect. In retrospect—a point made by Today’s Nick Robinson—the BBC should not have allowed the notorious bus to be used so often as a backdrop. But when the choice is as binary as it was in 2016, the public more readily seems to understand and appreciates what the BBC is doing. And from my vantage at the Trust, I thought that it did a good job.

When the referendum was over, the BBC breathed a sigh of relief at making it through. Few insiders realised or suspected that the volume of criticism it had consumed was a mere morsel, compared to the full banquet of displeasure that it faces today.

It is one thing to impose balance during a referendum, but quite another afterwards. There is no longer any electoral campaigning to report on even-handedly, and the Leave and Remain organisations the BBC was once tasked with covering equally are no longer there to balance. And yet the Brexit process is all-pervasive, billowing out and casting a pall over almost every discussion of proceedings in parliament, business, the wider economy, foreign policy and more. Even if you could cogently establish what it would mean to cover all of this in a “Brexit balanced” way, it is pretty obvious that imposing that balance would be devilish. The core issues have turned out to be more about values and identity than anything factual, so the trusty “opinion from over here, opinion from over there, hard information over here” formula can’t be relied on to work. The debate goes round and round, on and on, with even the criterion of democratic legitimacy in dispute. What did the last vote mean, and was it final or might we need another? This is not the stuff of general elections, where we all know and accept the ground rules.

As Brexit ruptures the old parties, there are multiple positions that need testing, and it is harder to know who has to be held to account. Theresa May—of course—but her backbench MPs, the negotiators, the speaker, the gnomic and BBC-avoiding Jeremy Corbyn? It is more complex than anything I can recall.

Balancing act

One strand of criticism unites the Remain and soft Brexit factions—that the BBC is so obsessed with “balance” that, on Brexit issues, it gives credence to nonsense. And there are heavyweights in the BBC who worry about this too. One senior presenter put it like this: “We should encourage debate… while being more militant about our core approach—that we are fact-based, and question and test all sides of the debate. We should not be doing vanilla ‘on the one hand’ versus ‘on the other hand’ journalism. I am sympathetic to the arguments about the danger of ‘false equivalence,’ and think we should be clear about the weight of arguments. But if a substantial number of people believe, so to speak, that bananas are blue we have to treat that seriously. Seriously, but robustly.”

Hang on to that “blue bananas” point.

Some Remainers try to make an analogy with attempts to “balance” the discussion on global warming—where there is a sufficiently established scientific bedrock to make it clear that the BBC has to be cautious about the space given to fringe voices, even if it sometimes dolefully fails to challenge as robustly as it should those climate change deniers who do get on air.

Brexit isn’t the same as climate change. But the argument between economists are nowhere near equally weighted. There is a clear majority view that any form of departure will make us worse off. And it is wrong to be dismissive of all forecasts—a common Brexiteer interviewee tactic—just because they are rarely pinpoint accurate and on occasion downright wrong. Often, the forecasts rightly indicate a direction of travel.

Against this background the BBC has to have some sort of policy. It does not ban from the airwaves economists like Patrick Minford, the Cardiff University professor who believes that Brexit will trigger a boom, but its job is to ensure that, without rudeness, he and his ilk are firmly located as part of a smallish minority and rigorously questioned.

In discussion and interviews this mostly seems to happen. Occasionally not. I remember a shocker on Today when a pro-Brexit American financial markets trader who knew nothing about the UK was treated as an authority. He was there to provide “balance.”

The dominant form of television news grammar—the “package,” two minutes or so long, where the correspondent’s story is illustrated with some brief clips, often with different perspectives—undoubtedly makes it much more difficult both to calibrate and to challenge the minority perspective, notwithstanding half a sentence from a correspondent trying to do so.

A former British ambassador to an EU country, and ardent Remainer, cites a piece featuring a testing interview with a Remainer about the security risks that could follow from no longer accepting ECJ jurisdiction. A Conservative spokesman was quoted in a subsequent news report saying that was twaddle—but there was no scrutiny about why it would be twaddle.

This truncated form of rebuttal is anaemic journalism—there to signal balance and fairness but in doing so avoiding anything that looks like independent scrutiny or judgment. The public is left with “six of one and half a dozen of the other” and the show rolls on.

There is another, more demotic, theme that arises from my presenter’s “blue bananas” point—how to feature non-political, non-expert public opinion where things get said that are just wrong.

Many at the BBC are acutely conscious that it is often perceived as part of an “establishment,” London-based and “stuck up.” Several BBC people I spoke to for this piece made the point without any prompting. The latest initiative to hand over editorial control of one day’s BBC Brexit reportage at the start of March to a “carefully selected” panel of a “cross-section” of Britons attests to sincerely-held democratic values, but doesn’t address the issue of journalistic quality.

The answer is not likely to lie in any one day—or indeed in any one place. Every now and then a programme editor will have the unoriginal idea, on television or radio, that the BBC should do a “vox pop” piece far away from Broadcasting House and ask “real people” what they think about Brexit. Again, that is reasonable—whether or not driven by a neurosis that the BBC is out of touch.

But such pieces don’t come from the prosperous south—where outside the M25 Brexit votes piled up in 2016—with much less of the hardship that gets almost automatically invoked to explain it. The automatic choice is to go “poor.”

On radio, it’s easier, and consequently better done. There’s longer, more applied intelligence, an assumption of an audience with a greater attention span. Mark Mardell went to Doncaster for The World This Weekend recently, and painted a decent picture of the place.

But mostly on television news, it is done terribly. A recent example from Mansfield told me nothing of any use about the town—unemployment, housing, school quality, waiting times for NHS appointments, culture—but inevitably ended up with two ex-miners (reach for the cliché) in a working men’s club (reach for another cliché). Yes, they surely should be heard. Indeed, I would rather hear them at greater length—but there is no polite challenge or commentary in these pieces about the statements made. The reporter, who normally can be expected to know little or nothing about the place, has harvested their balanced soundbites, has dutifully proved that “real people” are fed up with it all, fled, and filed their report.

There are other structural weaknesses in the BBC’s Brexit journalism—and I should say that I am not absolved from responsibility for deep-seated problems which date back to my time and beyond.

The BBC Ireland correspondent’s job was once a big deal—on air almost every day. Sometime after the Good Friday Agreement, interest waned. The main story—violence and peace—had gone. That may be why the BBC missed the Irish dimension of Brexit in the campaign and for a long time afterwards. The story—the backstop—was forever done via Westminster arguments, and Westminster maths. When May got her outline deal with the EU in late 2017—how long ago that seems—it was greeted as a Westminster triumph with only minor genuflections towards the Irish conundrum that it left nakedly unresolved. Dublin-based journalism got barely a look in. Overall the coverage has been distinctly lacking in curiosity and depth about both the Irish economy and Irish politics.

Germany—except briefly around 1989 and the “fall of the wall”—has never been a big deal. The Brexiteers insist that BMW (it’s always BMW) will lose so much money if there is no overall trade deal with the UK that Angela Merkel will see reason. The Remainers point to Germany’s overriding need to keep the EU political project and the single market alive. Fine. But in mainstream coverage this tension is left up in the air. The arguments fly but the reporting from Germany has never really taken off.

It isn’t simple to cover properly the politics of the 27 and of the central EU apparatus and it isn’t only lack of appetite, expertise or tolerance for subtitles. The senior European figures don’t feel the need to be accountable to the UK electorate over Brexit. It was, as they repeatedly say, our choice. Andrew Marr pointed out a few weeks ago that his programme had invited Michel Barnier on multiple times—to no avail.

Too big to fail

One problem in reaching a verdict on whether the Beeb passes the test is its size. On any given day somewhere in its voluminous Brexit output something sub-par is bound to happen. It will lead to the inevitable backlash and accusations of “BBC bias” one way or the other. Oddly, it’s not only outsiders to New Broadcasting House who imagine that the organisation is capable of enforcing an editorial position. One famous BBC presenter I spoke to recently thought there was a “central line” running from the editorial mandarin class to the programmes. It is not so.

I was allowed by the BBC to witness an editorial conference in February. Unsworth presided with 35 people in the room and a monitor for an editor from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to chip in. There was a brief exchange about Islamic State recruit Shamima Begum but mostly these meetings involve people reading out lists. There is neither time for editorial chat nor for comparing the BBC’s coverage to anybody else’s, and nothing that looks like an editorial high command structure dictating how agendas for individual programmes should be shaped or the line of questioning to be pursued. If anything, the lack of space and time to thrash out an approach is a vulnerability.

An editor from Scotland at that conference talked about doing a Brexit piece from Peterhead about fishing. I found myself wanting to shout about the BBC’s coverage of the common fisheries policy and the (to me at least) interesting fact that some British fishermen sell quotas to Spain rather than catch fish—but nobody has the time to get into a discussion about that.

There are other forums within BBC News where more reflection is on offer but in the end it’s up to individual editors to drive standards by ensuring they actively engage with the issues, and that their teams are knowledgeable enough to question what they have transmitted. One senior BBC journalist tells me all this happens far less than it did earlier in their career—not, I should add, a reference to my era.

How to fix it

It may be, for all the external pressure put on the BBC, that restoring—or perhaps rather empowering—this editorially-engaged mindset is really the key. The BBC’s own mechanisms need to be shaped to ensure there is enough focus and debate on quality rather than the necessary, but more defensive, enterprise of underpinning fairness and compliance. And there needs to be more experimentation.

Why not bring back some old tricks? The big current affairs “statements” are not much in evidence. In January 1972 at the height of the Troubles, the BBC broadcast A Question of Ulster for three hours. It caused a fuss—for the right reasons. Uncomfortable and profound questions were asked.

Three hours is unthinkable now: it would be wildly optimistic to expect such an enterprise to be an audience hit. But not everything is lost. News bulletins gain audience share for BBC One. There should be more scope than what’s currently offered for big programmes to match the size of what’s at stake. The recent Norma Percy BBC2 series, Inside Europe: Ten Years of Turmoil, did its business brilliantly well but stopped too far back to energise public debate about Brexit now.

I don’t know that the BBC has really thought through the “blue bananas” issue. Brexit didn’t create the dilemma it raises, but it has certainly made it more salient—and made it more urgent to make sure that wide swathes of non-political opinion are not only heard, but tested.

And the BBC still hasn’t found a way of linking intelligence about numbers and statistics, available in pockets of the BBC (above all Radio 4’s More or Less), to the general output. Again, this is not just a Brexit problem, only a problem Brexit makes bigger. Occasionally the BBC’s “Reality Check” correspondent gets some airtime, and the website can do useful things, but it’s not working yet as a technique on television and radio.

What is needed is a change in form—to get politicians and others who say things that are highly contentious, to be stopped by presenters and grilled, even if that is at the expense of other things that the interview might achieve. An interviewer is often expected to “move the story on” by getting a line out of the interview that will be deemed by other editors and journalists, inside the BBC and outside, as news. But the chase for the new should stop, at least sometimes, until an unreliable fact or figure used by the interviewee is revealed as such—or at least debated—by the interviewer.

For all the values now bound up with Brexit, many facts are still pertinent—trading patterns, or the total bill we pay for EU membership (about 1 per cent of public expenditure) or Britain’s overall wealth (somewhere near halfway down the EU league table on a per head basis). Imagine that a Tim Harford (More or Less ) or Andrew Dilnot (ex-IFS and UK Statistics Authority) had at least an occasional slot at the end of Today to tease out and test some of the statistics used earlier in the programme. Guests would surely be mindful that they would be in line for this treatment, and the staff and presenters would have to work harder to avoid indulging claims that lower the quality of public debate.

There are risks, and it may need editorial cover from the top—but it must be worth a serious try. It would be a bolder interpretation of due impartiality. Recently, Andrew Marr has punctuated some interviews by throwing on to the screen relevant material that takes the politician into uncomfortable territory—but this is a beginning.

During the referendum, I did not find it difficult to see some weaknesses, but then and now I do not think the BBC betrayed its principal public purpose—to provide impartial news and information. The quality that is sometimes missing is mostly not down to the application of mindless balance, but more a function of a conservative interpretation of form and a need to find muscle strength where it has been allowed to atrophy.

The BBC is far from failing and—for all the problems I’ve discussed—the Brexit debate would be poorer without it. But that debate has raised questions that reflect and reveal underlying tensions and weaknesses. The BBC could and should use Brexit as an opportunity to conquer and renew broadcasting grammar and tradition, rather than being taken prisoner by them.