Brexit will pose hard choices—it is the BBC's job to make that clear

The BBC should give us the facts on Brexit, not "even-handedness"

August 24, 2017
Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images
Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

Recent BBC coverage of the Patrick Minford and Economists for Free Trade report claiming huge benefits from hard Brexit has attracted accusations from remainers of pro-Brexit bias. Meanwhile, Brexiters have long insisted that the BBC is relentlessly anti-Brexit.

Of course debates about bias and impartiality are a hardy perennial of journalism, so it would be absurd to think that the BBC does not give serious and ongoing thought to them when it comes to Brexit coverage. And in many ways the broadcaster is in an impossible situation. For example, many Brexiters complain that the recurrent formulation that such and such thing has or has not happened “despite Brexit” implies that Brexit is a bad thing; but it could equally be taken as trashing the failed prognostications of “Project Fear.”

That isn’t, though, to accept the argument that since both Brexit sides accuse the BBC of bias its position is about right. A standard way to think about bias 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 has 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 balance.

The trouble is, this doesn’t really work very well for Brexit.

This was shown by coverage of Obama’s 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 the leave campaign claim that the opposition was not simply the remain campaign but the massed ranks of the global “establishment.” This illustrates how normal electoral rules did not translate to the Brexit referendum because the boundaries around what was and wasn’t part of the “campaigns” were not clear.

"During the campaign I gave several public talks where audience members believed that the economics evidence was equally split"
Beyond that, many of the technical issues of law, public policy, political theory and economics around Brexit don’t sit well with normal electoral senses of impartiality. Taking economics, whilst it is not a precise science—if indeed it is a science at all—the overwhelming balance of opinion amongst economists 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 economics 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. That I believe was a direct result of the “balanced” approach to reporting by the BBC (and others, 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.

Even if this approach to balance could be justified during the referendum, it’s less defensible now that we are back to “normal” news reporting rather than campaign reporting. In this regard the controversy about the Minford reports raises new issues beyond whether giving equal weight to minority positions constitutes balance. Because additionally bias is not just a matter of how things are reported but what is selected to be reported (again, a staple topic in journalism).
"The ongoing challenge for the BBC is that even-handedness is not enough"
In relation to Minford and his group, the question is why select their work for (prominent) 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 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.

Beyond the Minford episode, problems arise for the BBC, and others, less in reporting from their EU specialist journalists and more in their general coverage. In particular, generalist interviewers understandably 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 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.

With all this said, my own opinion is that within the imperfect limits of what is possible the BBC has—overall, if not in relation to every individual story—been reasonably even-handed in its Brexit coverage. But the ongoing challenge for the BBC is that even-handedness is not enough, especially in the post-campaign landscape. As is daily becoming clearer, an informed understanding of Brexit is not a matter of hearing a range of opinions but of grasping hard, factual choices. Of course there will be opinions about which choices to make, but the choices themselves cannot be denied.

Yet both government and the public still seem to think Britain can “have its cake and eat it.” That is evident in recent position papers which seem to envisage, for example, being in the customs union and yet out, controlling borders and yet not having a hard border, avoiding “direct” ECJ jurisdiction and so presumably having indirect jurisdiction. Meanwhile, surveys have shown that many members of the public want both single market membership and an end to freedom of movement. The incompatibility of some of these things is not a matter where the public can be informed and educated by the provision of balanced debate but by dispassionate information about what is and is not possible. The BBC has a crucial role to play in providing that information.

Christopher Grey is Professor of Organisation Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. His Brexit blog and twitter feed are accessible via @chrisgreybrexit