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Analysis

5 ways BBC is falling down on Brexit

by Luke Lythgoe | 15.12.2017

The BBC has a crucial role to play refereeing Brexit. But at the moment our national broadcaster isn’t blowing the whistle on inaccurate pro-Brexit dogma often enough. Here are five examples of how it’s letting the public down.

Not enough challenge

On yesterday’s Today programme, Jeremy Hunt was allowed to claim Theresa May had “got a fantastic agreement which met all our red lines” in Brussels the previous week. (From 1:51:00). He repeated this, spelling out what those red lines were: “control of our money, our borders, our laws”. May has U-turned on all those red lines in some way since negotiations began.

Justin Webb let the comments pass unchallenged. Maybe the issue was the format – a 10-minute segment in which the usually robust presenter clearly wanted to talk about the NHS and Tory rebellion in parliament, rather than go over old ground. Nevertheless, time-pressed presenters must find a way to stamp on inaccurate or misleading statements fast when they pop up.

Ignoring Brexit entirely

On Tuesday the BBC website ran a lengthy story about inflation, which had risen to 3.1%, but not once did it mention either Brexit or the slump in the pound after the referendum. The fall in sterling has pushed up the price of imports and is a central reason why inflation has jumped from just 0.5% last June, the month of the referendum.

Not calling out fake ‘facts’

James Dyson was interviewed last month by Andrew Marr. The inventor rattled off at least three factual inaccuracies: that the EU was the slowest growing area in the world; that hard Brexit was “not a problem” for companies’ supply chains; and that the government has “plenty of room” to compensate its exporters after Brexit.  Marr didn’t challenge him on any.

Bigging up the Brextremists

Since the referendum, the BBC seems to have decided the fight is now between hard and soft Brexit. As a result there’s a revolving door to their current affairs shows for minor-league Brexiters – John Redwood, Owen Patterson, Bernard Jenkins, Kate Hoey. Those who still argue Brexit must be stopped barely get a look in.

Last August Patrick Minford claimed a hard Brexit would boost the economy by £135 billion per year. The BBC report referred to a “report” by Minford’s group, Economists for Free Trade. But the report hadn’t even been published, so his working couldn’t be checked. The BBC nevertheless made it the main story on its website’s news homepage.

Buying the government’s line

Last month Radio 4’s PM programme reported on the government’s unwillingness to hand over more than 50 impact assessments to parliament (from 01:30, then 05:30). The government said the documents contained “material that might undercut the UK’s negotiating position”.

The programme reported this largely as fact. Its main report included the line “according to the government” in passing, but its news bulletin didn’t even have that. This should have been challenged. Indeed, Davis has since said that there were never any impact assessments.

With Brexit looking shakier than ever, the BBC needs to up its game.

Responding to InFacts’ enquiries about these stories and its Brexit coverage more generally, the BBC said that it “continues to report Brexit impartially, ensuring a balance across our news coverage and hearing a wide range of different perspectives. Our journalists are best in class when it comes to reporting independently and without fear or favour. It is one of the reasons why the public trusts the BBC more than any other source of news.”

Correction: The original version of this article wrongly identified Nick Robinson as the presenter who interviewed Jeremy Hunt. It was in fact Justin Webb. We apologise for the error.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

13 Responses to “5 ways BBC is falling down on Brexit”

  • The last paragraph says it all. The BBC strives to ensure a balance. Sometimes false balance though, unfortunately.

    “Most scientists think the world is round but doubt has now been cast on this. Mr. Bloggs here believes it’s flat. Good morning Mr. Bloggs and welcome to the programme! Now tell us all about it…”

    This is not a new problem, even before the referendum I wrote a letter to the BBJ complaining about it:

    http://www.bmj.com/content/353/bmj.i3302/rr-15

    To be fair to them, the BBC does not put out programmes on creationism to balance those on evolution, nor broadcast programmes on the joys of elephant hunting to balance those on conservation. It is just that their common sense and responsible attitude has not extended yet to Brexit.

    It would be a good start perhaps if they made a David Attenborough style documentary pointing out that in today’s world dominated by Trump and Putin, liberal organisations like the EU are to be cherished as a threatened species. A rebalancing of decades of anti-EU propaganda is long overdue.

  • As somebody who lectured on EC/EU Law at university for 25 years I have been unable to keep count of the inaccuracies, distortions, mistakes and oversimplifications of the BBC’s (generally hostile) reporting of EU matters over the years. As if this weren’t bad enough, the BBC has for years provided Farage with an usually uncritical platform to espouse his toxic nonsense with the results we see today. I’ve stopped watching BBC news programmes. Shameful.

  • I’m pleased that this article by Luke Lythgoe has had a good poke at the BBC. The BBC, as part of the wider media, seems these days to gorge on new information, breaking news and news entertainment, but not undertake analytical appraisal of information being served up, especially by disingenuous politicans. Much but thankful not all of the media is culpable.

    Therefore, it appears that there is a significant journalistic deficit which has been developing in the UK – this needs to be reversed.

    Of all the points which were raised in the above article, to my mind the most significant is the continuing lack of challenge, of any claims, made by the person being interviewed. It is well known that people who present themselves in public eye are past masters at arguing and delivering to their audience the most pursuasive and convincing analysis of their point of view. Indeed, accurate information is welcomed, false information just has to be challenged.

    The trouble is that many journalists do not seem to have been issued with “bullshit“ detectors during their training. Instead they meekly allow the dishonest, unprincipled, unscrupulous person to peddle his opinions and claims. This leaves the listener greatly frustrated that yet another injustice has been performed.

    Equally, in the House of Commons at PM question time, there are so many instances whereby good politicians pose weak or naive questions to the PM, and provoke another predicable, dreary or mendacious response back again. You often think, why the hell was the question asked in the first place. Either it’s a case of, please don’t open your mouth, but if you do, do it properly and make it an effective question. Once again democracy takes another hit!

  • it’s been several years now since BBC news is barely more than government propaganda repackaged.
    the transformation was under way during the Blair years, but the shift was particularly acute during the Cameron (and now May) period.
    it was going along the lines of :

    “today, the government announced that ,,,,”

    followed by

    “our guest, conservative MP ,,,,”

    and then

    “in our next story ….”

    not only was government spin parroted daily, but conservatives had 2x more presence than opposition figures

    and it’s the positive side of it.
    on Andrew Neil’s show about European politics, it was 90% british MEP invited to discuss about “continent-wide politics”, with most guests being conservatives or UKIPs. sometimes even both for “balance”.
    talk about enlightment …

    I personally despise the nightime BBC news and Newsnight segments
    not only do they stick by the government line, but they would spout english/london-centric and self-righteous bullshit everytime “Europe” comes into play.
    it’s pathetic

  • Couldn’t agree more. When politicians are allowed to get away with errors or just biased analyses, the public is bound to get confused, especially on subjects such as Brexit. IDS is a great one for sweeping major issues under the table and the BBC, presumably because they need to be balanced, let him get away with it. Personally, I find the Marr program very disappointing for exactly these reasons. It adds to the confusion and misunderstandings…neither of which are supposed to be in the BBC charter

  • It’s the same with Question Time, David Dimblebys bias is glaringly obvious on most of the programs I have seen, and in the audience it’s the same even though he says that they are impartially picked,The BBC reporters are very easy on their Conservative guests but seem to get aggressive with any opposition ones.

  • Public service broadcasting calibrates ‘impartialiity’ as ‘fractionally to the left of the Daily Mail’. Publicly funded academia, which feeds background to public service broadcasting, then calibrates its impartiality according to the standards of its clients.

  • Again, sticking with Andy Marr, last week he had an SNP MP in the studio. His ridiculous assertion (Marr’s that is) that people knew they voting to leave the single market backed up by clips of Cameron, Osborne, Johnson, etc. stating Britain would have to leave the single market if leaving the EU.

    What Marr failed to show were clips of the bigot Farage and Daniel Hannan, etc. stating Britain could be in the single market and have the same relationship ad Norway and Switzerland.

    He then claimed people knew what they were voting for. Funny how the Irish border was never on anyone’s ballot paper. Along with a myriad of other issues since coming to light.

  • Thank you for highlighting this, InFacts, and for taking it up with the BBC. I have written to the BBC myself about their poor coverage of Brexit related issues, but I’m sure you will carry more weight. The politicians and the right wing press have been getting away with lies and inaccuracies for far too long.

  • Well said , Luke—I had the same misgivings about some of the programmes you mentioned. However, writing as Infacts will not get us far—witness the placebo BBC response.
    Enlist some of our sympathetic Big Beasts e.g Chris Patten, Tony Blair, Nick Clegg to go to the top of the BBC.
    Interviewers, who should know better, do let some interviewees get away with gratuitous murder –look at the way Zac Goldsmith works anti-EU gibes into interviews, without challenge.
    TV showed “the bus” virtually every night during the referendum campaign. When a major falsehood is disclosed. that should be the end of it being accepted or promulgated by interviewers

  • Well said. Any objective observer would regard the bbc at best as sugar coating the brexit news and at the worst nurturing the more extreme fake news and views about it. One constantly reminds oneself this verminous tory administration whines and shrieks if it doesn’t get the lying and flattery identical to its own distortions and so probably a self castrated bbc rather than one done by l’il Liam etc. But it’s a measure of how low the discourse has become when our admired broadcaster wiffles into its beer.

  • 26-4-2018: Michel Barnier gives an extensive overview about all aspects of Brexit negotiations in Sofia, Bulgaria. Very important summary for all UK citizens regarding the state of Brexit negotiations. The Guardian reported about it. It’s now 27-4-2018 and still no mention of this event on the BBC website or on BBC radio. I expect it’s not been on TV as well. How is it possible that an important update is totally ignored?

  • I haven’t read anything objective here at all. There is “fake news” coming from both sides of the Brexit debate. The raisin d’etre of this site is subjective so of course will be looking for any glimmer of support for brexit from the BBC. That’s fine but I’d rather it wasn’t dressed up to be objective.