BBC’s catalogue of Brexit errors

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 06.12.2019

Andrew Neil yesterday delivered a powerful reprimand to Boris Johnson for failing to agree to a head-to-head interview with him. But the BBC had already sold the pass, by letting the Prime Minister be quizzed on Sunday by Andrew Marr, a much gentler interviewer. Having cravenly agreed to that, it could still have let Neil empty-chair the Prime Minister for a whole half hour. But there’s no sign it has the guts to do that.

What’s more, this is not a one-off error by our national broadcaster, which 75% of adults watch, read, or listen to. Time and again, it has allowed Brexiters – both now and in the referendum – to walk over it. Here’s our catalogue of errors.

Not pushing back against lies

The BBC has a bad habit of letting Brexiters lie on air without adequate pushback. Johnson, for instance, went unchallenged when he falsely told the Today programme that any extension to the Brexit deadline would be “at a cost of £1 billion a month”. 

And when Johnson wrongly told Marr that this election is happening partly “because we have a Queen’s speech that was blocked by Parliament”, the whopper passed without comment. Even when the BBC does try to push back against the fibs, the challenge is often inadequate. In the same interview, Marr got steamrollered when the Prime Minister falsely claimed there would be no checks on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. 

None of this is new. In 2016 the BBC was a prime vector for Johnson’s original £350m lie.

Repeating Brexiter attack lines

This is even harder to swallow when you remember the BBC does know how to criticise. Look at John Humphrys calling the People’s Vote “ludicrous”, or Laura Kuenssberg telling the nation that when the EU “doesn’t like the result, you get the public to vote again until they do”.

Parroting Brexiter’s language – for instance, describing the Chequers proposal as a “deal” when it was only a proposal – has been a trap the BBC has fallen into all too often. In fact, it has done it so often that the Conservative Party could put together a campaign ad of BBC presenters repeating its damning phrases. The BBC did manage to get Facebook to kill the ads on the basis of a breach of copyright, but it should be wondering why the Tories had so much material to work with in the first place.

Inadequate grilling

Part of the problem is the BBC often fails to grill Brexiters. Time and time again interviewers miss the mark, let assertions go unchallenged or fail to ask the killer question. Even the best presenters sometimes fall into this trap. 

For example, Nick Robinson – who hosts tonight’s debate between Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn – didn’t challenge Matt Hancock early in the election campaign when he said the Tories would create a dynamic economy. An obvious question would have been: “How can you say you’ll get healthy economy to fund the NHS etc if you drag us out of a market responsible for half our trade?”

Shoddy editing

And when the BBC’s Question Time audience managed to force Johnson to admit it’s “absolutely vital” to tell the truth, the BBC certainly shouldn’t have edited out the laughter. It had to be hauled over the coals by Conservative commentator, Peter Oborne, before acknowledging its error.

Letting Cummings et al set the agenda

The BBC has let anonymous briefings, often seemingly from Johnson’s top aide Dominic Cummings, override stories that would embarrass the Prime Minister – and instead paint him as the people’s Brexit hero. 

It also has an unfortunate habit of ignoring important news but falling for Brexiter stunts. When the British Medical Association called for a People’s Vote last year, the BBC didn’t cover it. But when Nigel Farage turned up to throw dead fish into the Thames, we were treated to multiple forms of coverage – everything other than basic fact-checking, which would have noted that the EU has banned discarding fish back into the sea.

What the BBC has done well

One shining light in the BBC’s coverage has been its Reality Check service, which busts a wide range of fishy claims. But having some journalists rebut Brexiter lies while others let them get away with them isn’t good enough.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

6 Responses to “BBC’s catalogue of Brexit errors”

  • Sky News is just as bad. On 29 November I watched their ‘Review of the Papers’ at 10.30pm chaired by Anna Botting. The guests were Sophia Gaston, Director of the British Foreign Policy Group, a supposedly independent think tank and Harry Cole, Assistant Politics Editor of the Mail on Sunday and formerly of The Sun. (If I had credentials like him I would keep it quiet).
    The review turned out to be an attack on the Labour Party but Johnson was all things to all people etc, etc. Cole dominated the conservation but Gaston agreed with his biased comments rather than trying to give an alternative viewpoint. Botting did nothing to intervene or try to balance out the ‘review’. It was so bad I complained to Sky, who replied that ‘they do not have any bias to any side’. Really?
    On Cole’s Twitter feed he attacks Channel 4 stating it is a Labour mouthpiece! (untrue). He, himself, omits to tell us that he is a Tory mouthpiece.
    The only time this slot on the Papers on Sky is any good is when Andrew Pierce of the Mail and Kevin Maguire of the Mirror are on. The former a hardline Brexiter and the latter a Remainer. They are informed and witty and the result is a balanced debate.

  • @Bill

    Harry Cole is better known as the lame gofer and ex-partner to the drunk-heavy, fact-free Paul Staines of Guido Fawkes blog.
    his previous girlfriend is the one officially currently dating BoJo

    as for Andrew Pierce, please don’t call that vile piece of Daily Mail (Heil ?) bile as “informed”. he might sound witty to you. well, just like BoJo can sound it too with a parsing classical comment.
    that doesn’t make them any better informed or trustworthy

  • The lack of follow-up to misleading statements is frankly worrying. Even Nick Robinson in to-night’s leaders debate let Johnson get away with time overruns, bombastic statements of incredulous aspirations and personal attacks on Corbyn irrelevant to the topic under discussion. The same is often true, even in the Today programme. I am now beginning to wonder if it is not a matter of lazy journalism and lack of competence in an adequate understanding of the political brief of the day. Or is it the not too invisible hand of management after the threat against Channel 4?

  • This has been going on for years, and as a result of this I won’t watch the BBC news as my blood pressure rises as they report rumour as fact and blatant lies go unchallenged. In fact I haven’t watched the news or listened to the Today programme for years for that reason. John Humphries used to have his good points but has been getting more and more ego-centric as the years passed and seems to have taken it to ridiculous extremes. I read the papers online instead – though never the Daily Wail (as I have seen it referred to) or any of the other red-tops.

    Oh for the days when we used to have brave, intelligent BBC journalists who would challenge powerful people and not let them get away with their lies – and who actually had morals and a backbone. Few of them seem to have now.

  • @Starbuck. You are correct but Maguire puts Pierce down very well because he is informed. I started watching this slot on Sky regularly and some of the people on there are pretty stupid Brexiters. Buy they are outspoken and dominate the discussion. Usually the other person is too weak to challenge them even though pro Brexit. Maguire is easily the best for putting forward our side of the argument. You know a lot about Cole and have enlighten me.

  • @Bill

    re Cole, just follow Zelo Street on that matter (ie:they have a long history with that alphabet soup of right-wing organisations)

    as for contributors on the paper review slots, I’d give good marks to Kevin Maguire, Ian Dunt, Bonnie Greer, Nina Schick … and as a rather conservative one, Christina Paterson.
    you don’t have to agree to their positions, but they are both intelligent, well-informed and critical persons, who definitely don’t like the wagons of bovine by-products they are forced to digest every day as political commentators