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MPs try to muzzle BBC on Brexit

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 21.03.2017

Worried that leaving the EU might not be a walk in the park, some MPs and peers have adopted the old tactic: if you don’t like the message, gag the messenger. 76 parliamentarians, mostly Conservative MPs, have signed a letter to BBC director-general Tony Hall complaining that the broadcaster has been insufficiently optimistic in its post-referendum Brexit coverage.

Confronted with the most important political question of our generation and a Leave campaign typified by its decision to place an outright falsehood at the centre of its material, the BBC bottled it during the referendum. The broadcaster opted for spurious balance, failing to challenge the tendentious figures offered by politicians – perhaps mindful of the then culture secretary’s attacks on it for being pro-European.

Since the referendum the heat has been off, and the BBC has rediscovered some of its backbone. For Brexiters filled with anxiety in victory, and unused to serious examination of their ideas, this has been an unwelcome change. Hence this attempt to muzzle the organisation again, the letter acting as both political warning shot and ammunition for the Brexit big guns of the tabloid press.

The lead signatory, Tory MP Julian Knight, actually voted remain in the referendum. But as Theresa May has ably demonstrated, the zeal of the convert is a real phenomenon. What’s more, among the other signatories are prominent Brexiters such as Douglas Carswell, Bill Cash, Iain Duncan Smith, Kate Hoey, John Redwood and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

The group slams the BBC for prefacing “economic good news” with the words “despite Brexit”. But this practice isn’t evidence of some deep bias at the broadcaster. It’s because the good news is “despite” the referendum vote.

What’s more, Brexit hasn’t even happened. And despite that, some of the news has been bad. Only today, we have the news that inflation has shot up to 2.3% in part because the pound plunged after June 23.

The letter phrases its attack on the BBC in terms of an appeal to the broadcaster’s duty of public service. As the BBC’s response points out, this duty consists of analysing issues “on behalf of the public” and “holding politicians to account … That is what the BBC has been doing. It is what the BBC will continue to do”.

Public service does not consist of joining the ranks of Brexit pollyannas. It does not consist of singing the praises of a hard Brexit – now rebranded clean Brexit. It does not consist of saying it would be “perfectly OK” to crash out of the EU without any deal at all.

The parliamentarians have flung a host of unsubstantiated accusations against the BBC, including that it misrepresents the country as xenophobic and that it is biased. If the BBC buckles to the pressure, it will let down its viewers and listeners again – just as it did in the referendum.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

6 Responses to “MPs try to muzzle BBC on Brexit”

  • During the lead up to the referendum I was screaming at the reporters to challenge the £300 million claim, the Turkish flood of immigrants etc etc but the BBC Newsnight did nothing to rattle the Leavers , they were timid in their questioning , they allowed blatant lies to escape scrutiny ,so for this bunch of little Englanders ( including many turncoat) to suggest that the BBC somehow helped the Remains is ridiculous.

  • Right wing backwoodsmen condemning the BBC for subjecting their policies to robust scrutiny is nothing new. Thank goodness we have a public service broadcaster that does not kow tow to doctrinaire politicians.

  • This is blatant political interference – do we want to end up like North Korea, Russia or China where TV is just a propaganda mouthpiece of the ruling party? How can we balance this? The Beeb leaned so far backwards to be impartial on BrExit, unlike the billionaire press who stand to pay less tax and be subject to less regulation.

  • A good example of “fake news” isn’t it? The temerity of the BBC to hint that we are not already on the “sunlit uplands” is being portrayed as treason, or something near it.

  • The problem for the Brexit lobby is that they have become so attuned to reading the completly one-sided and partial coverage on Europe in their newspapers, that they just can’t cope with having both sides of the arguments put forward on the BBC. In papers such as the Mail, Express, Sun, Daily Star, I cannot recall ever reading a story putting the EU in a positive light. Not even one!

  • This is rank ingratitude considering how much the BBC did to promote the cause of Brexit before the referendum and is still doing now. They made a media star out of Farage when he was a nobody and still they interview him or Nutall at any excuse. This can only be a shot across the bows warning the Beeb to keep toeing the line and promoting the right wing agenda. Their news reporting is abysmal gone.