Why is the EU referendum campaign so boring?

"If we in the media are having a problem, think what it must be like for the voter," says Channel 4's Jon Snow

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In my reporting life I cannot remember a worse-tempered or more abusive, more boring UK campaign than that which is under way right now. Some of us were perhaps fool enough to think that the referendum we witnessed in Scotland in 2014 would provide a template for dealing with a second one on membership of the European Union. But the reporting interest this time round has been focused on abuse and intemperate challenging of facts by both sides. That is in itself dauntingly boring.

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Scottish independence was relatively easy to make interesting. The relationship with the UK was clear and a good number of the facts were allowed to stand from both sides. Covering the Scottish campaign, I sensed very little stress among the UK national media about balance and objectivity. For sure there were shortcomings, but it was largely coherent and comprehensible. It rendered our job in the media, and certainly mine as a presenter and reporter, a positive joy. I encountered passionate but well-argued positions on both sides. 

The EU campaign has proved a stark contrast. There have been 11 UK referendums so far in Britain, all requiring a YES or NO. But the question of the UK’s membership of the EU is seen as somehow too complex an issue to attract a simple YES or NO question. The wording of the question on the ballot paper is clunky – “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union”. Hence LEAVE or REMAIN are the wording on the ballot paper. It has produced a pretty clunky campaign. 

So the interest has been focused on such matters as name calling and politicians on both sides conjuring the views of dead leaders – who, from the grave, are in no position to dispute the claims made in their names. Among others, Hitler and Margaret Thatcher have been summoned for the LEAVE side, and Winston Churchill by both sides. Funny it might be, but interestingly informing it is not.

Another of the enemies of “making it interesting” is the media deployment of instant balance. During the general election and the Scottish referendum, we were allowed to provide balance over a 24-hour period. This time, although the regulator Ofcom hasn’t changed the rules, we have come under unprecedented pressure from both sides. This has resulted in a sort of knee-jerk requirement to conjoin every statement by either side with a quick rejection of it by the other. Because Channel 4’s remit is to be different (longer, more diverse, more combative, even), we have suffered less from this than some of our competitors. Indeed, the rogue issue for us has been that in this febrile atmosphere we are but weeks away from a decision being made as to whether to sell us off.

The grandiose claims of unprovable facts by both sides has only served to make the debate even more boring. Any redemption has come through ordinary people. We and others have staged a number of “people’s debates” where the talk has proved intelligent and reasoned.

With so few weeks to go before the vote, I believe that the negativity, the bickering, the foul-mouthing, and particularly the wholesale abuse of facts by both sides have seen off most of our attempts to make the vote interesting. And if we in the media are having a problem, think what it must be like for the voter consuming it online, in the press, on radio and on television. 

This is no way to run a chip shop, let alone an interesting and informative campaign for a vote upon which all our futures hang.

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Jon Snow presents Channel 4 News and is a guest on this week’s A Good Read, Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. on Radio 4.