Brexit: did we get it wrong?

Justin Webb explores the role of broadcasters in politics

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Never, since those eerie days after 9/11, has the news mattered so much. For political reporters and presenters, these are the days you live for: you are experiencing history, communicating change. Sleep is for losers. And yet being in the spotlight puts you, potentially, in the firing line. Amid the shock of the referendum result – and the many aftershocks – is the question: “Did we get this right?” Were the tools there for the nation to make sense of the decision it faced?

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One of the clearest messages during the referendum campaign was that audiences were hungry for real knowledge. People wanted to go beyond claim and counter-claim so that they could work out what was true. And some of those on the losing side think they were let down. The Oscar-winning film producer Lord Puttnam is among those who wonder if impartiality rules torpedoed the search for truth: he accused the BBC in particular of providing “constipated” coverage.

The impartiality question is a reasonable one to raise – and it is one the BBC has grappled with on subjects such as climate change, where most scientists are on one side of the argument but some very feisty campaigners think they’re wrong. But the question has to be part of a wider debate.

We tend to regard campaigning as promising policies or aspirations that can be tested against the facts of the real world. A combination of forensic interviewing and zealous fact-checking strips away the nonsense and allows the public to make a balanced choice.

Seriously? In the modern world, this is not necessarily what happens. It is
a truism to say we’re postideological: 
we don’t vote tribally for “the workers” or “toffs”, based on a love for socialism or capitalism. It is equally clichéd to talk of post-factual debate, where no one accepts the version of reality presented by anyone but their own side.

Our real problem might be that we are entering, as the Americans seem to have entered, an era of identity politics where the politicians, the campaigners, are 
seeking by a process of 
nods and winks to let you 
know, “Hey, this is where you belong. Your people are here.”


So audiences demand “facts”, but are unlikely to be swayed by them. In the USA the impact of this politics of social identity has been profound. An example: a few decades ago, if a person had said they hunted at the weekend, you could have deduced absolutely nothing about whether they were Republican or Democrat. Now: you’re probably a Republican. Are you a single woman? In 1960 that would have said nothing about your politics: now you’re highly likely to be a Democrat. The way you live is the way you vote. The programme, the manifesto, the promises: at best they’re secondary.

At least one professor of politics – Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck College, University of London – suggests that the referendum debate was similarly decided by identity, not a rational weighing up of the pros and cons. In an article for the Fabian Society, he looked at the detailed data on the beliefs of voters on each side and concluded: “Culture and personality, not material circumstances, separate Leave and Remain voters.”

Professor Kaufmann suggests that the death penalty is a good example. Wealthy people who back capital punishment backed Brexit. Poor folk who oppose the death penalty supported Remain.


If that is true, then no amount of argument about whether we do or don’t give £350 million a week to Brussels or whether Turkey might join the EU soon would ever have got us anywhere. Which isn’t to say that broadcasters should throw their hands in the air and give up. We need to find a style of discourse that interrogates the facts, but also understands identity politics. We need wider conversations. We need to see the nods and winks.

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None of this will be top of the nation’s agenda in the febrile days ahead. And there is a special place in hell reserved for journalists who take their craft too seriously. Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop is still a better guide than any number of worthy disquisitions on the ethics of reporting. But a discussion about holding people to account, a discussion about impartiality in the modern era, is one I suspect the broadcasters would rather welcome, if only to sort out their own thinking. And it should not be a discussion left to newsrooms and editorial offices and university journalism departments: it really should matter to us all.