The BBC is always under attack, from both the right and the left. Some hate its compulsory licence fee and claim they only watch Netflix, while the BBC could never satisfy the Daily Mail. But in the referendum campaign and the continuing painful, confused process of leaving the EU – however people voted – something odd has happened. Friends of the BBC have become trenchant critics.
During the referendum campaign, the BBC was criticised for its tit-for-tat news coverage, which created what former BBC journalist Professor Ivor Gaber calls a “phoney balance”.
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He cites, as an example, when 1,280 business leaders signed a letter to The Times backing UK membership of the EU. This story was “balanced” by a quote from a single entrepreneur, Sir James Dyson.
And a warning from ten Nobel Prize-winning economists about the dangers of Brexit was “balanced” by one economist, Professor Patrick Minford, a BBC regular.
The BBC shrugged off all criticism, as it usually does. The corporation finds it very difficult to say sorry.
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That was then, but as the current political crisis deepens, there is little sign of change – if anything, things have got worse.
Former Labour cabinet minister Lord Adonis has asked why Nigel Farage has appeared on BBC1’s Question Time 32 times in recent years and is still appearing, despite never having been elected to Parliament. He might also have asked why hardline Brexiteers such as Sir Bernard Jenkin and Jacob Rees-Mogg are seldom off the airwaves without having held government office.
The heart of the problem is the BBC’s interpretation of its own guidelines on impartiality when it comes to reporting Brexit.
Director-general Lord Hall says that the BBC is no longer reporting on the binary choice that faced the electorate in the referendum, but examining “the Brexit negotiations and the impact of Brexit on the UK and the wider world”. As if the decision to leave the EU has been irrevocably taken.
In Lord Adonis’s view Lord Hall has engaged in a dereliction of his public duty because the editorial guidelines accept the Government view that the referendum vote is “irreversible”. As the Labour peer convincingly argues, this is not the case, “either in law or public debate”.
Given Parliament has yet to take the formal decision to leave the EU, following the end of negotiations, Lord Adonis is making a strong point when, in his formal complaint, he accuses the BBC of breaching its Royal Charter, which governs everything the BBC does and says BBC news must show due impartiality. Already, he says, it has meant the BBC giving “scant” coverage to anti-Brexit marches.
Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger sees parallels with the BBC coverage of the Suez crisis in 1956 – when it was found afterwards that even Panorama had “skirted around” the fundamental issues.
Rusbridger argued in the New Statesman magazine recently that those who still believe that Brexit would be an economic and foreign policy disaster for the UK are being portrayed by the BBC as “undemocratic extremists”. They are, Rusbridger says, allowed a voice “only if repeatedly challenged, and balanced by fervent Brexit hardliners”.
I believe it is in everyone’s interest that, if the UK is going to leave the EU, it should be in the light of the best, most comprehensive and accurate information possible.
It is late, but not too late, for Lord Hall to withdraw his “guidelines” and admit an honest mistake. If he does not, history will judge both him and BBC coverage harshly, when it is too late to do anything about it.