Nick Robinson: the referendum is over - now the BBC must fight a new Brexit bias
"Many people with strong views find it hard to accept that on the BBC they will often hear people they disagree with saying things they don’t like"
Welcome to another week of moaning about the BBC. “Stop being so pessimistic. Stop talking the country down. Stop ignoring the will of the people.”
A week in which the stopwatches and calculators are out, as first one side, then the other, time our interviews and add up the number of Remainers and Leavers and so-called optimists and pessimists we invite on air. “Why are you taking the Government’s line? Why are you ignoring the views of the 48 per cent? Why are you letting yourselves be intimidated by the Brexiteers?”
And it doesn’t stop there. In letters and emails and tweets, the alleged tone of questions and the number of interruptions are assessed before being held up to public gaze as proof that this or that presenter and this or that programme is clearly biased. To which I say – ENOUGH! Leave it out. Remain calm.
The referendum is over. The duty we broadcasters had to “broadly balance” the views of the two sides is at an end. Why? Because there are no longer two sides, two campaigns, two rival sets of spokespeople reading out those focus-grouped slogans.
The BBC’s job is not to look over its shoulder wondering whether a report, interview or discussion will provoke letters of complaint or a tide of tweets from Remainers or Leavers – who, like fighters who emerge after months of hiding in a bush, seem not to accept that the war is over.
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Our job, instead, is to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the audience as a whole – the people we serve – who, in the main, are not members of political parties or campaigns or, indeed, people who would dream of defining themselves by how they voted in the referendum. They are viewers, listeners and readers who want the most significant policy decisions to be taken in decades explained, analysed and scrutinised.
If company A announces that it will invest more in the UK and create more jobs, it’s not our duty to search for a company that says it will invest less, just to balance the news. And vice versa. We shouldn’t turn every news story into an excuse to ask, “Who was right about whether we should remain or leave?” Now that we are “taking back control” of our immigration, trade and industrial policies, there are new questions to ask.
In the week that Article 50 was triggered, ardent Leavers complained that too many Remainers were being heard on the BBC. What they failed to acknowledge is that many of their most prominent leaders – Messrs Johnson, Fox and Gove – seem remarkably reluctant to accept invitations to be interviewed. In the nine months since the referendum, not one of them has agreed to appear on Radio 4’s Today programme. Meantime, ardent Remainers bombarded the BBC with complaints that their pro-EU march hadn’t had the coverage it deserved, ignoring the fact that it was covered by all BBC news outlets.
Sure, it wasn’t given the prominence the marchers wanted, but that’s true of almost every march that fills the streets of London. Many people with strong views find it hard to accept that on the BBC they will often hear people they disagree with saying things they don’t like.
Their choice of newspaper, friends (real as well as on Facebook and Twitter) and protests reflect views they agree with. They find it hard to believe that “everyone” doesn’t think as they do – except for those whose views they despise who have somehow wooed or bullied the BBC into giving them disproportionate coverage.
The BBC has a commitment to what’s called “due impartiality”. Translated, that means we aim to get as close to the truth as we can each day – to weigh arguments, to assess the evidence, to ask difficult questions – and then be ready to listen and learn and correct any errors we may make.
We must, of course, ensure that we display no bias. The bias I worry about most is the bias against understanding.
Nick Robinson presents Today on Radio 4 and Political Thinking with Nick Robinson, part of The Westminster Hour, on Sundays on Radio 4