“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” – Daniel Patrick Moynihan
To provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them:
The BBC will provide accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming of the highest editorial standards so that all audiences can engage fully with issues across the UK and the world.
Over the past five or so years news coverage on the BBC seems to have deteriorated and moved further to the right. This seems to have coincided with the BBC Trust’s impartiality review of 2013, when there were accusations (unjustified in my opinion) of liberal left wing and pro EU bias. The pendulum now seems to have swung very much in the other direction, however. This situation is not quite as simple as it may seem and may well be the result of unintended consequences. This article will address this through the lens of EU and Brexit coverage.
There have been a number of good articles on the failures of the BBC from, for example: James O’ Brien, Mike Galsworthy, Prof Chris Grey, and Chris Dillow – all of which are well worth reading in full – but extracts will be used in this article.
Size of the BBC and Lack of Excuse
The BBC is one of the word’s largest broadcasting organisations with an annual revenue of c£5 Bn and a staff of c21 k full time staff, rising to c35 k if flexible and part time staff are included. By contrast RTE – the Irish equivalent – has a budget of €327.6 and c2 k staff. The relative size of the two organisations is not surprising as the UK population is about 14 times the size of the Irish one.
Until recently there was no question in my opinion that the BBC was world class, even world leading – rightly considered, along with the NHS, to be something which the British could and should be a proud. The news agenda could be a bit strange at times, but that is true of all media organisations.
With the exception of Britain, of the EU28, Ireland will be most affected by Brexit. In the rest of the EU, Brexit is considered to be well down the list of importance and there is relatively little media coverage. This is not true of Ireland – where Brexit is of similar, or possibly greater interest, given both the similarity of economic impact and the complexities and dangers surrounding the Irish Border. There is no question, however, that Irish coverage has been considerably better. RTE is fortunate to have Tony Connolly, whose articles and Brexit Republic podcast are, for me, essential reading and listening. They have an expertise and depth of analysis far exceeding anything I have seen from the BBC. However, one exceptional correspondent is insufficient to explain why the BBC Brexit coverage has been so poor and how this can be explained given the vastly greater BBC resources.
Tabloidisation and Dumbing Down
In truth, tabloidisation and dumbing down has been going on for some time. With my science background it should come as no surprise that I was an avid watcher of science programs such as Horizon in my youth. I can’t bear to watch them now; the intellectual and pedagogical aspects have been watered down whilst simultaneously cheap sensationalism appears to have been ramped up. This seems to be true of programming in general and not just the BBC. It seems like a “Bread and Circuses” mentality is the new “opium of the people”.
This trent has been true in macroeconomics since Thatcher, of course. There seems to be a deliberate effort to simplify things to “corner shop” level and to use endless repetition of slogans such as “taxpayers money.” There seems a complete lack of understanding of concepts such as fiscal multipliers and fiat currency.
Even more disturbing is the dumbing down of Brexit – a train crash enfolding before our eyes. I still listen to the R4 Today programme. I would have given up a few years ago but my wife likes to listen, which I do from 6:00 am often getting increasingly annoyed at the mediocrity of the coverage. A few days ago I was totally shocked with a comment Humphrys made about the Norway option, as indeed was Chris Dillow in his Stumbling and Mumbling blog:
John Humphrys prefaced a question about the type of Brexit Leavers want with the words that this is “all getting a wee bit technical and I’m sure people are fed up to the back teeth of all this talk of stuff most of us don’t clearly understand” (2’12” in).
Chris’s article The BBC’s bias against understanding develops the thesis. I was horrified by Humphrys’ comment. This is the the most uncertain time since the Second World War and the “landing zone” will define the UK for decades to come – it is indeed an existential threat (since it is possible, even probable, that both NI and Scotland will leave the UK within a decade). Knowledge of the different options is therefore crucial. Part of the issue is that as Raf Behr says in the Guardian, voters are just tired of Brexit and want it over. This to me is no excuse.
A well informed public is the bedrock of any democracy. It is far easier to control a dumbed down public. It is also very useful for the PM if the final deal is not debated and scrutinised.
Relativism and Impartiality
If one party says the sky is blue and the other says it is green, a good journalist will actually check and not agree that both positions are equally valid. Liars can be extremely plausible. Without detailed fact checking the general public may well go away believing the sky is green.
I used to scream when Nigel Lawson was brought in to debate withn an eminent Climate Change scientist. The average listener might well not be aware Lawson was talking complete garbage. James O’Brien tackles this in his excellent Media impartiality is a problem when ignorance is given the same weight as expertise. As James eloquently writes:
For me, the rot probably set in with climate change debates where columnists and other self-publicists would be invited to pooh-pooh received scientific wisdom without recourse to any of the conventions proper scientists would be compelled to employ when seeking to shift an established paradigm: peer-reviewed research, statistics, evidence. It sprang fully formed from the pages of newspapers unbound by any impartiality requirements, where the value of a “story” increasingly depended more on the quantity of reader reaction than on any inherent truth or accuracy.
It makes, of course, for highly engaging television and radio. Not least because the climate change sceptics (or the defenders of non-existent links between MMR vaccines and autism, or, eventually, the champions of Brexit and Donald Trump) were generally more adroit debaters than their counterparts. They were bound to be. They were brass necks selling snake oil and self-interest while their more cerebral, donnish counterparts were unwittingly cast as defenders of positions they’d never previously considered to be in need of defending.
Or as Mark Twain said “Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” Many of the Brexiters lie and lie again. They are totally shameless and simply double down when caught out.
A recent example is the ERG and Economist’s for Free Trade forecast which was presented by the BBC as a glowing Brexit “sunny uplands” Nirvana without proper scrutiny. Five minutes fact checking would show that it was complete garbage. Here I quote Ian Dunt’s article The garbled nonsense of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new press release:
The Economists for Free Trade are a ragtag bunch of Brexit-supporting eccentrics whose primary function is to make all other economists feel better about their life choices. Their latest press release, which comes with a Jacob Rees-Mogg stamp of approval, is a masterclass in babbling nonsense. It is designed to promote their new report on why Britain would be fine if it fell off the cliff-edge in March next year, contrary to the findings of every credible independent body in economics or indeed any industry body.
It is hard to find a single accurate sentence in the entire thing. It is so full of legal, economic and logical misunderstanding that it is genuinely easier to highlight the sections of it which are true. However, that would also be less fun, so let’s stick with the traditional methodology.
It starts with the first sentence of the second paragraph. “A world trade deal under WTO rules would boost the UK’s trade with the rest of the world including Europe,” it reads. It is a quite completely insane thing to suggest.
Belief that Westminster is still the Centre of the World or Smoke and Mirrors?
A typical BBC Brexit News at Ten report these days spends a few minutes talking about B. Johnson’s latest outrageous press column or the shenanigans of the ERG. There will be detailed discussion of the “Chequers Deal” and Tory and Labour infighting. If we are lucky there will be a 20s clip of Katya Alder from Brussels speaking a great deal of sense but with little time to develop any complexity. There will be some “deal/no deal speculation.” Last night it finished with a 5s clip showing the European Parliament and a statement something like “even if the Chequers deal is agreed at Westminster it has to be agreed here” – I might be imagining this, but I had lost hope by then!
It is difficult to know what the future will bring, but the UK leaves the EU by automatic process of law on the 29th March. A legally binding withdrawal agreement has to be signed off together with a political agreement as to the future relationship. Two outcomes seem likely. Firstly, a de-dramatised form of words over the Irish Border where the UK agrees with the IE/EU position and a very vague aspirational “motherhood and apple pie“ political agreement. Secondly a catastrophic breakdown, with grounded planes, shortages of food and medicines, miles long tailbacks at Dover and a very likely declaration of martial law – nobody wants to even think about the resultant Armageddon – there is a complete state of denial.
The reality is that unless there is a signed off, legally binding withdrawal agreement, there will be no deal. The heart of the matter however (and this gets technical) is a difference in interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement political text (8 Dec) between London and Dublin best summed up by a pm from Tony Connolly (thanks Tony!):
London insists Para 49 implies a UK wide backstop. Dublin & Brussels point to Para 46: The commitments & principles etc will not pre-determine the outcome of wider discussions on the future relationship between EU & UK & are specific to the unique circs on the island of Ireland.
The trade aspects of Chequers agreement have zero chance of being accepted by the EU, without major modification. Yet endless hours are spent looking at the Westminster bubble and totally ignoring the real source of decision making.
Are the BBC so focussed on Westminster that they cannot see the big picture, or are they colluding in this smoke and mirrors approach?
Use of Press Headlines
One aspect of the BBC news coverage is the use and reportage of press headlines, sometimes just the headline is mentioned. Other times the there is a brief discussion on the story. This might be fine in principle if the UK press were neutral. Sadly however it is not. Academic studies show that the UK has the most right-wing press in Europe: anti EU and pro-Brexit. Indeed there has been a decades long anti-EU campaign in the right-wing press almost exclusively based on downright, barefaced dishonesty. This is a very simple point but the use of such headlines will automatically add a pro-Brexit bias to the coverage and should be stopped immediately – it is just lazy journalism.
Gaslighting and the march towards Fascism
One of the most disturbing aspects of the BBC “balanced” coverage is that it is having the unintended consequence of destroying a shared vision of truth. Many of the pro-Brexit arguments are so flimsy that, whatever the emotional or “patriotic” appeal, they simply do not stand up to any form of scrutiny. Many of the claims are downright lies, others of very dubious likelihood – at the 3-6 sigma end of a Normal distribution. Yet the BBC often gives them equal credibility as what can easily be shown as actually and demonstrably true. (I know we could have a philosophical discussion as to the nature of absolute truth, but that’s for another day). It is very difficult for the layman to tell reality from fiction. Confirmation bias will increase polarisation. In the circles I mix in people are abandoning the BBC in droves. Headlines such as BBC’s Today programme sheds 800,000 listeners do not surprise me at all.
I have given up watching Question Time completely. It’s a format which favours snake oil sales men and charlatans.
Raf Behr in a recent Remaniacs Podcast said one of the most disturbing aspects of his time in Moscow was the blurring of truth and reality. It was like walking about in a pea soup of lies; if the truth were there it was almost impossible to put a finger of it. He felt it was driving him mad eventually and was one of the reasons he left Russia. What was more disturbing was his feeling that Moscow had somehow come to London. All versions of the “truth” were equally valid. You can see this in Trump’s US – there is increasingly no agreed version of the truth. This is a very dangerous place and seems to be leading to a dystopian 1984 Airstrip One world.
Another worry for people who voted Leave is the use of gaslighting – a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory and perception. The slippage of Leave which categorically, according to the main proponents, did not mean leaving the Single Market (SM) on the 23rd June 2016, subtly shifted to an extreme form of Brexit. This is largely unchallenged by the BBC. The drive towards a harder and harder form of Brexit by the hardcore ERG, Legatum and other libertarians is a malignant form of hypnosis in action. There is no apparent push-back from the BBC. There are loads of clips of Gove, Fox, Hannan, Farage etc. extolling the Single Market and stressing that leaving the EU absolutely did not mean leaving the SM, all of which can be found on the internet in seconds and easily shown by the BBC. Why do they never do this?
Can it be Done Better?
A few weeks ago I wrote an article How to Run Referendums – Lessons from Ireland. Prof Brigid Laffan has more recently looked at the second Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and focusing on the difference in approach between the first and second referendum:
… the coverage of the campaign, particularly by RTE, the national broadcaster, was very different. For the first Lisbon referendum, RTE deployed a conflict frame akin to a Punch-and-Judy contest between yes and no, with little or no editorial intervention to challenge or correct inaccurate claims. Second time around, the conflict frame was accompanied by a responsibility frame, ie that the issue was salient and had to be taken seriously. The broadcaster took to heart its duty to accurately inform and educate.
I would argue that this is the example the BBC should follow, The “Punch-and-Judy contest” describes succinctly the present BBC ethos.
The BBC is not getting things right at present. Of course, as Dr Tom Mills argues in his book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, there has always been bias:
The BBC is one of the most important institutions in Britain; it is also one of the most misunderstood. Despite its claim to be independent and impartial, and the constant accusations of a liberal bias, the BBC has always sided with the elite.
This article then finishes on the the question who are the elite and why are thay driving the UK in such a catastrophic direction?