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The BBC Has Betrayed Britain by Failing to Explain Brexit

15/06/2016 09:22 | Updated 15 June 2016

The referendum campaigners may be frenziedly at odds, but the people speak with one voice: they're confused and they want to be told the facts. It would be easy to dismiss them as lazy, petulant ninnies who should take the trouble to inform themselves. But wait. How are they supposed to do this?

What might otherwise be authoritative sources, from our political class and business leaders to the IMF and President Obama, are firmly committed to one side or the other: their pronouncements are therefore both contradictory and suspect. Our violently partisan press is even less definitive or trustworthy. The most dutiful citizen might wonder where dependable guidance can be found. Yet there ought to be a remedy at hand.

British householders are required to pay £145.50 a year on pain, ultimately, of imprisonment for a service that's supposed to provide them with impartial information on the issues of the day. To perform this function, along with its obligations to educate and entertain, the BBC has at its disposal nine TV channels and myriad national, regional and local radio stations together with £5 billion a year to fund them all.

It cannot be accused of failing to cram these outlets with referendum coverage. Hour after hour of Brexit gabble has drenched its air-waves. Yet has this avalanche of output provided even attentive viewers and listeners with the enlightenment they need? Some are protesting that it hasn't.

Each Friday Radio Four transmits Feedback, its audience response programme. The edition of 3 June reported a backlash against the corporation's referendum coverage. Listeners said they had gleaned much about Tory infighting but not enough about the issues at stake. The programme called in BBC assistant political editor Norman Smith to explain himself.

He said: "We are there to report what the main combatants in this referendum say, do, argue. I don't think it's up to us to, as it were, go awol and say well, fine, but we're actually going to talk about this because we think that's what voters are interested in." He was then asked, "Are you reluctant to go any further than simply say one side say says this, the other side says the other?" He replied: "Well I think that is a valid criticism. There is an instinctive bias in the BBC towards impartiality, to the exclusion sometimes of making judgement calls that we can and should make. We are very, very cautious about saying something is factually wrong."

Smith cited Leave's claim that Turkey was about to join the EU. This was widely deemed to be false, but the BBC merely reported that Remain claimed it was false. "Because as an organisation more than any other organisation there is a massive pressure and premium on fairness, on balance, on impartiality, I suspect we hold back from making those sort of calls." He explained: "Every fact is a matter of argument. There are no sort of Biblical tablets of stone which empirically prove one thing or the other."

Fair enough? Some of Feedback's listeners thought not. Annabel Gibbs in York phoned in this complaint to the following week's edition: "To say that the BBC's role in covering the referendum should only be about reporting the campaign (and particularly the difficulties the Conservative party may find itself in afterwards) beggars belief. I'm frustrated and disappointed that there seems to be no engagement with bigger and deeper aspects. Instead we get tit-for-tat exchanges." Robert Craig in North Somerset said: "If the BBC does not differentiate between claims, for example the claim by Brexit about Turkey, listeners are led to believe that both sides are equally valid. It's a bit like a boxing match and the referee is blindfolded."

So who's right? Does the BBC's commitment to impartiality prevent it from presenting its own analysis of the facts and restrict it to being a mouthpiece? That commitment is enshrined in the agreement with the government that accompanies the BBC's charter. This requires the corporation not just to provide a platform, but to increase "understanding of the world through accurate and impartial news, other information, and analysis of current events and ideas." That sounds a bit more Gibbs and Craig than Smith.

Yet during this campaign the BBC has insisted on inviting politicians to pump out messages calculated to serve their own purposes while requiring the public up and down the land to articulate their ignorance in endless vox-pops. Knowing their utterances will go unaudited, campaigners have been drawn into a competition to make ever more extravagant claims. Bare-faced lies are unusual in politics, but the inadequacy of media scrutiny in this referendum campaign has helped give birth to plenty.

Voters may not know what the facts are, but they can tell they're being fed dross. This has created a kind of post-truth politics, in which people are abandoning the whole idea of informed judgement and insisting that they'll vote simply on the basis of prejudice. For this, the BBC bears some of the responsibility.

Smith says he fears facts because they can be contested. Yet it should be his job to fight this fear and try to distinguish between what can legitimately be contested and what cannot. Of course, campaigners disadvantaged by his rulings might complain. He and his colleagues should have the bottle to face them down.

In the 1970s I worked on an ITV current affairs programme called Weekend World. We were subject to the same requirement for impartiality that the BBC is now. However, we quickly discovered that parties to disputes refuse to acknowledge their weak points so they can concentrate on the real differences between them. Instead, they refuse to concede anything. So we insisted on laying out the basic facts as we saw them so we could go on to force debate onto the real issues. Since both sides were having their camouflage stripped away at once, they proved surprisingly willing to forgo it.

Still, we were funded by advertisers, not a licence fee whose future depends on the goodwill of parliament. The BBC's fear of offending politicians is understandable, but it isn't defensible. Now that a changed economic environment prevents ITV and other commercial broadcasters from competing with it effectively in the public affairs realm, the corporation is all we've got. We need it to do its job.

In fact, in a few obscure corners of its schedules, programmes like Radio 4's More or Less have indeed dared come off the fence on Brexit matters of fact. The roof hasn't fallen in. So much more could have been done. If the nation lives to regret next week's verdict, it will be able to lay some of the blame at the door of its public broadcaster.

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