EU referendum: The principles of broadcasting impartiality have hit a snag

15 Jun 2016  |  Raymond Snoddy 
EU referendum: The principles of broadcasting impartiality have hit a snag

Broadcasting rules designed to give us impartiality are actually skewing the real picture, writes Raymond Snoddy

Impartiality is a central plank of the British broadcasting tradition and one underpinned by legislation and Ofcom rules. It is a vital tradition, which usefully counters the often comically biased British press.

Remember it was the Daily Mail which gave us 'Hurrah For The Blackshirts' in the 1930s.

But how well does the principle stand up to the rough-and-tumble of an unbalanced referendum campaign on membership of the European Union?

True impartiality in the sense that any statement on a programme has to be immediately rebutted by a contrary one doesn't exist, nor should it. Such programmes would be unwatchable and lead to seriously confused viewers.

So balance is already a more nuanced concept that can be achieved across programmes and through time.

Former director-general of the BBC Mark Thompson even mused that general enforced impartiality was a child of spectrum scarcity and might not be necessary in future. The obligation would remain on the BBC as a public service broadcaster but with a diversity of commercial news channels available, never mind online, old-fashioned unitary impartiality seemed archaic.

In one important arena - climate change - the BBC has already introduced a form of qualified impartiality, dubbed "due impartiality", something you may or may not agree with.

The BBC Trust responded to the argument of scientists that there should be no equivalence between the science-based views of the vast majority of climate scientists and a noisy minority, even though in the past minorities have not always been wrong.

Are there problems with the principles of impartiality when applied to a referendum as opposed to a general election with established parties and formal detailed manifestos providing a social anchor for the electorate?

More than 450 MPs across all political parties, and the leaders of all major parties, a majority of the Cabinet including all the holders of the great offices of state and all four living Prime Ministers, are for Remain.

Ranked against that overwhelming weight of political knowledge and judgement we have Boris Johnson, who has never held Cabinet office and made up his mind on Brexit the day before he announced it, Michael Gove a former Times journalist who has been an MP for 11 years and quiet man and diehard Eurosceptic Iain Duncan Smith and of course Nigel Farage whose party has one MP.

Then there is Culture Secretary John Whittingdale who has been remarkably quiet on the Brexit debate lately - presumably he has been too busy trying to privatise Channel 4.

Yet as a result of a rather rigid view of impartiality the two sides are given an equivalence of coverage.

As a result a statement by the Remain side is duly followed by a riposte from Brexit usually denouncing all warnings as "scare-mongering" or giving further publicly to simplified ideas about controlling borders and cutting immigration and how they will spend budgets they do not have control of in future.

By default the two sides appear equal, a phenomenon intensified by media addiction for "star turns" such as Boris.

13 UK Nobel laureates have come out in favour of Remain as being important for the future of British science and all surveys of UK scientists show an overwhelming majority in favour of staying in the EU.

Yet broadcasters feel they have to search for the rebuttal, which goes, crudely, that scientists shouldn't worry they will still get their money, even though the argument is as much about international co-operation and collaboration as money.

The vast majority of business leaders from Rolls-Royce and BT to Marks & Spencer and John Lewis have all warned of the dire risks of Brexit, as have an unprecedented 36 members of the FTSE 100 as well as the Confederation of British Industry.

Can anything be done to redress the creation of too perfectly poised a balance between ideas that stand up to robust scrutiny and those that do not?"

Yet the danger is again of the broadcasting perception of equivalence because of the prominence given to the views of colourful Brexit characters - heads of family owned businesses such as Lord Bamford of JCB or entrepreneurs such as Sir James Dyson.

Entrepreneurs tend to be pro Brexit. We all benefit from their disruptive natures but they tend to be self-obsessed characters, ill-suited to making judgements for the greater good. And of course they make great telly or radio.

Matt Frei of Channel 4 News gave an excellent demonstration of the nature of the problem last night (Tuesday) with a finely balanced piece from Lublin, a relatively poor city in the south-east of Poland.

Lublin (to declare an interest my wife was born there and I know the city well) has a spanking new airport - all the better to transport Polish workers to the UK and a magnificent new art gallery 75 per cent paid for by the EU, i.e. us.

Because of all the development, a Polish IT specialist explained how he felt able to come home from the UK and work online from rural Poland.

As Frei said for those who believe in "the European project" Lublin is a wonderful example of the EU in action underpinning democracy, evening up standards of living in poor regions and helping to make Poland a place where Poles can stay, or return to from the UK after making enough money, to build a house.

For those who don't buy into the European project, as Frei said, it is the opposite.

Can anything be done to redress the creation of too perfectly poised a balance between ideas that stand up to robust scrutiny and those that do not?

Probably very little except that journalists should perhaps show a little restraint in automatically reaching for the vacuous Brexit reply when it does not begin to address a serious point being made by an "expert". They could also perhaps be a little more cautious in giving Boris an unfettered right to mislead on areas were he obviously knows very little.

Broadcasters could also intensify their fact-checking offerings and extend the excellent Today programme "question time" with the BBC's specialist editors.

But still there is something missing.

An example is a revealing chart showing the relative voting intentions of the electorate broken down by region, social class and educational attainment. It has been tweeted by Ron de Pear, editor of Channel 4 News. If it was given prominence on Channel 4 News - sorry I missed it.

It shows Remain leads among Guardian and Times readers, supporters of Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, Londoners, graduates, those with A levels, AB and C1 social groups, 18-39 year olds and those in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Brexit is big among Conservative and UKIP supporters, the over 60s, in the Midlands, North and East Anglia, among Mail, Sun and Express readers and those whose educational qualifications are GCSE or lower and the C2 and DE social groups.

It shows just how divided the UK is on the EU issue.

It also argues for broadcasters to redouble their efforts to give as much guidance as possible on the quality of the facts and the arguments as possible - within the constraints of impartiality or maybe due impartiality.


(Raymond Snoddy has already voted for Remain by post)

Leave a comment

Thank you for your comment - a copy has now been sent to the Mediatel Newsline team who will review it shortly. Please note that the editor may edit your comment before publication.

David Graham, Business Owner, Attentional Ltd on 22 Jun 2016
“Ray: You ask: "Can anything be done to redress the creation of too perfectly poised a balance between ideas that stand up to robust scrutiny and those that do not?" You say: "Very little". I raised this topic at http://wp.me/p26ptH-oz. (It's a podcast" so you may prefer OpenDemocray at http://bit.ly/28Wuj60.) That was to raise a bit of attention, driven by a sense of urgency. Don't we somehow have to move from impartiality to accuracy? But how exactly?”
David Graham, Business Owner, Attentional Ltd on 22 Jun 2016
“Ray: You ask: "Can anything be done to redress the creation of too perfectly poised a balance between ideas that stand up to robust scrutiny and those that do not?" You say: "Very little". I raised this topic at http://wp.me/p26ptH-oz. (It's a podcast" so you may prefer OpenDemocray at http://bit.ly/28Wuj60.) That was to raise a bit of attention, driven by a sense of urgency. Don't we somehow have to move from impartiality to accuracy? But how exactly?”
Sean, analyst, tro llc on 21 Jun 2016
“" and all surveys of UK scientists show an overwhelming majority in favour of staying in the EU."

The problem with arguments from authority is illustrated by the above. Turkeys don't vote for Christmas, Between 2006 and 2015, U.K. organisations received about £8 billion in competitive research grants from the European Union. Scientists are not more moral then the plebs i'm afraid when it comes to handouts.”
Richard Marks, Director, Research The Media on 15 Jun 2016
“Spot on.

Listening to radio news over this weekend I got so used to the rebuttals for balance that when the late equaliser for Russia was reported I half expected to hear from the BBC "However a spokesman for the Brexit campaign has claimed that the so-called experts are wrong and England did actually win".

This need for balance in the face of evidence has its parallel in the US where there is a real fear that attempts by the (more impartial) networks to treat the upcoming campaigns with some degree of balance will give the Trump campaign an artificial credibility and gravity, just as with the Brexit campaign in the UK.

Watching Channel 4 news on Monday night, at the end of a harrowing broadcast from Orlando, the two presenters were struggling not to laugh out loud when news came through of Trump's contribution to the debate. Reputable US journalists are facing a similar challenge. I am sure we will get a lot of clips of US news anchors struggling to mask their disbelief over the coming months.”

DATA SNAPSHOT

18 Apr 2019 

Data from Mediatel Connected
Find out more about the UK's most comprehensive aggregator of media data.

Arrange a demo
Advertisement

Newsline Bulletins

Receive weekly round-ups of the latest comment, opinion and media news, direct to your inbox.

More Info
Advertisement

Join thousands more readers by signing-up to receive our trusted news and opinion articles over email.

 

Please read our privacy policy.

As you're already registered with us, we've sent you an email which will allow you to manage your communication preferences.

Nice one. We've emailed you for verification. We'd like to get to know you and if you give us your details we promise not to share it with others or spam you.

Please complete the following fields:

 

Please read our privacy policy.