There were those, some inside the BBC, who scoffed when we suggested the EU Referendum could be the greatest impartiality challenge the Corporation had ever faced. The General Strike? The scraps with the governments of Wilson and Thatcher? The Iraq War, the Middle East? Most general elections, for goodness sake! But there is something about referendums which poses a particular challenge for an impartial news organisation. The single focus on one issue, the passion and the partisanship, the win-or-die mentality of the one-off battle (notwithstanding indyref2) where the polarised arguments become entrenched. And that was just the AV Referendum.
We are never keen on the argument that being attacked by both sides shows you must be getting it right. It’s quite possible to be wrong in two different ways, so we always take such criticisms seriously. In any case, few issues only have two sides, so teetering in the middle of the proverbial see-saw is seldom the right place. After all, the centre is itself a political position in normal politics. It is why we normally prefer to talk about 'impartiality' rather than 'balance'; the editorial judgements for programme-makers are invariably far more complex and nuanced than a simple 'on the one hand this, on the other that' neutrality. And yet, that is what a referendum campaign, at heart, presents to us: a binary choice, in this case between Remain and Leave, increasingly shouted from those entrenched positions. There is no middle ground, no compromise, no overlap. If you are not with us, you are against us. When the issue is as fundamental as the UK’s membership of the European Union, impacting directly on every part of the UK, impartiality is not valued, or even recognised, from the perspective of the trench; but that is the very moment it is even more vital for the voters.
Referendums are not like elections
It is this dilemma which the broadcasters have to confront when people are deciding how to vote (rather different, incidentally, after the vote, when one side has lost and we are once again faced with far more intricate judgements, such as the subsequent proper scrutiny of the execution of Brexit). How are we to avoid the simplistic stopwatch notion that impartiality – or proper 'balance' – is achieved by giving an 'equal' number of minutes and seconds to each side and yet somehow impose a rigorous test of fairness and consistency on those complex and nuanced editorial judgements made by many different people across multiple genres and timescales?
Contrary to received wisdom, there is no general set of onerous rules corseting the broadcasters into a 'false balance', thus enforcing perfect equality of time, inhibiting the exposure of untruths and generally failing to inform the electorate of what it needs to know before entering the voting booth. The obligation, of course, is for 'due' impartiality; that is, take specific account of the particular circumstances of the vote in reaching judgements about fairness, accuracy, appropriate scrutiny, allowing the audience to hear all the relevant different perspectives before they make their decisions.
So in each referendum (and each election for that matter) the BBC draws up for its programme-makers a specific set of guidelines, which complement and supplement the normal editorial guidelines. With a binary question, such as the EU Referendum, each part of the output had to achieve 'broad balance' – a disarmingly bland phrase which actually gives editors the freedom to make judgements rather than be ruled by maths, whilst recognising there had to be an overall similarity and consistency in the levels of coverage for Remain and Leave.
The second key element is that the broad balance must be between the two sides of the argument, not necessarily between the two formally designated campaign groups. This is especially important, after all, unlike elections, voters are actually being asked to answer a specific question, not just put their cross next to someone who they trust to answer the question on their behalf. The designated campaigns hone their own strategies, but do not necessarily straddle the full range of views. And the campaign groups are also very different from political parties in that – when it comes to promises to the voters – they don’t really exist after polling day. A winning party has its manifesto held to account for the promises, as Chancellor Philip Hammond discovered after the 2017 Budget. Referendum campaign groups – as against individuals within them – do not have to worry about whether their speculative claims turn out to be true; they just have to win.
But these designated groups are still part of the formal furniture of the referendum: their recognition, their rights and their obligations are set down in law and to win such an accolade, they must meet the criteria laid down by the Electoral Commission. So whilst it is absolutely the journalistic duty of the broadcasters to scrutinise their claims, it is also appropriate we provide a platform so the electorate knows what they are saying. Imagine, as some would have it, the broadcasters refused to allow an officially designated campaign group to use certain figures or statistics during a referendum campaign; we would be in the dock before you could say the words 'judicial review'.
This approach allowed editors to use proper journalistic judgement in telling the story of the Referendum campaign; it does not, for instance, as some argued it should, impose any sort of separate matrix on coverage of the political parties in the way that happens during an election campaign. That would distort the story and certainly not help the voter.
Statistics and lies
The most contentious issue in terms of coverage of the EU Referendum was the unprecedented allegation and counter allegation over the statistics used by both sides. These arguments were accompanied by widespread assertions we have entered a 'post truth' world, fed by a diet of internet and social media exaggeration and untruths. Of course, it has not been unknown for politicians to use statistics selectively on many previous occasions. It was ever thus. Think back to various disputes over whether spending on specific programmes has gone up or down. This illustrates well the contention that, though there are some exceptions, politicians rarely use figures to support their arguments that have no basis at all in reality. Whether spending had gone up or down depended on which years you were comparing. Neither side of the argument is telling an untruth, they are just selecting whichever part of the truth best suits their contention.
The EU Referendum campaign saw a barrage of claims made by both sides: the Leave campaign’s persistence in claiming the UK would regain control over £350m from EU coffers; the Remain side’s focus on speculation about what might happen, especially the macro and micro economic effects of Brexit, dubbed by the Leave campaign as Project Fear.
The problem with much of the EU Referendum debate about the economy was it was about forecasts more than facts. At times we were told a vote to leave would mean the economy and public finances would deteriorate, mortgage rates would go up, more specifically house prices would decline by up to 18 per cent, each family would be £4,300 a year worse off, and so on. On the other hand, it would free us from red tape, curtail immigration and save us a fortune which could be spent on the health service.
What is the BBC’s duty faced with each campaign’s claims in the context of a referendum? It is not, as some have suggested, to banish some facts, or one of the campaigns, to the outer darkness, a contention usually based on who is making the argument rather than the argument itself. Nor is it to indulge 'false balance', that is, to give opposing arguments equivalence whatever the weight of opinion on either side.
It has sometimes been suggested this is what happened. But the BBC was abundantly clear, for instance, that the overwhelming weight of expert economic and business opinion was advising people to vote Remain. Nonetheless, the BBC should be open to those who may challenge a consensus – not all such conventional opinions stand the test of time, as those many economists who banged the drum for the Euro or who failed to anticipate the financial crash might now attest. Different voices must be heard from time to time, though not necessarily given the same weight or exposure.
In the binary setting of a referendum, the poor public – some of them anyway – simply plead for the BBC (which, when asked to name a single provider, they still trust more than any other medium) to just say who is telling the truth and how, therefore, they should vote. That cannot be the right role for a public service broadcaster. Whether leaving the EU is a good or a bad thing depends for each voter on their own position, what their own priorities are, their own job, economic circumstances, lifestyle, family background and so on.
Debate and scrutiny
The BBC’s job is to enable the debate; it is to interrogate, to challenge, to contextualise and to analyse the claims made on each side. Being a platform for the democratic argument, allowing the two sides to engage directly, is a fundamental purpose of our political coverage, offering the opportunity to cross-examine each other’s claims. Most notably in the big debate at Wembley, just days before the vote took place, each of the big beasts present had every opportunity to challenge the wilder and dodgier assertions of the other. But throughout the campaign, there were also dozens of debates up and down the country on BBC local radio, and national and regional TV as well as on the UK networks.
Nor did the BBC shirk its responsibility to analyse the competing claims of both sides. Extensive use was made of Reality Check, the BBC’s fact-checking brand, in TV news bulletins, as well as online. Voters could find out whether it was true £350m a week could be repatriated to the UK if it left the EU. And there too the assumptions and statistical underpinnings of the Remain side’s claims about the future were dissected and laid bare. The notion that these claims were not scrutinised is simply untrue. Where claims were misleading or wrong, the BBC called it.
Indeed by the end of the campaign some spokespeople had become rather more shy of these claims, faced, as they were, with continuing challenge from interviewers in the big set pieces and in the day to day news coverage on the Today programme, Five Live, the Andrew Marr Show or in a series of Andrew Neil interviews with representatives of each side on BBC One.
The squeakier claims made by politicians were challenged again and again by BBC presenters and correspondents. Go back and look at Evan Davis take on Douglas Carswell over the £350m claim; watch David Dimbleby take on Michael Gove’s dismissal of the IFS (Question Time, 15 June 2016); read what Reality Check said about George Osborne’s forecast that voting Leave would cost each home £4,300; watch Andrew Neil pick apart Nigel Farage’s numbers on immigration (BBC One, 10 June 2016) or Kamal Ahmed across the main bulletins stating in terms that the economic consensus was on one side of the debate. There is example after example, not just on more specialist programmes on Radio 4, such as More or Less, but primetime on BBC One, where Nick Robinson, days before the vote, clearly set out and tested the arguments of both sides (The Big EU Reality Check, 20 June 2016).
Eye of the beholder
What many academics and disappointed campaigners present either as a 'false' or 'phoney' balance, or claim a failure on the part of the broadcasters to inform the public properly, is often rooted in their own misunderstanding of impartiality in the context of this Referendum. They fume at the failure to expose the 'lies' of one side of the campaign, and ignore the plank obscuring their own vision. Even more than in normal party politics, it seems to be much harder in a polarised referendum to self-perceive personal prejudices and then acknowledge others will have a different view. This has meant much of the 'research' and criticism of broadcasters which followed the EU Referendum was too often based on an unspoken and partial, but deadly, assumption: that the British people had made a monumental mistake in the way they voted.
Interestingly, the audience seemed to take a rather different view of the coverage, with a majority of both Remain and Leave voters believing BBC coverage was fair and balanced. The numbers on both sides for those who thought the BBC was biased were actually lower than normal, in other words, even some of the people who sometimes think the Corporation biased, in either direction, did not believe that was the case during its Referendum coverage.
So suggestions the notion of impartiality itself needs to be re-thought in the so-called 'post-truth' world and in the wake of the EU Referendum may themselves need reconsideration. The BBC’s contribution followed the Referendum Guidelines about how to achieve due impartiality and a broad balance between the Referendum arguments; the evidence suggests, by and large, it succeeded, with no substantive complaints from either campaign. Before future elections or referendums, the guidelines will be looked at afresh, but then they always are, because that is precisely the requirement of judging the 'due' in 'due impartiality'.
David Jordan is the BBC’s director of editorial policy and standards, responsible for the development and implementation of the Corporation’s Editorial Guidelines. He is a former editor of the weekly political programme On The Record and established Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour.
As chief political adviser, Ric Bailey drafted the BBC’s Referendum guidelines. A former lobby correspondent and executive editor of Question Time, he is visiting professor in political journalism at the University of Leeds. Instrumental in setting up TV election debates, his paper ‘Squeezing out the Oxygen – or Reviving Democracy?’ was published by the Reuters Institute in 2012.
This piece is an extract from "Brexit, Trump and the Media", edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait, Abramis Academic Publishing, Bury St Edmunds. Available to Journalism.co.uk readers at the special price of £15.00 from email@example.com.
Free daily newsletter
- Tip: Break into political journalism
- POLITICO Europe launches Pro Intelligence platform to empower reporting on EU policies
- Why political journalism is in need of new approaches and innovation
- Journalism versus lies and fake news: Time for a rethink
- Full Fact is developing two new tools for automated fact-checking