Executive Summary (Civitas) January 2018, The Brussels Broadcasting Corporation
“For at least the past two decades, opinion polls have shown that a large minority if not a majority of voters have wanted the UK to leave the European Union. When the question was finally put in the June 2016 referendum, they voted to do just that by a margin of 52 per cent to 48 per cent. Yet the clear preference of a large section of the population for withdrawal, and the reasons for so many people taking this stance, have been continually under-represented in the news coverage of the BBC. As this paper illustrates, pro- Brexit voices have been marginalised in the BBC’s coverage of EU issues for most of the past 20 years.
That this is the case is borne out by detailed analysis of BBC news output dating back to 1999. For instance, of 4,275 guests talking about the EU on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme between 2005 and 2015, only 132 (3.2 per cent) were supporters of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. This is linked to a longstanding reluctance to even probe the question of whether Britain should leave the EU. Between 2005 and 2011, a period during which UKIP secured 12 seats and third place in the European Parliament elections, only 20 questions about actually leaving the EU were posed. In the 1,073 surveyed editions of Today there was an average of one question on withdrawal for every 54 editions or every 153 programme hours. When opinion in favour of leaving the EU has featured, the editorial approach has – at the expense of exploring withdrawal itself – tended heavily towards discrediting and denigrating opposition to the EU as xenophobic, and to cast those who supported it as mostly incompetent and venal.There has also been more than a tendency to present pro-withdrawal views through the prism of ‘Tory splits’ and thereby also to downplay the significance of left-wing euroscepticism. In 274 hours of monitored BBC coverage of EU issues between 2002 and 2017, only 14 speakers (0.2 per cent of the total) were left-wing advocates of leaving the EU. These 14 contributors delivered 1,680 words, adding up to approximately 12 minutes out of 274 hours of airtime.
By comparison, during the same period, strongly pro-EU Conservatives Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine made between them 28 appearances with contributions totalling 11,208 words – over nine times the amount of airtime allocated to all left-wing withdrawalists. BBC audiences were thus made fully familiar with right-wing reasons for Remain. They were, by contrast, kept in the dark about left-wing/ Labour support for leaving the EU. Core left-wing arguments against the EU – over its prohibition of state aid to protect jobs, the threat to the NHS from the TTIP agreement and the belief that the EU has evolved into a ‘neoliberal marketplace’ – were largely ignored.
These findings are drawn from a sequential analysis of the media monitoring reports of News-watch dating back to 1999. Since the European Parliament elections of that year it has compiled 38 mainly half- yearly reports based on 8,000 programme transcripts covering almost 300 hundred hours of EU content. It is believed to be the largest systematic media content analysis project ever undertaken.
The overview provided here is a shocking indictment of the BBC’s failure to achieve impartiality, and in particular to incorporate the views of those who desired to leave the EU into its news output. Despite the referendum vote, this bias continues to the present day. Latest News-watch research, covering a month’s editions of Today in October/November 2017, has found that of 97 interviews on EU topics, only nine – less than 10 per cent – were with from long-term supporters of Brexit.
These findings are compounded by the fact that, despite frequent requests to the director general and the chairman of the BBC from a cross-party group of MPs concerned about BBC bias, the Corporation has been unable to provide a single programme that has examined the opportunities of Brexit.
This paper also chronicles for the first time how the BBC’s response to News-watch’s ongoing monitoring of its EU coverage has been overwhelmingly unreceptive. Mostly, the Corporation has refused to consider the findings at all. The only response it has ever issued, from the Editorial Standards Committee of the BBC Trust in 2007, was seriously flawed and distorted and twisted the News-watch methodology.The BBC response’s to this data demonstrates that its formal complaints procedure and its attitude towards legitimate criticism is designed to protect the Corporation rather than to achieve impartiality in this vital area of public debate. A massive overhaul is urgently required.”