When does a broken promise become an outright lie? When does it become obvious to everyone that what is claimed is not how things actually are? And – to come to the point – when does the aspiration to provide impartial news coverage become subverted by propaganda? All questions prompted by the BBC’s naked partiality towards the powerful Establishment campaign to frustrate Brexit. It is becoming increasingly difficult to take seriously the declaration that “Trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest”; the first words on the BBC’s website page about its values.
Having listened, as is my habit, to Today on Wednesday morning I was irritated, but hardly surprised to hear George Osborne’s jeremiad about the perils of a no-deal Brexit given top billing. Ironic, too, given that Osborne was the architect of the dismal strategy employed by the original Remain campaign; keep in mind “it woz George wot lost it”. Now he seems hell-bent on subverting the entire Brexit process, deploying the same depressing tactic that failed last time round.
Osborne opined that delaying our departure was now the most likely option commenting: “Russian roulette is a game that you should never play because there’s a one-in-six chance that the bullet goes into your head.” This somewhat florid metaphor is typical of the neurotic pessimism that has gripped the entire Remain campaign, which is why it so appeals to BBC journalists; for the BBC is by reason, instinct and habit pro-EU. In its heart and soul the BBC is against Brexit and all its works; Auntie just can’t help herself.
This is not to say that individual BBC journalists don’t try hard to strike a balance in their coverage; I was one myself and I know that most of my ex-colleagues do sincerely strive to be impartial. But it is psychologically extremely difficult to suppress one’s own beliefs and prejudices. I doubt that there’s a BBC journalist in the country who doesn’t have an opinion about Brexit; I would be amazed if more than 10% were Leavers. And this inbuilt partiality in the Brexit debate constantly shines through.
Had I been ordering Today’s headlines I would have been much more interested in the – to me startling – admission by Margarita Schinas, the EU Commission’s official spokesman, that if there is no-deal: “I think it’s pretty obvious you will have a hard border.” That simple statement makes it crystal clear that the real threat to ending the current border arrangement in Northern Ireland comes not from London but from Brussels. Significantly Schinas’s admission increases pressure on Dublin to compromise – but not a word of this fascinating development was anywhere to be heard this morning.
Under the editorship of Sarah Sands – Osborne’s predecessor in the editor’s chair at the Evening Standard – the programme has been going through a lacklustre phase. To be fair to her, since she took over, the Brexit debate has swamped all other coverage so the slump in audience ratings might simply be down to audience fatigue. But that is not the whole story. In my BBC years I worked for three Today editors: Jenny Abramsky back in the Eighties, Rod Liddle, until he jumped ship, and Kevin Marsh.
Of the three, it was Liddle who shone. Intellectually curious, a born troublemaker he had (and still has) the wild, anarchic spirit of the iconoclast. He made the programme unpredictable and therefore exciting. Were he still in the job you can bet Today would once again be required listening because he’d be rocking the boat as hard as he could. But Sands? Nothing of the iconoclast about her as far as I can discern. Instead the programme pays ritual homage at all the altars of fashionable liberal-Left opinion, including the “correct” attitude to Brexit. And suffers greatly because of it.
The tone of the programme is largely down to who is presenting on the day; everyone has their favourites, but for me John Humphrys, Justin Webb and Martha Kearney give more impression of independence of mind than do the others; they don’t always toe the party-line. By contrast Nick Robinson sounded dementedly anti-Brexit when he interviewed Liam Fox from the plush purlieus of Davos. But presenters, though they have influence, do not select the running-order. They get what they’re given and that all comes down to the editor. And she, of course is but one link in the editorial management chain that extends throughout the BBC.
I have met conspiracy theorists who believe there is some central command post within BBC News and Current Affairs where the orders of the day are sent out mandating what the official line will be. It’s really not like that of course; there’s no need for orders. Remember this: the best predictor of how any individual voted in the referendum is educational attainment. The more highly educated, the more likely they were to vote Remain. There is probably no better educated workforce in the country than BBC journalists. Degrees and higher degrees abound, Oxbridge types are two-a-penny.
Such people – by virtue of their educational attainments – are liable to feel that their views are better-informed and more advanced than those of the rest of the population. Probably most of them could give you a fluent exposition of why Brexit is going to be a disaster; I doubt whether many could make a heartfelt and positive case for our leaving.
That is where the imbalance lies, that is where impartiality becomes a hollow promise, and that is why from now until the issue is resolved Today will, I predict, be lending its considerable weight to the Stop Brexit campaign.
Robin Aitken’s ‘The Noble Liar – how and why the BBC distorts the news to promote liberal agenda’, is published by Biteback