Broadcasters were biased during the EU referendum campaign – but not in the way you think

Conservative voices got more airtime on both sides of the argument.

Veteran BBC broadcaster John Simpson is the latest high profile journalist to question how the media reported the EU referendum campaign. A number of other senior journalists have suggested that broadcasters allowed both the Leave and Remain camps equal airtime without challenging their exaggerated claims or, as Simpson put it, outright lies.

James Harding, Head of BBC News, recently rejected these charges. He argued its editorial rules about “due impartiality” and “broad balance” allowed journalists plenty of freedom to make judgements about the relative merits of campaign claims and, where appropriate, challenge their veracity.

It would be hard not to agree with Harding when considering BBC programmes such as Newsnight and The Daily Politics, or its fact checking service, Reality Check. Journalists such as Andrew Neil regularly questioned both sides. Experts like Antony Reuben unpicked the statistical claims of the Leave and Remain campaigners.

But these news formats attract relatively small audiences, and cater to the most politically engaged section of the electorate. On all channels, the flagship evening bulletins have far more reach and influence, attracting millions of viewers and representing the gold standard of news output.

We examined the main evening bulletins over ten weeks of the EU referendum campaign on Channel 5 (5pm), Channel 4 (7pm), the BBC, ITV and Sky News (10pm). Paradoxically, we found that coverage was both balanced and yet skewed, with a tendency to generate more heat than light when reporting the campaigns. So what does that mean in practice?

The main criticism levelled at broadcasters by journalists – and many others – was their handling of the claims and counter claims of the campaigns. The UK Statistics Authority criticised the Leave campaign for its repeated use of the misleading claim that the UK government sends £350m to the EU every week.

Following our analysis for a BBC Trust commissioned review of statistics in news reporting, we systematically examined every statistical claim made during the ten week campaign – 517 in total – and identified just over one in five were challenged either by a journalist, campaigner or other source. Most of this questioning – 65.2 per cent – was by rival politicians, with 17.6 per cent of statistical claims challenged by journalists. This left little space for more independent sources with expert knowledge to verify claims, or put statistics in context.

In relying so heavily on campaigners without journalistic arbitration or seeking expert opinion, viewers were often left with little more than a statistical tit-for-tat between rival camps.

As a consequence, broadcasters found it hard to address the democratic deficit of British knowledge of the EU. It is notable that voters complained about the lack of hard information even at a late stage in the campaign. They largely focused instead on the activities of the campaigns, with close to half of the 571 news items we examined primarily about the process of campaigning, such as staged walkabouts, Remain and Leave strategies, or internal party political squabbles.

Our other headline finding is, in our view, equally significant. On the two main issues of the Remain and Leave campaign – the economy and immigration – bulletins were evenly balanced. Similarly, when we compared the appearances of campaigners from Remain and Leave, bulletins exhibited a remarkable degree of even-handiness, with both sides of the campaign given roughly equal billing.

But an imbalance emerges when we look at the party affiliation of campaigners, since 71.2 per cent of political sources were from the Conservative party compared to 18.4 per cent from Labour. This cannot be blamed on Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged reluctance to participate in the campaign. Alan Johnson – who led Labour’s Remain campaign – and many other senior Labour figures tirelessly toured the country. Yet they barely featured in the evening bulletins. Ukip made up 7.6 per cent of sources, leaving just 2.8 per cent for other parties, such as the SNP.

The decision to portray David Cameron and George Osborne as the principle flagbearers for the Remain side meant a focus on the issues closer to Conservative hearts – principally the importance of free trade to the British economy. In marginalising Labour and the SNP, pro-EU membership issues such as safeguarding employment rights fell down the agenda.

This interpretation of “due impartiality” was, in this sense, both even-handed and one-sided. The Leave and Remain camps received equal time, but we ended up with an argument that privileged Conservative arguments on both sides. This did not reflect the spirit of, for example, the BBC’s specific EU guidelines, which encouraged journalists to find a “‘broad balance’ of arguments and not necessarily between the designated Campaign Groups”).

This imbalance was particularly acute on the Remain side, since most parties on the centre – left – Labour, the SNP, Plaid and the Greens – were pro-Remain. Their comparative absence from the broadcast coverage was a significant handicap in Remain’s ability to appeal to traditional Labour areas.

It is easy to be critical in hindsight. Broadcasters, after all, made efforts to be impartial in a way much of the press coverage did not. But there are lessons to be learned here for the months of Brexit negotiations ahead: we need more analysis and less tit-for tat, and we need a fairer a more wide-ranging debate with right and left more evenly represented.

Dr Stephen Cushion is the director of MA in Political Communication at Cardiff University. Professor Justin Lewis is professor of communication at Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University. This piece originally featured in the New Statesman.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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  • Freeborn John

    It is a fact that the UK’s gross contribution to the EU budget is £350m a week. It is a lie of this author to suggest otherwise. This article also fails to point that the Remain campaign’s “Project Fear” has turned out to be have been nothing but lies. They claimed that uncertainty would cause an immediate recession leaving us each £4300 a year worse off. The reality is that the Uk will be the fastest growing G7 economy in 2016. Remain’s lead campaigners (Cameron and Osborn) claimed interest rates would go up and house prices would fall 18%, that brexit would lead to War in Europe and Donald Tusk said it would lead to th end of western civilisation, none of which have happened or will happen.

    The author would withdraw his own lie that the UK gross contribution to the EU budget because that is a fact and a huge waste of taxpayer money which continues while RemonErs try to delay national liberation.

    • F Olla

      No, it’s you who are wrong. £350 billion per week WAS a lie.
      In 2015 the UK government paid £13 billion to the EU budget. Each year the UK gets an instant discount on its contributions to the EU—the ‘rebate’—worth almost £5 billion last year. Without it the UK would have been liable for £18 billion in contributions, which would have been £350 billion. With the rebate it was around £250 billion.
      EU spending on the UK was £4.5 billion in 2015. So the UK’s ‘net contribution’ was estimated at about £8.5 billion which is around £163 billion.
      The figures are available from several sources. You should check your facts before accusing someone of lying.

      • Daniel Creedon

        You’re both a little off really.

        The leave campaign said we send £350m to the eu per week, factually correct. The rebate, by definition, is paid back AFTER we’ve paid our full contribution and what the eu then spends that money on, including the UK, is also after the fact.

        The author did not say this claim was a lie, just that is was misleading. Considering it completely ignored the rebate I can’t really disagree with that.

        I do agree that the author could have highlighted something of the fear mongering from the remain camp to avoid looking biased himself.

        • F Olla

          I should have made clear in my comment that the rebate is deducted BEFORE the amount due is paid. At no point does the UK pay out £18 billion and then get money back. It pays £13 billion with the rebate applied at the outset. So it was a lie calculated to mislead voters.

          • F Olla
          • Daniel Creedon

            I apologise then, I had misunderstood the system. I made an assumption based on their use of the word rebate, my fault.

            Either way it was an underhand move designed to mislead, we’re discussing only the degree of dishonesty here, not whether it was dishonest.

            No more dishonest than many claims from the remain side though: every household would be £3400 worse off, average wage down by 4%, house prices down by 18%. Ridiculously worst case scenarios put across as unavoidable fact, to scare people into voting for the status quo.

            Project fear made a beautifully balanced counterpoint to the equally ridiculous, rose-tinted optimism of the brexiteers.

            I’m honestly rather confused about why people are up in arms about politicians being dishonest and making pledges they know they’ll never keep. That’s politics: say what you need to to get what you want and deal with the aftermath later.

            Look at what both sides say, do some research and reading of your own, listen to some moderately intelligent pundits and you’ll hopefully get a half decent idea of reality. But if we sacked every politician who distorted the truth we’d be relying on the queen to run the country again.

          • F Olla

            I couldn’t agree more, politicians will indeed twist and spin the truth, it goes with the territory. Plus we’re in the ‘post truth’ era now “a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored” Wikipedia
            The UK has never really quantified what we did or didn’t get out of our EU membership, so apart from a few figures to bandy about there was a dearth of facts for people to ignore anyway.
            It was also dishonest of the Remain side to claim financial detriment – no one can forecast exactly what the financial or other impacts (e.g. the possible break up of the UK) will be because no one knows exactly what is going to happen as a result of Brexit until negotiations have taken place and we know what the deal does or doesn’t include.
            Brexit has been an omnishambles but I think we’re stuck with the politicians – the queen probably wouldn’t want the job anyway!

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