David Dimbleby, Boris Johnson MP, Gisela Stuart MP, Andrea Leadsom MP, Sadiq Khan, Ruth Davidson MSP and Frances O’Grady TUC take part in the BBC Great Debate at the Wembley Arena, London, Britain, June 21, 2016. Jeff Overs/Courtesy of the BBC/Handout via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
© Reuters

“Rather than challenging this statistical claim . . . the presenter on the Today programme simply stated, ‘Well, we will hear the opposition view on that from Labour and the Liberal Democrats later in the programme’.”

A report commissioned by the BBC Trust on the impartiality in statistics reporting was released this week. The 86-page study praises the work of the corporation’s journalists but cautions that there is “a lack of appropriate challenge in some output” and “a perceived reluctance sometimes to provide fuller interpretation”.

The findings will resonate with many who expressed frustration with media coverage of the Brexit referendum — and in particular how claims made by the different sides were often insufficiently challenged by the national broadcaster. As Professor John Van Reenen of the LSE wrote in the aftermath:

“It’s like saying ‘One side says that world is flat, but this is contested by Remain who say it is round. We’ll let you decide.’ The public broadcaster failed a basic duty of care to the British people.”

There is no shortage of others who believe the BBC would have been blamed whatever the outcome of the referendum, that it was biased against Leave, or even that it did a good job even though the media’s influence was in any case modest.

The BBC’s editorial guidelines on reporting the referendum specifically called for “impartial and independent reporting of the campaign”. Yet for many commentators, rigid balance overrode what should have been “fair coverage and rigorous scrutiny of the policies and campaigns of all relevant parties and campaign groups.” 

In April, Timothy Garton-Ash warned of the risk of ‘fairness bias’: “You give equal airtime to unequal arguments, without daring to say that, on this or that point, one side has more evidence, or a significantly larger body of expert opinion, than the other.”

In the aftermath of the vote to leave the EU, this bias — dubbed “regulated equivocation” — has been reported by media academics in a new publication issued by the Political Studies Association. The academics found that while the overall weight of UK newspaper articles supported Leave, broadcasters — who operate under tight regulatory scrutiny — offered equal airtime but favoured daily campaigning and polemic over analysis and scrutiny of claims. Much as Michael Gove famously dismissed “experts”, coverage was largely “presidential” — focused on leading (and male) politicians — while academics, economists and other specialists were hardly seen. “Objectivity . . . was trumped by impartiality,” writes Stephen Cushion from Cardiff University.

Professor Ivor Gaber points out that the BBC gave equal weight to the 1,280 business leaders who signed a letter to The Times backing UK membership of the EU and the (already oft reported) Leave view of Sir James Dyson. It did the same with the warnings of 10 Nobel Prize-winning economists and (frequently already cited) pro-Brexit Patrick Minford, and often referred unchecked to the discredited figure of £350m UK savings from EU contributions. Gaber adds that much scepticism was bounced from news interviews to the BBC’s (excellent but much less viewed) Reality Check service.

Perhaps post-referendum reporting lessons should draw from the BBC Trust’s separate review of scientific impartiality, triggered by the contested portrayal of climate change and the MMR vaccine scare. It called for judgement and “due weight” in coverage, as well as better training.

Charles Grant has argued that journalists’ poor knowledge of the EU contributed to the Brexit vote. While the outcome of the June 23 referendum may seem to reduce the need for such “insider” expertise, in-depth understanding of the EU, it will remain just as important in reporting negotiations on the future of Britain outside the EU in the years ahead.

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Background reading

Emmet Livingstone looks at why Tate & Lyle Sugars bucked the trend among Britain’s biggest companies and supports Brexit. 

Norwegian fears over a possible UK membership in the European Free Trade Association are unfounded, writes Open Europe’s Raoul Ruparel.

FTI Consulting examines how questions over copyright, trade, movement of people and content funding mean Brexit could have wide-ranging implications for the media and entertainment industry.

The Ministry of Defence is facing extra costs of up to £700m a year following the Brexit vote, largely because of a fall in sterling, says Royal United Services Institute.

Hard numbers

From FT Markets:

The amount of new money raised by exchange traded funds exposed to global stock markets has dropped 85 per cent in the first half of 2016, in a rare sign of pressure on the passive investment industry.

Equity ETFs that track an index attracted a net $15bn from investors in the first half of this year, a significant decline on the $102bn invested over the same period in 2015, according to ETFGI, the data provider.

Investors turned their backs on equity ETFs because of volatile trading conditions in January and February, followed by concerns about the impact of the UK’s vote on EU membership, according to Ben Seager-Scott, director of investment strategy at Tilney Bestinvest, the wealth manager.

Billions of dollars were wiped off the value of global stocks at the start of the year as concerns mounted about slowing growth in China. Markets were also turbulent after the UK’s Brexit vote in late June.

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