Former BBC producer Patrick Howse explores why the broadcaster is unwilling to speak truth to power over Brexit
A recent exchange on BBC Question Time told us a lot about the current state of the country, and the BBC’s reporting of it. Supply chain problems resulting from a lack of lorry drivers was the issue being discussed. As the vast majority of people acknowledge, Brexit has undoubtedly played a role in this crisis.
A man in the audience told presenter Fiona Bruce that there was “a bit of an irony” in the current situation because, in his opinion, “a lot of people voted Brexit because they didn’t want foreign workers coming over here and taking their jobs. And now that’s exactly what we’ve got – we’ve got a lack of foreign workers, which is why we’ve got these shortages.”
Bruce snapped back that she wanted to hear from someone who voted for Brexit, only to be told by the man in the audience: “actually, I did”.
Bruce’s clear irritation was accompanied by an almost throw-away remark with which she moved on the discussion. “A majority of people here voted for Brexit, we select this audience very carefully to be representative”.
I found this remarkable – even though I’ve had serious concerns about Question Time and its sister Radio 4 programme Any Questions for a long time. It raises two big questions: how do these programmes determine whether someone is pro-Brexit, and why do they feel it’s so important to ensure their audiences are stacked in this way?
The BBC’s press office confirmed to me that the evaluation is based on “referendum and election results”. They did not elaborate on which elections they mean, nor how a Labour vote – for example – is interpreted: was a vote for Labour in 2019 pro- or anti-Brexit?
All of which suggests that the BBC is basing its calculations on the 2016 referendum. Ergo, the BBC has taken a decision that the people of the UK irrevocably made up their minds in 2016, voted Leave, and ended the debate. More than five years later, there’s no room in a Question Time audience for anyone who has come to understand the reality of the project and has thus changed their mind.
Fiona Bruce’s clear exasperation at the audience member is telling. The BBC is frightened. It fears the wrath of the Government, but it is also terrified of Leave voters, and wants to avoid at any cost appearing to say that they got it wrong.
Fear and Brexit
I have previously written for Byline Times about a feeling among some former colleagues that there was something approaching a BBC policy not to run stories that might undermine public trust in Boris Johnson.
It’s likely that key people in the BBC have decided that Brexit must be respected, and that it’s not the BBC’s job to “take a view” on it – particularly if that means portraying the project in a negative way. Both the chairman and the director general are known to have been Conservative supporters, after all, with the former having donated more than £400,000 to the party.
Anyone who has worked at the BBC will confirm that the corporation is not cohesive. It is a diverse, loose coalition of hostile fiefdoms and mini empires. Even within news, there are competing factions: ‘newsgathering’ against ‘programmes’ against the World Service; radio against TV against online, and dozens of further, mind-boggling sub-divisions.
Former colleagues of mine tend to blame other departments for the reluctance to tackle Brexit-related issues. For example, one household name told me, “it’s all coming from Millbank”, a reference to the BBC’s offices in Westminster – a view that appears to be quite widely shared in the New Broadcasting House newsroom.
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It’s clear, though, that the 2016 referendum took the BBC into anxious territory. I had left the BBC by this time, but friends tell me that the result shook the corporation. The result was taken to be an unambiguous statement of disillusionment from a large group of voters against the establishment. The BBC didn’t understand this group, and feared that it wasn’t addressing or serving it.
Since then, the BBC has desperately sought to represent these ‘voices’ on air and – crucially – to not offend them. The net result has been fear-driven self-censorship at every level. This is not just a desire to appease the BBC’s Government critics, but to placate Leave voters as well.
This has been felt across the BBC’s output. There’s a clear reluctance to mention ‘the B-word’ at all. That is unlikely to change any time soon – because the BBC does not feel as though its job involves holding the Government to account over Brexit.
In normal times, with a government presiding over such a mess, you would expect Britain’s newspapers to be scenting blood. The BBC would be following in their slipstream, always taking care not to find itself at the head of the pack.
But we are not in normal times. The right-wing press is complicit, compliant, and silent on the grave problems looming ahead. Labour has shown that it doesn’t really want to talk about Brexit. And at every level within the BBC, there’s an institutional reluctance to fill the gap; to inform and educate the nation about the consequences of Brexit.
Aside from harming the country, this poses a danger to the BBC. When this all plays out, and the disastrous impacts of Brexit become clear – as they are beginning to – will the people of Britain feel they were well served by our public service broadcaster?
At the moment, the answer is an emphatic ‘no’.
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