Broadcasters are letting us down over Brexit. They should credit us with a bit more intelligence
After Theresa May signalled that apart from meaning Brexit, Brexit also means an uncertain future for European cooperation on security issues, outspoken radio host James O’Brien took to Twitter to accuse the PM of threatening to give terrorists an easy ride.
Seconds later, just before his mid-morning show was due to start, O’Brien received a stinging response. ‘More of this nonsense at 10 on LBC.’ And who was responsible for this withering put-down? None other than LBC radio host Iain Dale.
At first, I was rather shocked by this internecine war of words. Two eminent presenters from the same station slugging it out in public? Titans of the airwaves airing their dirty laundry for all to see? Whatever next!
But then it occurred to me that the trouble with British broadcasting is we don’t get enough of this kind of refreshing honesty. In fact, we hardly get any. As his daily diatribes comprehensively reveal, O’Brien is something of a left-wing firebrand who is bitterly opposed to all-things Brexit. In stark contrast, former Conservative candidate Dale voted to leave Europe and remains optimistic about Britain’s prospects. A couple of intelligent adults disagreeing with each other. What’s the big deal?
Well, here is the news. If our feuding heroes were on the staff of the BBC, their entertaining little spat would have been an extremely big deal. The cause for endless hand-wringing, unreserved apologies, suspensions, investigations, possible dismissals… the full works.
For reasons lost in the mists of time, the Beeb is an organisation with a pathological terror of opinions. In the alleged interests of fairness, cowering employees are effectively banned from saying what they think lest they exert an undue influence on the viewers and listeners. All too often, the result is bland and insipid journalism that is arguably more of a disservice than a service.
When he’s doing his LBC day job, O’Brien’s rambling rants against his perceived villains of the right are provocative and mildly amusing. When he’s putting in a shift at the helm of BBC2’s Newsnight he becomes a bloke in a suit striving to be neutral. This simpering syndrome is not only criminally boring, it’s pernicious. The world’s biggest broadcasting giant quivering with fear at the very thought of independent thought. What’s that about?
The Corporation’s excellent Nick Robinson came perilously close to breaking ranks recently when he suggested in a contemptuous tweet that Boris Johnson’s various Leave campaign pledges – 350 million quid a week for the NHS, slashing immigration etc – had all been unceremoniously binned by the government. Even more dangerously, Robinson wrote in the Radio Times that the BBC no longer has a duty to provide scrupulously balanced Brexit coverage.
Here’s to you Mr Robinson. But despite your laudable outburst of common sense, rest assured that your oh-so-careful bosses will continue to vet every EU story until every last word is thoroughly anodyne. While our greatest political debate in living memory rages throughout a divided land, the people’s broadcaster – the one we pay for – is resolutely not involved. Ludicrous.
Had the UK’s strict broadcasting regulations been slightly less draconian, chances are we wouldn’t have voted Brexit. What really is the point of the BBC recruiting hundreds of renowned experts in their fields and then gagging them? Why is the Daily Mail allowed to howl about the evils of Europe when the BBC is forced to maintain a stoic silence on the advantages of remaining?
In fairness (that again), all television news outlets are hamstrung by the same restrictions. When I reviewed the morning papers on Sky News on June 23 I was told not to mention the referendum on pain of death. The referendum that was unfolding on that very momentous day. Not Sky’s fault, they were just obeying the rules. But the situation was childish and absurd.
Isn’t it about time we recalibrated our hard-line approach to impartiality and started treating the great British public like grown-ups? Amid the most important national argument of the century, wasn’t it a tragedy that only the newspapers were empowered to pontificate? If Fleet Street had carte blanche to deliver a combination of news and opinion, why were the television channels under orders to sit straitjacketed on the fence?
Say what you like about the declining influence of popular papers, but decades of rabidly europhobic headlines played a crucial part in Britain’s decision to quit. If the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky had been able to broadcast their opinions, it could have counterbalanced the print media’s anti-EU mania and quite possibly changed the course of history.
Jokes aside, just because newspapers lean to the right or the left (usually right) it doesn’t mean they don’t endeavour to report news stories fairly and accurately. But within their pages are also excessively biased think-pieces that shamelessly reflect the editor and publisher’s worldview. Not to mention the leader columns that forthrightly state exactly where the paper stands. The readers aren’t children. They can spot the difference between an account of a robbery and some daft tirade about EU fat cats. They can make up their own minds.
But in tedious TV Land this twin-pronged pick and mix approach to current affairs is utterly prohibited. What a crying shame. In febrile run-up to the referendum, wouldn’t it have been useful to know what the BBC’s economics editor thought? Or ITV News’ Europe editor? Or Sky News’ political editor? The fact that so many fantastically well-informed, respected journalists were all forced to hold their tongues was frankly ridiculous. These knowledgeable people should be opinion formers… not their own opinion suppressors.
No one wants a plethora of Fox News-style British stations screaming non-stop invective from the far loony right. Nor do we need lectures from Huw Edwards, Tom Bradby or Jon Snow. It makes sense for the anchors to stay objective. But surely we should consider allowing our mainstream bulletins to carry the screen equivalent of leader columns. They’re sensible enough to handle it. And so are we.
When more than 70 MPs wrote to the Beeb’s aristocratic director general Lord Hall complaining about the pessimistic tone of Brexit coverage they failed to realise that the real problem isn’t the alleged bias. It’s the lack of it. In any case, it’s a mistake to listen to partisan politicians moaning about unfair reporting. Because what they mean is it’s unfair to them.
How can LBC manage to incorporate left-wingers and right-wingers alike and let them sound off (sometimes preposterously) while the BBC’s numerous radio stations are officially muted and stuck in the middle of the road? The aforementioned ardent Remainer O’Brien is on the same LBC payroll as extreme Brexiteers Nigel Farage and Katie Hopkins. To encompass such a broad church of wildly differing outlooks, the Beeb might like to note, is a healthy thing.
Ironically, the BBC’s disproportionate obsession with balance and fairness guarantees there’s an obligatory UKIP person in every televised discussion. Hard to know why when they haven’t got a single representative in the House of Commons. The executives at LBC give airtime to Farage because they think he’s entertaining. The executives at the BBC give airtime to Farage because they think they have to. I think they should tell him: ‘Come back to us when you’ve finally made it to Westminster.’ Let’s face it, that could take a while.
Britain was swept to Brexit on a tidal wave of hysterical Fleet Street hype. Rendered impotent by their ritual impartiality, the TV news programmes were powerless to do a damn thing about it. Our brilliant broadcasters have been suffering in silence for too long. Let’s shake things up and free them from the shackles of nanny state rules and regulations. There is still a lot at stake.
Kevin O’Sullivan was television reviewer for the Sunday Mirror for 10 years. He now reviews at tvkev.co.uk