The BBC is failing to ask the big questions about the EU referendum

Britain's public service broadcaster must do more to communicate this historic vote beyond the narrow agendas of the official campaigns. 

Michael Chessum
14 April 2016

"the cause of refugees and migrants should, by rights, be the great civil rights cause of our time". Image: Amel Emric / Press Association Images. All rights reserved

The referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU may yet mark a new high in the detachment between voters and the political and media elite. While the nation’s institutions and political classes sharpen their arguments about the viability of export yields and sovereignty, the sentiment among the wider public around the campaign – an event which will shape Britain’s political landscape and place in the world for decades – remains flat and uninspired. Barely half of the 18-34 year olds say they are certain to vote.

Watching Newsnight’s first special programme on the referendum on Monday night, we were all reminded of why there is so much disenchantment in the referendum: the debate is politically narrow, and shrouded in a consciously constructed web of complexity. While we watched as Evan Davis was winched onto Sealand – the microstate on a concrete island in the English Channel – we were told that the main things we needed to understand were not competing narratives about society, but simply more facts from experts. So the BBC’s first flagship coverage of the referendum debate consisted of a head-to-head between Blairite Peter Mandelson and Tory Chris Grayling, and a panel of establishment figures – senior civil servants and lawyers – who held forth about EU trade legislation and the (never properly explained) jurisdictions of various courts.

As with the mainstream media’s coverage of the general election, the basic underlying message is: this is complicated, only we can really understand what is happening, and you should vote for one side or another of the establishment position, on its terms – for the national interest, for competitiveness, for the ability to exploit foreign markets and labour. The mystification of important issues, and their reduction to a series of wrangles over detail, has always been a key method for the establishment to frame and reinforce its position. Tuesday's Newsnight coverage featured Ken Clarke and Daniel Hannan, two Conservatives, arguing about IMF growth forecasts. 

The problem for this version of political journalism is that it has already unravelled repeatedly in full public view. Twice last year, common sense administered from on high by the commentariat and political heavyweights did not match reality or the public will, and in the most spectacular style: first when a hung parliament failed to materialise and then when Jeremy Corbyn was elected as Labour leader. Deep underneath British politics, among the general public, there is an insurgent force which the political and media elite does not understand. Lacking any sense of irony, this same elite insists at every juncture that the public cannot understand the EU referendum debate, wheeling out the very same roll call of centrist and right wing politicians to talk technicalities.

The result is a hopelessly narrow discussion, in which most voters have no particular stake or sense of affinity with the protagonists or their ideas. When those on either side of the debate talk about what is best for the economy, they are really talking about what is good for the profits of a tiny elite. When they talk about global influence, they are really talking about the ability of the political elite to influence other political elites. Sovereignty is a moot point when both Westminster and Brussels are remote and unaccountable. Without breadth the debate lacks imagination: no-one is given air time to talk seriously about any democratisation of the EU’s institutions, or to propose alliances with fellow Europeans fighting austerity, tax avoision and poverty.

There is no doubt as to which side of the referendum is being hurt most by this lack of imagination. In years gone by, restricting the terrain for debate, keeping sights aimed low, and focussing voters’ minds with the fear of the unknown might have been a competent strategy for protecting the status quo. Now, however, politics in Britain is characterised by an anti-establishment insurgency on both left and right. That mood – combined with the almost total lack of self-awareness from the business-dominated official Remain campaign, Britain Stronger in Europe – is making Brexit more likely with every passing day. The key demographics of the campaign – Labour voters, working class voters – are the most likely to back and anti-establishment, anti-status quo position; and young voters, overwhelmingly in favour of Remain but also largely progressive, might simply not show up.

The left should regard the state of the EU debate with dismay and alarm. While the May elections are a pivotal moment for Jeremy Corbyn’s new Labour Party – and are worthy of a hard-fought ground campaign – the result of this referendum will define Britain for decades. A Brexit under these circumstances would be a mandate for political forces to the right of the current government, however populist and anti-establishment much of their rhetoric may be. Defeating that surge is, ultimately, a defensive battle – but it is one which will require us to formulate a clear understanding of what this referendum is about, and what kind of Europe we really want to see.

While the media insists that the issue is complex, the crux of it is relatively simple: it is the culmination of a decades-long social and political process, which has seen a supposed immigration “problem” rise to the top of the political agenda, with all major parties attacking and demonising migrants. The referendum is taking place because a section of the British Right views EU membership as the core of a cosmopolitan, socially liberal modernity that needs to be expunged and replaced with fortress Britain. If Brexit happens, freedom of movement between Britain and most of Europe will be dead for a generation. To shape the debate, the left must own and champion migration, not as an economic issue but as a human one; the cause of refugees and migrants should, by rights, be the great civil rights cause of our time.

Radical Remain campaigners – like Another Europe is Possible – have their work cut out. With almost no resources and little public attention, we will have to put life into the campaign. If the mainstream media wants its coverage to be more than a series jousting matches about trade law and economic growth targets, it might just have to give us some air time.  

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