Before the end of 2017, perhaps as early as June of this year, voters in Britain will decide whether to remain part of the European Union. Whilst the majority of commentary so far has focused on the economic implications of Brexit, leaving the European Union would also have consequences for many other aspects of British life.
Brexit could hasten the disintegration of the UK, especially if a majority of Scots voted to stay in. In such a scenario, the SNP would have a strong mandate to demand a second referendum, and judging by the recent surge in support for the nationalist party, it is a vote they could well win. A decision to leave could also further weaken a Europe divided by the refugee crisis and stagnation in the Eurozone. At last month's Davos summit French Prime Minister Manuel warned that with a Brexit "Europe could lose its historical footing and the project could die quickly. Things could fall apart within months." With so much at stake, is the British public sufficiently informed to make the most important political decision for a generation?
Research suggests that the answer is no. The Electoral Commission recently found that the “majority of participants…stated that their personal understanding of how the EU worked was low” and felt “under-informed about the EU as an institution, as well as about the arguments for and against the UK remaining a member”. The press and broadcast news are the key information sources for the public in this area. However, research finds that reporting tends to be limited, partisan and negative. This is especially so in the press. As Roy Greenslade noted recently, across most of the press an anti-EU message is "hammered home relentlessly with news stories, leading articles, commentaries and cartoons". This, he suggests, "in a drip-drip-drip process over months, if not years" means that "newspapers have an impact on readers who never think about, let alone question, the propaganda they consume."
A headline from The Independent, which is set to close in March
The existence of such a partisan press leaves the British public especially reliant on broadcasting to access a broader debate. Research here has found that reporting outside summits and elections is relatively sparse and that negative stories involving conflict with the EU are more common than stories that emphasize the benefits of EU membership. Research from Cardiff's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies found that BBC broadcast news coverage was narrow, procedural and dominated by domestic (primarily Labour and Conservative) political actors. Across two sample periods, we found that political actors accounted for between 65 per cent (2007) and 79.2 per cent (2012) of all source appearances. The next most accessed source category (8.6 per cent in 2007, 7.4 per cent in 2012) was other media institutions, primarily the Eurosceptic press. In contrast, trade unions and other civil society voices such as NGOs or pressure groups struggled for access, never achieving more than two per cent of appearances.
Most coverage in both periods was also dominated by a single high profile event (Lisbon Treaty in 2007 and EU budget in 2012), which was viewed through the prism of Westminster infighting, either between Labour and the Conservatives, or within the Conservative party ('The “bastards” are back. David Cameron proves unable to command even his own party over the issue of Europe' Newsnight October 31 2012). The focus on the Westminster soap opera gives coverage a distinct Eurosceptic tinge. This is not due to journalistic or institutional bias, but because many stories involve conflict with Europe, and sourcing is primarily drawn from the two major parties, among whom Conservative Eurosceptics (along with UKIP) have been much more vocal in criticising the EU, than Labour or Conservative politicians have been at defending it.
If the BBC is to adhere to its own editorial guidelines and 'reflect all significant strands of opinion' then it ought to feature a wider range of voices from outside Westminster. It should also cover a broader range of stories on how the EU impacts British life. In addition, the BBC needs the freedom to critically scrutinize the claims of all parties in the referendum campaign – without fear or favour. This is not straightforward in an area where there are vocal lobbies who attack the BBC for alleged pro-EU bias, with such pressures being amplified by the context of Charter renewal, where the Corporation may feel particularly exposed.
The BBC needs more in-depth content like this programme, which explored practical implications in detail
In order to achieve these aims, coverage will need to override the traditional news values that structure EU reporting. These news values, which are amplified by the widespread perception amongst journalists that EU news is dry, complicated and of little interest to audiences, dictate that unless a story is highly negative, involves a major 'event', fits established themes (e.g. cost, sovereignty, immigration) or involves conflict between elite political actors, it is unlikely to be reported.
This would require a pro-active approach from the BBC. It could, for instance, run a series of stories in mass audience bulletins that examine in detail the various ways in which the UK is affected by its membership of the EU. These could go beyond economic cost-benefit analyses of membership and open up debate on a wide variety of issues such as the challenges of globalisation, data regulation, climate change, national security, employment protection, privatisation, trade and investment policy, tax avoidance and financial regulation. This would require a firm timetable and a commitment not to be sidelined by the daily news agenda.
With perhaps just over four months to the referendum, the public is currently hampered by an information deficit which threatens their ability to make an informed decision at the ballot box. The BBC is the only institution with the ability to fulfil this crucial educational role. If it doesn't take up the challenge, it is difficult to see who will.