Lord Puttnam has also spoken out against the BBC's interpretation of 'impartiality'. Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth / PA Images
There is now widespread agreement that the BBC failed the nation by botching its coverage of the referendum. Viewers and listeners seeking information were instead bombarded with contradictory and impenetrable claims and counter-claims. As a result, many ended up confused, frustrated and sometimes unsure how to cast their votes. BBC representatives have half-admitted that this was so, but have offered an excuse.
On 3 June, Radio Four’s Feedback addressed callers’ complaints that they were not being properly informed. BBC assistant political editor Norman Smith explained: “We are there to report what the main combatants in this referendum say, do, argue. I don’t think it’s up to us to, as it were, go awol and say well, fine, but we’re actually going to talk about this because we think that’s what voters are interested in.” Thus, according to him, the corporation’s job was not to assess the issues, but to transmit the utterances of campaigners and invite them to contradict each other's pronouncements. Throughout the campaign the BBC was indeed more concerned with balancing political messages than with providing explanation.
One effect of this approach was to draw politicians into making ever more extravagant and less well founded claims. It therefore actually reinforced both the opacity and the mendacity of the campaign. Attention had to be concentrated on the often trivial or diversionary assertions of campaigners instead of the real issues. Since neither side was prepared to concede any part of its case, argument was stuck in the foothills. Once it was apparent that Brexit would probably exact an economic price, it would have been fruitful to assess whether or not this price would be worth paying. Instead, we had to put up with endless pseudo-debate about whether a price would be payable at all.
Still, this outcome may indeed have been inevitable, as long as our effectively monopoly public broadcaster was going to insist that its overriding duty in public affairs coverage was to provide political “balance”. However, in spite of its protestations to the contrary, the BBC is not actually required to shackle itself to pairing off the voices of others; the concept of balance is an invention of the corporation itself.
The BBC's own guidelines say that it seeks to provide "a properly balanced service" and that it strives "to reflect a wide range of opinion and explore a range and conflict of views". Yet the Agreement which accompanies the BBC’s Charter and spells out its obligations does not contain the word “balance”. Instead, it requires “due impartiality”. What’s more, it also demands something else, namely that the BBC should increase "understanding of the world through accurate and impartial news, other information, and analysis of current events and ideas".
The referendum campaign demonstrated that the BBC's actual obligation to provide impartial analysis is in direct conflict with its spurious obligation to provide balance. It is perfectly possible to report and analyse impartially, without balancing truth with falsehood. In the past, public affairs programmes like ITV’s Weekend World, which were also required to observe "due impartiality", felt no obligation to present matters of fact through the prism of politicians' claims about them.
The BBC, on the other hand, uses the smokescreen of balance to duck out of its duty to inform. Why? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is out for as quiet a life as possible. Exposition of contentious matters would attract complaints from the politicians it disadvantaged. The BBC wants as few political enemies as possible, since it is Parliament which sets its licence fee. Yet its real duty is to tell the truth and face the consequences.
Now, it has been found out. There are some at the corporation’s apex who recognise that the time has come for it to change its ways. Doubtless, however, there are also others who want it to keep its head down. It is to be hoped that those who would put duty before short-term corporate convenience will prevail. Yet they may need the support of pressure from outside.
The new governance arrangements proposed in the government’s recent white paper will make Ofcom the BBC’s regulator. In theory, it will fall to Ofcom to enforce the obligation to provide the adequate impartial analysis of public affairs to which the Agreement commits the corporation. That will, however, require Ofcom’s functionaries to take it upon themselves to make the kind of qualitative judgments that the organisation has so far tried to avoid.
Up until now, Ofcom has preferred to base its judgments on what is easily quantifiable. Yet some of the regulatory bodies whose functions it subsumed did not shrink from making the subjective assessments when their function demanded it. Now, Ofcom may have to find the stomach to do likewise, if the BBC is to be kept from failing the nation again.