4th Apr, 17
Today Programme presenter Nick Robinson has written a piece in the Radio Times in which he claims the BBC no longer has an over-riding duty to be “balanced” when covering Brexit-related stories.
To be fair to Nick, who is a fine journalist, he is not saying the BBC should be as biased as it likes, but just that it should get on with reporting Brexit news without worrying about accusations of bias. Thus it should not always have to hunt around for an upbeat story to balance a downbeat one or vice versa, is his argument.
I don’t really take issue with that but where I do take issue with him is in his underlying assumption that the BBC has no problem with systematic bias on political issues.
Because quite clearly it does and being its own most lenient critic is not a sensible way for it to react when presented with evidence about that.
As Andrew Marr once confessed, the BBC has a “cultural, liberal bias”. It recruits people predominantly from middle class, metropolitan liberal-left backgrounds and many of those people tend to think alike. According to the columnist Rod Liddle, a former Today Programme editor, only one person working on the entire staff of Newsnight was thought to have voted Leave in the referendum.
I well remember this cultural liberal bias meaning the BBC was incredibly slow to give due credence to discussions about the downsides of mass immigration in the first decade of this century, even though opinion polls repeatedly showed that most of its licence fee payers thought immigration was far too high.
The Corporation also marginalised campaigners for Brexit almost totally until David Cameron announced in January 2013 that he would hold an In/Out referendum if returned to power in 2015. Advocates of leaving the EU were almost never heard on programmes like Today before that.
I had already been running the Daily Express campaign to get us out of the EU for more than two years by that stage and despite attracting hundreds of thousands of backers and witnessing the rise of UKIP at parliamentary by-elections, the BBC treated us Brexiteers like lepers.
Looking back at what a powerful current of opinion we clearly represented, I wonder whether Nick and other senior BBC bods might reflect that this was another story they were very slow to pick up on and offer an explanation as to why?
This very morning I watched BBC World make its top business story the ludicrous claim by an airline boss known for hyperbole that there was a prospect of flights between Britain and Europe being suspended after Brexit. If this is reporting the “news” on Brexit then it suggests either very strange editorial judgment is at work or very lazy journalists who cannot be bothered to find proper stories.
Now, I fully accept that I am biased about Brexit. I was as a campaigning journalist on the Daily Express and I am as a UKIP MEP. I am allowed to be biased. Indeed, I am supposed to be biased - I was elected on a mandate of getting Britain out of the EU.
The BBC, on the other hand, is supposed to be impartial. It is funded by a compulsory television tax paid for under penalty of law by every household with a set.
And yet, partly because we live in particularly divided times, the cultural liberal bias that the BBC continues to exhibit is becoming more objectionable to more voters all the time.
I notice this in my own postbag and my own social media interactions - both with UKIP party members and with a much wider array of people. There is a growing perception that BBC news and current affairs coverage is biased on a host of issues: from penal policy, to reporting the activities of the US President, from Brexit to immigration policy and concerns about radical Islam too.
The best response to this is not to grandly assert that detractors are invariably wrong but to understand the danger that a crisis of legitimacy is approaching. A BBC that may well be pretty representative of zone 1 and 2 London households may nonetheless be insufficiently representative of the country as a whole.
A few years ago, I would certainly not given much credence to the case for abolishing the licence fee. But such is the alienation of a large and growing portion of the viewing and listening public with the BBC that it is becoming increasingly hard to justify a system that forces them to pay for it.