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False ‘balance’ a problem

MEDIA coverage of Brexit and the EU referendum was under scrutiny at the March London Freelance Branch meeting. Chris Frost, chair of the NUJ Ethics Council on which he has served for the past 40 years, presented its Brexit survey, the result of motions from several Branches. It was not intended to challenge the EU referendum result, but to learn lessons from media coverage of the referendum.

Hugo Dixon, Professor Chris Frost, Nicholas Jones; Hazel Dunlop

Left to right: Hugo Dixon, Professor Chris Frost, Nicholas Jones

It had 366 responses over two months ("not a bad number").About 30 per cent of responses were from freelances. Most respondents didn't feel they were asked to present the referendum in a particular way or be partisan. Pressures in broadcasting were of the "wanted good telly" variety - editorial preference for Farage and Johnson over think tanks or people who know what they're talking about seemed evident.

The requirement on broadcasting to "give balance" was reported as problematic by a "significant number" of members in broadcasting. They found they were interviewing a lot of people on either side who didn't know the issues, or found they presided over a rather unbalanced debate between a "really good expert versus someone hopeless."

The "most startling revelation", said Chris, was that 120 respondents (just under a third) felt aspects of the reporting of the referendum contributed to the post-Brexit rise in racism.

Many expressed dismay at the "£350 million a week for the NHS" argument being "constantly presented as true." Around a fifth said they'd felt obliged to focus not on issues but the battles ("usually more exciting than the issues").

Among newspaper titles, the Sun, Mail and Telegraph all came in for criticism from those who took the survey. Some reported "a climate of fear around challenging contributors," especially at the BBC, while many in newsrooms felt they lacked enough staff to cover the issues in detail. Chris pointed to polls just after the referendum showing that 78 per cent of those polled said they'd felt "uninformed" about issues around the vote.

LFB's own Nicholas Jones - a former BBC political correspondent who's made a study of Brexit coverage - described the Punch and Judy reporting of the EU referendum, adding that the "strict balance between Remain and Leave soundbites" was a "cop-out".

During the referendum, Leaver John Redwood MP responded to Nissan's announcement of a review of UK production by asking, "Are you saying the Germans won't want to sell us their cars?" Why didn't anyone ask the car industry? Where were the in-depth pieces about how many jobs were at risk if car manufacturers moved production of new models? Who interviewed finance people to ask how many jobs were at risk in the City of London?

Stories about Brexit "shrinkflation" impacting on Vauxhall at Luton and Ellsemere Port are only starting to emerge now, nine months later - stories "we had a duty to report." Were broadcasters afraid to seize the initiative, Nicholas asked.

Instead, he noted, we got "lazy vox pops" of people in shopping centres at 11am, "predominantly the retired and the unemployed" at that time of day. "Where were the 7.30 am vox pops of "younger folk on their way to work?"

For some years now, says Nicholas, "political balance" has been such a priority in broadcasting that journalists complain to him, "I can’t tell the story" because of "too much balance." The Leave campaign's Dominic Cummings was an expert in playing the broadcast balance system.

Hugo Dixon, who wrote for Reuters, founded Breakingviews and also the unashamedly pro-EU fact checking organisation In Facts, says the group’s role turned out to be more rebuttal than fact-checking during the EU referendum, including "rebutting some Remain stuff."

The "inadequate grilling" was particularly jaw-dropping on the Today programme, where Hugo cited Andrea Leadsom (8 March) and Gisela Stuart (11 April) both unchallenged over £50 million a week for the NHS, and Boris Johnson unchecked over "hundreds of billions a year" to the EU. Why the "lack of challenge?" A lot of presenters weren't on top of the detail themselves, says Hugo.

Hugo added that within Prime Minister David Cameron's pro- Europe campaign, run by Craig Oliver, it was "almost impossible" for spokespeople to get heard if they "didn’t sing from Downing Street hymn-sheets."

Pro-EU Financial Times editor Lionel Barber managed to get only a few minutes on Today. Even Gordon Brown struggled to get airtime.

There was "lots and lots" of bias in print media too. Six front-page Brexit stories were subsequently corrected. "Queen Backs Brexit" in the Sun had a front page "IPSO rules against the Sun's Queen headline" correction. Also subject to a (tiny) correction was "We’re from Europe, Let Us In" (attributed to lorry stowaways at a UK port by the Express, it was pointed out in the meeting that had the illegal immigrants discovered in the back of a lorry really been "from Europe", they could have presented their EU passports at the border rather than having to stow on board a lorry.) Then there was the story of how Abu Hamza "can’t be deported", also "EU seeks control of our coasts" and "Four in Five Jobs Go to Foreigners", these stories all got miniscule corrections elsewhere than the front page.

Since then there have been 15 Parliamentary Committee reports on Brexit. Hugo is "gobsmacked" that there has been almost no reporting on any of them.