London Despatches International

BBC, caught in the Brexit crossfire

Being a public broadcaster, with responsibilities to present as many sides of a story as possible, can be a challenge for any media organisation, but is particularly tricky when it comes to divisive, highly-charged issues such as Brexit. Over the past year, the BBC, which operates by Royal Charter, and is meant to “provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them”, has faced constant criticism domestically over its coverage of Brexit.

The most recent attacks followed the airing of debate show ‘Question Time’, which brings together panellists from a range of backgrounds. Its recent episode, focussing on “Britain after Brexit”, courted criticism as it included a representative of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), one of the political parties that championed exiting the EU. The UKIP, as of last weekend, had no seat in Parliament after its only MP, Douglas Carswell, announced that he would be quitting the party to become an independent MP.

Viewers, and politicians — including Labour Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott — questioned why, despite its limited political success, the party had been given such significant airtime on an influential show. A recent analysis conducted by The Huffington Post U.K. was cited, which found that the UKIP had appeared on around a quarter of the over 250 ‘Question Time’ programmes since 2010, while the Green Party (which also has one MP) had appeared in just 7%. It’s not the first controversy the programme has faced since the referendum. Last year, questions surfaced about the political leanings of a producer responsible for identifying audience for the programmes, with some suggesting that she was excessively focussed on bringing in far-right political groups.

For or against?

Over the weekend, the BBC also faced criticism over its coverage of a pro-European march. Many complained that the march was given a low priority on news updates, despite the 1,00,000 or so attendees estimated by police. “Is the BBC under political pressure to play down massive anti-#Brexit movement in the U.K.? You bet it is. The Downing St. stench grows. Be angry,” tweeted philosopher and writer A.C. Grayling.

Ironically, the BBC has been the subject of criticism from the other side too. Last week, a group of 72 MPs, mainly from the Conservative Party, wrote an open letter to Tony Hall, director general of the BBC, accusing the organisation of being “too pessimistic” in its coverage of Brexit by focussing on “regretful” leave voters, despite the lack of polling evidence suggesting that people were changing their mind in a systematic way.

Separately, a public petition on Parliament’s website, calling for the BBC’s charter to be revoked because of its ‘Pro-EU stance’, has gained 13,000 signatories. In a speech last year, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had described the BBC as “shamelessly anti-Brexit”.

The BBC is, of course, no stranger to controversy. In the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, it was accused of being overtly in favour of remaining in the union, while past criticisms have ranged from its coverage of protests against the Iraq war to its reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (from both camps). However, there are many who continue to value its work. A referendum on political activism group 38 Degrees’ website, calling for the BBC’s independence to be protected, has attracted over 3,00,000 signatures. The accusations of bias from opposing sides in many debates suggest that it may just be succeeding in maintaining that much-valued independence.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 7:46:48 AM |

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