John Simpson is right, the BBC did let audiences down with its EU referendum coverage. But not in the way he thinks

BBC  editor John Simpson said that in its referendum coverage the BBC had “let our viewers and listeners down”. It did, but not in the way he thinks

By Sam White

BBC world affairs editor John Simpson said in an interview during the One Young World Summit on Sunday that in its pre-referendum coverage the BBC had “let our viewers and listeners down”.

According to the veteran broadcaster, the corporation, due to its obligation “to be balanced between different political ideas and different political viewpoints”, had allowed both Leave and Remain campaigners “to lie their heads off about… what might happen if we left or if we didn’t leave the EU”.

He went on, “if people looked to television and radio for a clear guidance about what to do, we certainly didn’t give them clear enough guidance about the lies that were being told. I suspect that if people had known the facts and had judged in a more balanced way the outcome would have been a bit different”.

This is a patronising analysis and shows that even now, more than a hundred days after the referendum result, there are still influential media figures proving themselves incapable of comprehending the thought processes of ordinary people.

The first problem is with Simpson’s rueful, “we let them down”. The implication is that something undeniably bad has happened, and that we are now lumbered with a national catastrophe. Regretful and distraught, the BBC must shoulder its fair shame of the blame for not averting disaster, and Simpson is a man with integrity enough to begin the flagellation.

The problem with this conclusion is that the majority of voters, obviously, won the referendum. They’re happy, the result is a good one, and the short lived notion of ‘Bregret’ was fabricated anyway. In the absence of a catastrophe—no matter how much some Remainers might be willing one—nobody can have been let down.

The second misapprehension is in saying that had the BBC done its job properly then the result would have been different. But if the BBC had held campaigners to account, fact checked, and reported without favour, then their coverage would have become much less biased toward Remain and more open to the Leave argument. The BBC has hardly been a bastion of impartiality around the subject of Europe, and remains very clearly pro-EU, evidenced in fact by this very interview.

So should it have done its job properly? Absolutely, and that would have meant cutting out the bias for Remain, leading to, if anything, even more people opting for Brexit.

However, that raises Simpson’s other conceit—that a significant number of voters make decisions at least partly based on what the BBC tells them. He condescendingly underestimates us to be a nation of children, whose empty minds are easily manipulated by the lofty-thinkers at the BBC. As mentioned though, the corporation was heavily biased in favour of Remain, and despite that, Leave still managed to take a majority. This is an emphatic sign that when making decisions, nobody gives a second thought to what the BBC might want them to do, and in the referendum an enormous number of people did the precise opposite of what BBC executives had implicitly instructed.

Simpson and others like him are operating under a strange delusion that millions of their fellow citizens are credulous naifs who have gone through their entire lives without noticing that people lie. He also seems to have forgotten that of all the professions, it’s journalists and politicians who are the least trusted by the public. When a journalist interviews a politician, most people’s default setting is to doubt every word they hear.

But Simpson is apparently unaware of this. Or perhaps he thinks the BBC is different. Sure, we might take the red tops with a pinch of salt, and everyone knows the Guardian has an agenda, but the Beeb is a paragon of journalistic virtue, isn’t it? Well, sorry as I am to shatter such illusions, the BBC is about as widely trusted as Michael Gove, and its values are openly at odds with a significant faction of the population.

Simpson is right to say that people have been let down by the BBC, but it’s not in the way that he thinks. If he could identify that audiences have become disillusioned by a lack of balanced reporting, or fatigued by an absurd barrage of unrealistic catastrophising, then he might be on to something.

Those at the top of the corporation have clear ideas about what’s good for people, and in the interests of bringing us up to their virtuous moral standards, they aren’t averse to impartially hectoring their audiences. The good news is, as Brexit showed, nobody is paying a blind bit of notice.


Sam White is a writer and journalist, follow him on Twitter: @SamWhiteTky

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty