The BBC has not breached due impartiality rules with its news and current affairs coverage of Brexit on Radio 4, Ofcom has ruled.
A cross-party group of nine Leave-supporting MPs and peers complained to the BBC in May last year that a number of Radio 4 programmes “had failed to sufficiently represent the views of those supporting the UK’s exit from the EU”.
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They claimed the programmes had therefore breached the due impartiality requirements in Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code.
The BBC rejected the complaint on the grounds that the corporation’s rules did not mean it was required to give equal airtime to those for and against Brexit, especially “since the political context had moved on since the EU referendum”.
Unhappy with the BBC’s response, the complainants – including UKIP peer Malcolm Pearson, Labour MP Kate Hoey, DUP MP Ian Paisley and Conservative MP William Cash – submitted a complaint to Ofcom in July.
They referenced three surveys conducted by News-watch, a group which monitors impartiality at public service broadcasters and whose managing director David Keighley, a former BBC journalist, also put his name to the complaint.
The surveys examined BBC Radio 4 Today’s coverage of the fifth round of Brexit negotiations with the EU in October and November 2017, five episodes of the documentary series Brexit: A Guide for the Perplexed, which aired in February 2018, and a special day of Brexit programming on Radio 4 on 29 March 2018 which marked one year until Britain leaves the EU.
Programmes featured in the 29 March coverage, dubbed Britain at the Crossroads, included news and current affairs programmes Today, The World At One, The World Tonight, and documentaries The Brexit Lab, and The EU After Brexit, among others.
The complainants claimed the surveys showed “positive, pro-Brexit opinion is being systematically under-represented in BBC output” and that “more time, space and emphasis is being given to pro-EU or anti-Brexit voices”.
They claimed this amounted to a “clear breach of the core charter and public purposes requirements related to impartiality” for broadcasters.
Ofcom assessed all of the Brexit: A Guide for the Perplexed and Britain at the Crossroads programming, plus 12 of the 24 Today programmes mentioned in the complaint.
The broadcast regulator took into account that the programmes were all broadcast “some time” after the June 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
Ofcom said: “The public debate had therefore developed from a discussion of a binary question – whether the UK should ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ in the EU – into a much more complex and nuanced discussion comprising many different viewpoints on the form that the UK’s exit from the EU should take, and the potential implications on a range of different areas.
“In Ofcom’s view, it was likely that the audience of the programmes assessed would have expected the discussion of Brexit-related issues to reflect a range of different viewpoints on the UK’s exit from the EU and its implications, and how the public debate on these issues shifted and developed over time.”
This reflects the BBC’s position revealed last year when it said it was no longer reporting on “the binary choice which faced the electorate in the referendum” but instead examining ongoing Brexit negotiations “and the impact of Brexit on the UK and the wider world”.
Ofcom found that a range of alternative viewpoints on Brexit had been included in each of the programmes it assessed.
The regulator also said the BBC had used a number of editorial techniques to ensure these alternative viewpoints were heard, preserving due impartiality.
These techniques included vox pops with members of the public, interviews with politicians with differing views on Brexit, presenters challenging guests and putting forward alternative views, international viewpoints, newspaper reviews discussing both pro and anti-Brexit titles, and specialist correspondents providing additional information, analysis and context.
The regulator said: “Having taken into account the broadcaster’s and audience’s rights to freedom of expression, and all relevant contextual factors and editorial techniques as set out above, Ofcom considered that alternative viewpoints on the issues relating to the UK’s exit from the EU were sufficiently represented in each of the programmes (or series of clearly linked programmes) assessed.
“Ofcom therefore did not consider that the programmes raised potentially substantive issues warranting further investigation under the Code.”