Last week, Nick Robinson wrote an article in the Radio Times saying Radio 4’s Today programme no longer has an obligation to balance its coverage of Brexit. This led to criticism from Charles Moore that he was, in effect, admitting to BBC bias. The two met for a discussion in The Spectator offices.
Nick Robinson: As you’re so fond of pointing out, Charles, most economists, business organisations, trade unions and FTSE 100 chief executives were Remainers. The BBC’s difficulty is that news tends to be about interviewing people in power: scrutinising them, asking tough questions. It’s right that we should go and look for other voices, look for critics. But what we shouldn’t do is treat everybody as if they fit into a Leave or Remain category, and seek to balance every discussion along those lines. That would be absurd.
Charles Moore: I see and accept that. However, I dispute that — in most of these cases — these people are being asked tough questions. One of the things picked up by News-watch [an organisation that monitors BBC bias] is the balance of such discussions. There’ll be four people on one side of an argument, for example, and one on the other.
Robinson: Well the establishment is largely — or was largely — pro-Remain. But there’s a second problem: it’s rational for public organisations and companies to be assessing risk and uncertainty. If you interview the head of the port in Dover, you would expect him — it happens to be a him — to be focusing on the challenges that might be posed by Brexit. So we’d hear his concerns about queues of lorries, and that they might be worse than anything we saw in that crisis a couple of years ago. Now, we should treat such claims with proper scepticism. And ask: ‘Why is he saying this? Might he have an ulterior motive? Does he want cash from the government?’ But what we can’t do is — every day — say: ‘Would Owen Paterson or Iain Duncan Smith or Dan Hannan like to come on to say this is all nonsense?’ And anyway, to put it crudely, what the hell would they know?
Moore: Yes that’s true, as far as it goes. But I question how far it does go. For example, News-watch also looked at academics and lawyers used in a variety of Radio 4 programmes. Eleven of them were Remain and none were Leave.
Robinson: But who are the most prominent leavers? Boris Johnson, who has never agreed to come on the Today programme. Liam Fox, who has never been on the Today programme.
Moore: Yes, but I’m not talking about politicians.
Robinson: Well, let’s talk about business people. The man who runs Next, Simon Wolfson, has not come on the Today programme.
Moore: Yes, but I’m talking about academics and lawyers. The British people voted for fundamental change. So, as well as perfectly legitimate questions about how bloody difficult it’s going to be — which it will be — there need to be some programmes that frame the opportunities. One thing that is said as a cliché by Remainers is that the nation state is dead. But who are the great powers in the world? The USA, China, Japan, Russia, India — all nation states. So why don’t we have a look at that as a serious proposition? It might make for a very good Radio 4 documentary: Does the nation state still thrive? And you might even discover — surprisingly, for the BBC — that it actually does.
Robinson: Well, there was a very good three-part series on Radio 4 called The English Fix looking at how writers like G.K. Chesterton defined the English character. It found people who were Leavers, who loved these writers and talked to them. There has been an effort — and I stress it needs to go much further than this — to say: ‘Well, let’s hear the voices that we perhaps didn’t hear from enough.’ The Today programme was broadcast from Stoke the other day; it came from Hull recently. This is a good thing. You’re right, we need to look for more historians, authors, poets and others who capture this sense of what the nation state is. We need to challenge, we need to scrutinise. But we can’t balance, in the strict sense of the word.
Moore: The BBC is very, very old-fashioned, hidebound by the idea of seeking the opinion of a pressure group. It thinks that there has to be an authentic, official spokesman for everything. Of course pressure groups feed on that, very cleverly, to promote their agenda. Then we have the BBC’s specialist journalists, who will tend to have the producer’s interest rather than the consumer’s interest at heart, because that’s how they get their contacts. For example, Clive Coleman [BBC legal correspondent] is very biased in favour of the Supreme Court because they are judges. Roger Harrabin [BBC environment analyst] is biased in favour of everybody green because he is a green maniac.
Robinson: I’d say that neither of them is biased! But look, Leave was, if you like, a popular uprising against lots of people in authority. If the BBC has had a problem over the decades, it is that we have tended to be a tad too unchallenging of conventional wisdom. But I do resent the suggestion there is a conspiracy at the BBC to do down a particular set of opinions. I hear such suggestions quite a lot. I could show you tweets and emails from people on all sides saying that I am anti-SNP, anti-Jeremy Corbyn, anti-Green, anti-Leavers. I get this every day. Now, I have worked in the commercial sector — in ITV — but if people had any idea of the vast amounts of time and energy we at the BBC put into how to get the balance right, I think they would be very surprised. Does that mean it is always right? God, no. I think your most powerful point is that the BBC needs constantly to say: are we even asking the right questions?
Moore: I do think that there are quite a few people in the BBC who are really desperate to keep us in the European Union. They sort of see it as their mission and adopt an ‘oh this is what civilisation’s all about’ sort of view.
Robinson: All I can say is that I saw no evidence of that, nor do I think the coverage produced any evidence of that. If anything, the people who were angry with the BBC’s coverage of the referendum campaign were the Remainers. The people who were knocking on the director--general’s door were the Peter Mandelsons and the Chris Pattens and the Gus O’Donnells. They weren’t Iain Duncan Smith, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or, indeed, Charles Moore.
Moore: No it was more in the aftermath, I think, because then you could feel the grief of the BBC.
Robinson: Well, I don’t think you could feel grief. And surely, going back to your issue of bias, it’s a little bit like arguing with the referee in football: you never complain that the referee is biased in favour of your team. You always think the referee is biased against your team, and broadcasters are always alleged to be biased against a team. Is the BBC pro-monarchy, Charles? The left think we’re pro-monarchy and that we shouldn’t be.
Moore: The BBC is not a referee, it is itself a team. It has a massive interest in playing for certain results, the most important of which is its own survival.
Robinson: Well, all organisations have a certain interest in their own survival. Of course they do.
Moore: But other businesses don’t get public money by law and they’re infinitely less important.
Robinson: No political party in this country has yet suggested that the BBC should not get public money. Now, under your organisational theory, we’d only have a partisan interest in backing one side or the other if one party were more or less hostile to the BBC. But they’re not!
Moore: They won’t be! They don’t dare. It’s as simple as that.
Moore: I read your Radio Times piece slightly differently from other people actually, because I wondered if you are more aware than the average BBC person of how a Conservative person might think. And knowing that mindset, perhaps you’re thinking: ‘Well, how should we change?’ So you are defending the BBC partly because you wish to change it. Is that right?
Robinson: Well, I was genuinely bored — and irritated — by the whingeing from both sides in the EU debate. That whingeing doesn’t encourage openness, nor the sort of discussion that you and I are having now. And there is a debate to be had. I once wrote a long chapter in a book about whether impartiality, as a concept, is sustainable in this new era. It is an artificial construct, a legal construct dating back to the 1930s. You could say: let’s get rid of it. But we see things done differently in other countries, particularly the United States. There, you have right-wing activists watching Fox and liberal activists watching MSNBC. The result? No shared facts about anything. They can’t have a proper political debate or dialogue, because nobody can even agree on what they are talking about. I’m not saying that there are no merits in the US approach: it offers freedom, and so on. But I think it is worse than our system. And that’s why I am rather aggressive in defending our system of impartiality.
Moore: Obviously if you have the current BBC’s setup, that’s what you must try to be. I mean both that you must morally, and that you must for your own survival. Other-wise you couldn’t endure. But maybe all that is being blown away. Maybe the American system — or lack of a system — gives a better reflection of the reality of the world. The BBC exists thanks to a poll tax which it is literally illegal to avoid. It is collected with a phenomenal ruthlessness, which, if it were not the BBC doing it, the BBC would itself expose. And we know that’s not going to last, because no young person now pays. In the modern world, media organisations are far more powerful than they used to be. And they ought to be challenged.
Robinson: Will you forgive me going back? I read a piece that you had written in which you were worried that Article 50 can be overturned. I can see why, after all your adult life having this argument, you would be concerned about that. But my worry is that we’ll kill this interesting period of political debate by some sort of desperate, banal tedium of broadcasting being, ‘And now campaign A will be countered by campaign B. Campaign A will say X and campaign B will say not X.’ If we do that for two years, then we will all want to jump into the Channel.
Moore: One way of not doing it would be for the BBC to be much, much bolder about the subject matter, so you can then have programmes which are much more fierce either way. The BBC might then not always present leaving the EU as almost impossibly difficult. It’s a fight all the way: the BBC is trying to throw up obstacles instead of looking ahead and asking: ‘How does the decision that the nation has made get enacted?’
Robinson: I not only disagree with but, frankly, resent the idea that the BBC is throwing up obstacles. The BBC didn’t take Brexit to the Supreme Court: people took it to the Supreme Court. When you edited the Daily Telegraph, you’d have sacked everybody who suggested: ‘Don’t cover that, cover Iain Duncan Smith’s latest press release.’ You cover the biggest story — which is, for example, that Brexit could have been derailed by a court case.
But a point you make really well — which I will take away — is that the system will keep throwing up potential problems, hurdles, call them what you will. Business uncertainty, legal cases, warnings from Europeans that this won’t be achieved in this or that negotiation — there is an endless supply of things that may sound like bad news, sour grapes or wishing for a different result. Now, I would say that they’re not. They’re generated by a real external process, not by the BBC, and we report on it. But we have to look for the range of voices, range of arguments and so on.
So my plea is: let’s not turn this debate into something dictated by 25-year-old PRs writing a ‘line to take’ to be read out by campaign spokesmen from either side. And end up stuck in that cycle for the next two years.
Moore: Well, we all say Amen to that. My little sign-off is that you’re going to have to change, because we are going to leave. And if the BBC is still the pro-Remain organisation, it won’t survive.
Robinson: Which it isn’t! And it will!