The Referendum: a Media Note

Looking back over the course of the referendum, Adam Somerset is surprised to give the BBC’s coverage an eight out of ten.

The instant book will be out and on the booksellers’ shelves by the third week of July. The inquests will be long and deep. The cultural aspects of the campaign have been passed by in the heat and fervour of the moment. 2016 has been in at least one aspect a historic year for the media of Britain.

Bile is the bread and butter of the blog and the broadsheet comments. But the language of the columnists has a dignity and pungency that is token of their professional status. All argumentation is tendentious and selective and there is many a way to make a response to ambiguous content. “Misleading” is useful. Not so in the spring of 2016. The word “lie” has become one of common usage, for the first time that I can recall in decades of vote-watching. Ed Conway used it in the Times of 10th June, Peter Preston the same in the Observer that weekend, Anthony Hilton in the Evening Standard of 15th June and Bagehot in the Economist of 18th June.

The article by Peter Preston, an emeritus grandee in the Guardian Media Group, also hit a historic note. It critiqued the very foundation of the editorial duty of public broadcasting. It is not the first occasion that the concept of balance has come under assault. Climate change and disputed vaccinations have both been critiqued in that editors have been obliged to match statement with contradiction, in face of the density of scientific publication. The Preston article followed this vein. On the one hand the main news implored “send us your questions.” But, said Preston, this had only one result. Any statement was wedded to an instant rebuttal, both parts lacking in editorial scrutiny as to truth.

Preston is correct in his viewing of the main news.  But the BBC is not a single programme. This writer is not an autopilot cheer-leader for the public broadcaster of the Toynbee-Hutton kind. Indeed its Wales’ section gives the impression for much of the time of being an organisation lacking in self-confidence. But the role of the BBC has been of consistent merit for the last few months. It may have abandoned drama but it can do the nation’s, or nations’, affairs when it has a mind to. Most of all it has demonstrated the advantage of audio, or as it used to be known, radio.

The philosophical tradition of Britain is Empiricism, knowledge deriving from direct experience. Public Britain does not do philosophy, except to laugh at the length of A C Grayling’s hair. In France Henri Levy-Bruhl would have dominated. In Germany the debate would have been sunk in density of reference to Kant and Fichte. In Britain it is a game of Eton Fives. Scrape away the surface and the EU is a straightforward and invigorating grapple between Locke, Hegel and Descartes.

The Remainers are much of a voice, the message insistent. The secessionists are a five-strand coalition. The BBC has worked hard to seek out these disparate voices. Thus Martha Kearney spoke at length to Patrick Minford of Cardiff University. His vision, not shared by many Out-er economists, would, he admitted, take fifteen years to come about. It would also entail the near complete de-industrialisation of Britain. The more centrist economist Andrew Lilico stated that secession would have no impact on immigration.  

Newsnight has messed about a bit but has more often scored than missed. An interview with Nicola Sturgeon was a piece of pointless nonsense with the interviewer spinning various future hypotheses. But the editors made the effort to go and speak to Lord Hill. Trade deals have been the most bandied about and scandalously unscrutinised aspect of the rancour. Hill is a primary source. He spoke of an occasion where Britain and the USA both wanted a result. One sticking point took two years to get past. Pascal Lamy, WTO grandee, wiped the floor with his opponent, a British minister.  “Trade negotiations are not about love” he declared.

Most of all the broadcaster has shown that a quiet but steady and forthright pursuit can break the deadlock of claim and counter-claim. Tim Harford went with a scalpel through the veracity of the claims on the laws, the voting record, the economic projections. Evan Davies hosted a business programme where two manufacturers were at each others’ throats. It turned out to be the same old division, old versus young. The younger entrepreneur was incredulous when her opponent eventually could find nothing better to complain about other than that the office chairs on which they were seated had five legs.  

Most of all civility has been allowed. The most noble strand of the Out-ers is that of the Frank Field-Gisela Stuart faction. Gisela Stuart was on the radio at length along with Pat McFadden. Their views were totally opposed, but their respect for the process and mutual courtesy equally total. The public noise has been dispiriting. It has violated every principle of a great Conservative, Edmund Burke. It is true that not many a voice will have been listening to Hill, Lamy, McFadden or Harford. But I have felt privileged to be in a place where the BBC can exist. That does not mean a blanket thumbs up.  The Wark interviews usually grate- and “the Night Manager” is still high-cost gloss, with a script editing team who would never get a job in France or Denmark.

Adam Somerset is a Critic.

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