The BBC and Brexit: An Exchange

Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Labour’s Brexit spokesman Sir Keir Starmer, and United Kingdom Independence Party leader Paul Nuttall during filming for the BBC’s current affairs program The Andrew Marr Show, London, December 4, 2016

In response to:

How the BBC Lost the Plot on Brexit,” July 12, 2018

To the Editor:

Nick Cohen acknowledges the BBC “follows the highest journalistic standards.” Were he to apply those standards to his own essay, he would find he has ignored a number of inconvenient facts.

Nick says our reporting of scandals surrounding the Brexit referendum “barely exists” and our coverage is “perfunctory.” That will come as a surprise to our audience, as we have reported on every aspect of the story over the past two years.

Take his main example, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica whistleblower story. When it broke, we covered it on our major news bulletins for eleven days in a row. Our Business, Economics, Media, and North America Editors and Technology Correspondent all reported on aspects of the story.

We also interviewed the whistleblowers themselves. Shahmir Sanni’s interview with Radio 4’s The World This Weekend was the lead story on the day his revelations were published and Chris Wylie was interviewed on two of our flagship programs, The Andrew Marr Show and Newsnight.

The most inconvenient facts concern our award-winning investigative program, Panorama—which, as Nick knows, does not shy away from hard-hitting journalism. Here, his account is misleading. 

Carole Cadwalladr has been widely recognized for her tenacious journalism and we were keen to work with her. She had been working with another broadcaster, coming to Panorama only at a much later stage. 

For Panorama to make a program, it needed to be confident of the underlying evidence behind the whistleblowers’ claims. Panorama asked for access to all the evidence, but that was not forthcoming. Limitations were placed on the BBC’s own investigation of the allegations and constraints on who we could approach. In short, we did not have the scope to make a program that met our standards of robust independent investigation in the time available.

Nick also claims the BBC is behaving as if the debate about Brexit is over, quoting presenter Nick Robinson to make his point. The article cited actually points out that the conclusion of the referendum campaign ended the legal obligation for balance between two rival campaigns, thus reducing the pressure on broadcasters for “false balance.”

The BBC does indeed occupy a unique position in world journalism—as the most trusted international broadcaster. That is why hundreds of millions of people worldwide turn to BBC News each week.

We do not expect our journalists to “say what they believe,” as Nick advocates. We ask them to report accurately, offer informed professional judgements and go wherever the evidence takes them.

This means our audience will sometimes hear views they don’t agree with, read facts that don’t support their own views, and see news stories which are outside their comfort zone. 

There can be few times in the BBC’s history when its journalism has mattered more. This is not an organization frightened of journalism, but committed to it. 

James Stephenson
News Editor
BBC News and Current Affairs


Nick Cohen replies:

It gives me the measure of the BBC’s James Stephenson that his response to my piece has an omission so glaring it left even this battered skeptic slack-jawed with amazement at how he thought he could get away with it. To ask a question on many American lips this week: What is going on with Russia? Did it slip Stephenson’s mind? Or is he too embarrassed to raise the BBC’s failure to cover the subject?

As I recounted in the original piece, leaked emails from Arron Banks, the insurance tycoon who, lest we forget, gave the largest donation in British political history to fund Leave.EU, had multiple meetings with the Russian embassy and was offered stakes in Russian gold mines. The emails were in the possession of Isabel Oakeshott, a “journalist” (I use the term broadly) working for a right-wing Tory tycoon. These emails ended up in the hands of Carole Cadwalladr at The Observer, who being a proper journalist, published them. Prima facie evidence of the interest of a hostile foreign power in the British democratic process is, by any reasonable standard, news. Unless, that is, a news organization’s judgment is stymied by a fear of the consequences of pursuing the truth.

The BBC’s response encapsulates everything that is wrong with the corporation. I said it was frightened of journalism precisely because it could not treat evidence of Russian involvement as news. Instead, it treated  the emails as mere talking points, the excuse for a catfight, and for the BBC to play out another round in the culture wars.


It invited Cadwalladr and Oakeshott to slug it out on the Today program. That was it. No investigation. No exposure of the emails’ contents to Today’s audience. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that real journalists do not behave like this. They investigate and let the facts speak for themselves—unless that is, they have a policeman in the head whispering “back away, this is too contentious, this is too political, our bosses won’t like it.” As it is, The Guardian and The Observer, the Financial Times and The Sunday Times (which supported Brexit, incidentally, but knows a story when it sees one) are investigating. Yet, every morning, I turn on the Today program to find its journalists still haven’t plucked up the courage to tell people what they don’t want to hear.

Britain now has three Electoral Commission inquiries into the financing of the Leave campaign and one police inquiry. Meanwhile, our Information Commissioner is liaising with the FBI.     

While the BBC provides adequate coverage of the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in American politics, it barely notices the British connection. Perhaps the BBC would be happier if it were an American rather than a British broadcaster; its American coverage is in every way superior.

To turn to the subjects Stephenson is prepared to discuss. His account is—how to put this without using strong language?—disingenuous and self-serving. Stephenson glides too quickly and too easily over Panorama’s passing up the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story, one of the scoops of the year. As I said above, turning away exclusives is not what journalists do. We want to be first. It’s how we keep score.

Stephenson writes: “Panorama asked for access to all evidence but that was not forthcoming.” I spoke to Cadwalladr, who said the BBC was offered access to all the evidence The Observer and The New York Times possessed, along with eminent lawyers to take its journalists through it. I then double-checked and spoke to witnesses who were present at the meeting between the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower and the BBC. They confirmed Cadwalladr’s account.

Stephenson continues: “When it broke, we covered it on our major news bulletins for eleven days in a row.” This is not how I or, indeed, Cadwalladr remembers it. Cadwalladr said: “I contacted the weekend editors of the BBC to tell them the story was coming. In the Cambridge Analytica case, there was one small piece on the web on the Sunday and then the story was ignored by the main bulletins for forty-eight hours.” As for the second leak from Shahmir Sanni on breaches of electoral law by the Leave campaign (a brave act of whistleblowing that has been vindicated by our Electoral Commission, which announced today that Vote Leave did indeed break the law), to the best of Cadwalladr’s recollection and mine, it was not covered by the main bulletins.

Stephenson says I misunderstood Nick Robinson’s remarks about Brexit being over and the demands for balance vanishing. Robinson was just arguing that the constraints of the referendum campaign ended when the campaign ended. Perhaps my phrasing was clumsy, but if Stephenson reads my piece again, he will see that I quote Robinson at the end of the section about the failure of the BBC to balance its coverage by holding the politicians who brought us Brexit to account.

I am not talking about a failure of investigative journalism here, but of basic journalism. US readers who doubt me should contact their friends in the UK and ask them how many times they have heard BBC interviewers balance their broadcasts by pounding the politicians who promised there would be no trouble with the Irish border, a bonanza for the NHS, and that the Brexit deal would be “the easiest in history.” I would be interested in their answers. I may have missed something, but I am damned if I can remember the BBC doing so at all. In this context, Robinson’s statement about the need for balance being over was all-too prophetic.

I am not alleging a conspiracy. The BBC journalists I speak to talk of something less sinister but more pervasive: a fear of the consequences of honest reporting. The BBC has let Britain down because it fears being seen to question the people’s verdict. Fear is killing the BBC’s journalism, as it kills all journalism, which in the end depends on editors giving reporters the freedom to follow a story wherever it may lead and whatever the consequences. 

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