Equality or truth – what do we want from the Beeb?

Sir Bill Cash MP is one of Westminster’s most prominent old-school anti-Europeans. Last week, he once again led the European Scrutiny Committee in one of his favourite activities: accusing the BBC of institutional pro-European bias.

To be fair, the BBC’s director-general acquitted himself well under cross-examination:

Lord Hall said the duty to ensure balanced, impartial output “ran very deep within the organisation”. “You look to editors and others to ensure that you do that and I believe they do over time,” he said.

But he said there was not necessarily a “yes-no” answer when it came to public attitudes over how powers were shared between the European Union and member states and the debate was a “bit more complicated” than was being suggested.

“Our job is to ensure we are impartial and reflect all sides of an argument,” he said.

“There are those who might say ‘on this particular issue less integration and on this issue more integration’ and we have to make sure we are reflecting all those views across all of our output.”

Of course, that didn’t stop Sir Bill and comrades from indulging in a bit of rabble-rousing. Regular readers of this blog will know that pro-Europeans are equally exercised about the systemic anti-EU bias of the British media — sadly including, on many occasions, the BBC itself.

Now, I don’t envy the BBC’s job here. As any A-level media student will tell you, one man’s bias is another man’s balanced reporting. It’s not that there are people who want only one side of the argument expressed. It’s rather that nobody can agree what an “unbiased” report would look like, and everyone has their own opinion of which “facts” should be front and centre.

Just take a glance at any one of the discussion pages lurking behind Wikipedia articles on controversial topics. There are people who believe that every study of the evolution of insects should give equal weight to creationist stories; that every report on global geography should pay attention to flat-earth theorists; that every article on the hunt for extraterrestrial life should also air Area 51 conspiracy theories.

The problem is that, when it comes to the debate on Europe, crackpot beliefs like these are front and centre. We have rather too many politicians — and, yes, journalists — who are as happy to play fast and loose with hard facts as they are with eccentric opinions. Absurd claims about the percentage of UK law we agree in Europe are a case in point. Another is the often-repeated lie that migration is responsible for our struggling economy, and the suggestion that this somehow implicates EU migrants (when in fact most UK migration is from outside the EU, and the positive contribution of EU migrants is measurable and substantial). Yes, you can wilfully ignore the mountains of hard evidence that undermine your claim, and keep saying it anyway. But that doesn’t make it true.

This puts a would-be neutral observer such as the BBC in a difficult position. On the one hand, there’s the instinct to give equal weight to all points of view, which means giving plenty of airtime to the extreme anti-Europeans — the creationists of our political debate. On the other hand, somewhere deep down, there’s still the noble idea that the real job of journalists is to tell it like it is, to expose the differences between fact, opinion and fabrication.

Perhaps this helps the recent blossoming of independent fact-checking organisations such as FactCheckEU. If the Beeb has fallen for the misguided idea that “unbiased” means nothing more than “uncritical”… well, surely someone has to tell us the truth?

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