Magazine article The Spectator

Bias and the BBC: Nick Robinson vs Charles Moore

Magazine article The Spectator

Bias and the BBC: Nick Robinson vs Charles Moore

Article excerpt

Is it fair over Brexit and can it survive in the 21st century?

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. …

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