January 2019 newsletter – Robert Peston echoes RES complaint

Readers will recall that the Society questioned the BBC’s coverage of economic arguments during the EU referendum campaign by giving equal broadcast time to leavers while failing to point out that the vast majority of economists were agreed that leaving the EU would be costly. (The Newsletter covered this dispute in nos. 180, 179, 178, 175). It is worth noting therefore that Robert Peston, who spent nine years at the BBC as business and economics editor, made similar observations at the Cheltenham Literary Festival  in October last year.

‘The problem with the BBC, during the campaign, is that it put people on with diametrically opposed views and didn’t give their viewers and listeners any help in assessing which one was the loony and which one was the genius,’ he said. ‘I do think that they went through a period of just not being confident enough. Impartial journalism is not giving equal airtime to two people one of whom says the world is flat and the other one says the world is round. That is not balanced, impartial journalism.’

The Society’s complaint about the BBC’s approach was dismissed, as was a complaint to Ofcom about Peston's ‘bias’ brought by the Leave campaign.

At the moment, when the prospect of a second referendum is in the balance, it is worth noting Peston’s views last October. He said a second vote would bring huge dangers because it might not, again, be decisive. It could lead to the rise of ‘anti-democratic extremists’. ‘My biggest fear at the moment is that millions of people would simply take the view that our parliamentary democracy doesn’t work,’ he said.

He may well be right. Of course, leaving the EU and finding that it does not bring the expected benefits to those who voted for it might have a similar effect. That too is worrying.

From issue no. 184, January 2019, p.15