BBC chiefs dismiss call to use election guidelines in reporting Brexit negotiations, letters reveal

BBC chiefs have dismissed calls for the corporation to report Brexit negotiations using the same editorial standards as it adopts during an election, which put increased scrutiny on impartiality.

The suggestion appears to have been made by Lord Malcolm Pearson and a cohort of Eurosceptic parliamentarians who met with BBC news director James Harding last month.

It follows an open letter signed by 70 MPs that accused the BBC of being “unable to break out of pre-referendum pessimism and accept new facts” regarding Brexit, which was published in March.

In separate letters to Lord Pearson, acquired by The Sun this week, both Harding and BBC chairman David Clementi said they did not think adopting special guidelines for reporting Brexit was the “right thing to do”.

Harding said: “You suggested that we should consider particular Brexit negotiation guidelines for our editorial teams given the importance of the negotiations. I have considered the idea and do not think that is the right thing to do.

“The Brexit negotiations are not an election or a referendum. Our coverage of the process is held to the same standard as our reporting on all other areas of politics and Government business.

“The BBC’s editorial guidelines, as they stand, set those standards, articulating our clear commitments to accuracy, impartiality, diversity of opinion and fair treatment of people in the news. These are the values we will bring to our reporting in the months ahead.”

Clementi added: “The specific point you raise with me is whether the BBC should apply the editorial guidelines which operate during an election or a referendum. Having consulted with colleagues, I do not think this is the right thing to do.

“An election or referendum is characterised by a finite period of debate, at the end of which the electorate must make a choice. This is not the position in respect of the current Brexit discussions, and I do not believe you and your colleagues are arguing for a second referendum.”

Clementi, who became head of the BBC Board in January, said it was “vital” that BBC news coverage of Brexit was seen to be “free of political interference wherever it comes from”.

He declined to meet with Lord Pearson and his “colleagues” on the issue of Brexit impartiality, but added: “I am sure you will continue to make your concerns known to senior managers in BBC News.

“In turn, I can assure you that impartiality, accuracy and independence will remain fundamental principles which will drive my work and that of the board.”

In his letter to Lord Pearson, Harding said: “We are always keen to be alive to and reflect upon criticism [at the BBC]. We accept the need to make the distinction between the EU and Europe.

“We will be reporting on many of the areas mentioned in your memo, including the strengths of the UK’s position, the costs and benefits of immigration, the range of business opinion and a rounded view of the performance of the economy. And, of course, we are committed to reporting views on Brexit from across the EU.”

He added: “I mentioned in our meeting the importance of the editorial independence of the BBC. Our aim is to provide full and accurate news led by the professional judgment of experienced correspondents and editors.

“I am always happy to meet and discuss our coverage with politicians, but I want to underline that our job is not to be pushed or pulled by one political interest or another. It is to serve our audiences.

“We can certainly agree that there has not been a more interesting or important time to do that.”

Under current BBC election guidelines, bids for interviews or proposals to profile UK party leaders must be referred to the Chief Adviser Politics.

Picture: Reuters/Neil Hall

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