The BBC has issued a written defence of its Brexit coverage after columnist Nick Cohen accused the corporation of “journalistic cowardice” in its reporting of the EU Referendum and its aftermath.
Cohen said the BBC’s “celebrity presenters” had failed to ask the “hard questions” of the Leave campaign. “The BBC’s reporting of the scandals around the Brexit referendum is not biased or unbalanced: it barely exists,” Cohen wrote in the New York Review of Books.
In response, James Stephenson, news editor at BBC News, has written a letter to the publication, saying the BBC had “reported on every aspect of the [Brexit] story over the past two years.”
He added: “There can be few times in the BBC’s history when its journalism has mattered more. This is not an organisation frightened of journalism, but committed to it.”
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Cohen quoted Today programme presenter Nick Robinson as having said there is no longer a need to “broadly balance” Leave and Remain claims, “because there are no longer two sides” after the country voted by 52 per cent to 48 per cent to leave the European Union in June 2016.
Said Cohen: “Real journalists should be able to see that everything is wrong with his statement. If Brexit were over, Britain would not be in a rolling crisis with no end in sight.
“As pertinently, journalists should never assume a subject has become off-limits, because that is what the enemies of free expression demand.”
Cohen also praised his Observer colleague Carole Cadwalladr who broke the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting story, exposing the use of Facebook users’ data in potentially influencing election outcomes, earlier this year.
As a result of her reporting, the UK-based CA is facing a £500,000 fine from the Information Commissioner’s Office and Vote Leave has today been accused of breaking election laws by exceeding spending limits and working jointly with a separate campaign group.
“She is everything BBC journalists are not,” said Cohen.
He said the BBC was given the opportunity to interview CA whistleblower Christopher Wylie “and have a documentary ready to go once the news was out”, but said the BBC’s flagship investigative programme “backed away” after claiming they didn’t have enough evidence to turn the story around in three weeks.
In response, Stephenson said Panorama had “asked for access to all the evidence, but that was not forthcoming”.
He added: “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 programme which met our standards of robust independent investigation in the time available.”
But Cadwalladr and Cohen have both claimed BBC Panorama were given the same access to evidence as the Observer and New York Times had to prepare their reports. Press Gazette understands the BBC stands by its statement.
Cohen said: “There have been three huge stories the BBC has covered with only the most perfunctory reports: the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data leak, the Brexit campaign funding scandal, and the exposure of Russian interference in British politics.”
Cohen’s article, headlined: “How the BBC lost the plot on Brexit” and published on Thursday last week, was lauded by current and former Fleet Street editors who shared it on Twitter.
Ex Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said: “Another piece – angry and excellent – questioning the BBC, ‘impartiality’ and Brexit.” FT editor Lionel Barber said: “Every self-respecting journalist should read this and take note.”
In response to Cohen’s claims, the BBC’s Stephenson said the writer had “ignored a number of inconvenient facts”.
He said: “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 programmes, The Andrew Marr Show and Newsnight.
“The most inconvenient facts concern our award-winning investigative programme, Panorama – which, as Nick knows, does not shy away from hard-hitting journalism. Here his account is misleading.
“Carole Cadwalladr has been widely recognised 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 programme, 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 programme which 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 organisation frightened of journalism, but committed to it.”
Picture: Reuters/Toby Melville