Regulated equivocation: the referendum on radio


Prof Guy Starkey

Associate Dean, Global Engagement in the Faculty of Media and Communication at Bournemouth University.

He has written extensively on various aspects of radio and journalism. Previously he was a radio producer and presenter and a magazine journalist. His books include Radio Journalism (with Andrew Crisell, Sage 2009) and Balance and Bias in Journalism: Regulation, Representation and Democracy (Palgrave Macmillan 2006).



EU Referendum Analysis 2016 - section 3

Section 2: Politics

Under normal circumstances, one of the great virtues of broadcasting in the United Kingdom is the way in which it is closely regulated. This has been true of both the public and private sectors since their inception. In the case of the BBC, upon incorporation in 1927 under the first of a long series of Royal Charters, it was to be a public service – one which would rarely depart from a core principle of impartiality.

We believe this regulated equivocation may well have encouraged the undecided in believing that the decision facing them was a simple choice between binary opposites of little real consequence for the UK, when in fact the period immediately after the vote supported many of the economic claims of Remain.

The arrival of a licensed commercial radio sector in 1973 meant an expanded regulatory body, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), assumed the power to ensure that commercial radio should also be impartial over matters of politics and other public controversy. Relaxation of the regulation of private-sector radio with the passing of subsequent legislation and the replacement of the IBA with firstly the Radio Authority and then in 2003 Ofcom, did bring about successive changes over rules on ownership and the general nature of programming, but here, too, the core principle of impartiality still lies at the heart of commercial radio.

As is the case with television broadcasting in the UK, regulation over impartiality at least means that radio is free from the kind of crass partisanship we have witnessed over Europe in the press. While some newspaper titles owned by Rupert Murdoch and other press owners lost little time in promoting the case for Brexit, continuing a long tradition of printing mainly negative and even ridiculously exaggerated or even fabricated stories about the European Union, Sky was also bound by the regulation in force to be impartial, despite the influence of Mr Murdoch over the conduct of most of its business. Conversely, any streamed services which might be described as television or radio but which are not broadcast are, of course, exempt from content regulation, but compared to mainstream broadcasting services their audiences tend to be relatively small.

What this close regulation of broadcasting meant for radio’s coverage of the referendum is clear. Impartiality meant the various arguments of both the Remain and Leave camps were widely treated equivocally, irrespective of their own merit. Shortly before the referendum campaign began in earnest, Ofcom published an advisory statement, clarifying how the standing provisions of its Broadcasting Code should be interpreted by licensees in the context of the referendum. The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines were also clarified for the benefit of its own producers, reports and presenters. There can have been few experienced contributors to UK broadcasting who did not already realise that the referendum was to be one of those subjects over which the utmost professionalism – namely impartiality – was to be required, but both the BBC and Ofcom intended there to be little room for doubt.

We sampled a number of radio broadcasts of different kinds, with the intention of presenting our findings at a forthcoming conference and providing some empirical and qualitative evidence for a forthcoming book. There was no intention, and neither were resources available, to analyse every broadcast on every regulated radio station in the UK, in order to establish to what extent the rules were adhered to or broken. By monitoring a range of news bulletins, discussion programmes and magazine programmes, we were nonetheless able to identify general trends and form some conclusions about the nature of the referendum coverage on radio and its possible effects.

There were some exceptions to what we found generally to be strict adherence to the impartiality requirement. In the commercial sector, some presenters announced their own voting intention – for example Julia Hartley-Brewer, who began an interview on Talk Radio with UKIP leader Nigel Farage by noting their common cause in supporting Brexit, but adding that she would nonetheless be asking him some tough questions. Generally, though, on both the BBC and commercial radio, every point made by or for the Remain campaign was countered by a ‘balancing’ point – often of almost exactly the same duration – in either the same bulletin or one shortly afterwards for the Brexiters, as is stipulated by the impartiality regulation.

Unfortunately for the Remain campaign, this balancing act meant however many economic experts, world leaders, business people or celebrities they produced to support their case, the manufactured ‘balancing’ riposte tended to consist of one of the Brexit supporters dismissing that case, usually without any further substantiation. Some presenters, notably on Radio 4’s Today and PM programmes did occasionally attempt to challenge unfounded or misleading assertions, but there was little attempt to evaluate the claims of either side or to point out that Remain had the support of the vast majority of economic experts.  Often the BBC referred listeners to a ‘fact checking’ service online, but its findings were rarely broadcast.

We believe this regulated equivocation may well have encouraged the undecided in believing that the decision facing them was a simple choice between binary opposites of little real consequence for the UK, when in fact the period immediately after the vote supported many of the economic claims of Remain. This equivocation reminded us of that adopted in the early 2000s, when the public debate over the safety of the MMR vaccination was also treated as a simple ‘take it or leave it’ choice by many broadcasters, only for the widely disputed claims by one individual that MMR was unsafe to be subsequently disproven by a large body medical evidence. We hope the decision taken over Brexit does not subsequently prove to be as potentially disastrous.