When debating the role of broadcasters during the EU Referendum and its aftermath, my prediction has been that Brexit press cheerleaders like the Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Daily Express will become ever more strident once Theresa May has triggered Article 50.
Little did I know that within days, ultra-Brexiteers such as Iain Duncan Smith, John Redwood and Theresa Villiers would be adding their names to a parliamentary broadside about the anti-Brexit bias of the BBC’s coverage.
Timing was significant because it coincided with the final confirmation that the Prime Minister intended to trigger Article 50 on March 29, 2017;
The Brexiteers’ reasoning in putting the frighteners on the BBC could not have been clearer: they are determined to do all they can to undermine, if not curtail, any attempts by broadcasters to explain the full economic impact of the UK leaving the European single market and customs union.
Once negotiations with the EU are in full swing, and as more and more is revealed over the coming months about the hard choices that will have to be made, the Brexiteers know they will be at their most vulnerable.
Instead of being on the back foot, forced to justify the loss of opportunities and the threat to jobs, the ultras’ tactic will be to coerce the BBC back into the banality of the “balanced” regime that applied during the referendum campaign.
In place of facts and analysis, the Brexiteers will try to force to the BBC to return to the stopwatch regime of tit-for-tat soundbites that filled the airwaves in the weeks leading up to the vote on June 23, and that sadly became a substitute for the in depth reporting that was so badly needed.
Not surprisingly the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph gave front-page billing to the news that 70 MPs had put their signatures to the broadside against the BBC.
My contention that the Brexit press would return to the warpath with a vengeance was all too evident in their follow-up tirades against the broadcasters.
“BBC’s Brexit Bias Storm”, said the splash headline in the Daily Mail; “BBC warned over Brexit ‘bias’”, declared the Daily Telegraph.
Although the MPs had failed to provide examples to support their allegations of “skewed, anti-Brexit” coverage, the Daily Mail cited its own example, claiming that a discussion on the rural affairs programme Countryfile (19.3.2017) about the future prospects for seasonal horticultural workers amounted to “anti-Brexit propaganda.”
Rather than engage in the analysis that will be needed once the options are clearer for horticulture and agriculture – and other key the sectors such as the car and finance -- the Brexiteers hope that if the BBC is sufficiently cowed they will be allowed repeat their mantra, as espoused by Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that the country cannot fail to prosper in the “sunny uplands of a truly global Britain”.
The Brexit press now has a new weapon with which to bash the BBC – that its post-referendum coverage is “pessimistic and skewed” -- and their opening salvo is a taste of what is in store.
Tony Blair and Michael Heseltine have placed great faith in the British public perhaps being ready to think again about Brexit once they understand the full impact on the economy and the British way of life.
But if there is ever to be a rethink as the negotiations progress – and if MPs are to impose their authority and eventually take control of the Brexit process – there will need first to have been an informed debate, a prospect that is less likely if television and radio editors are forced to fall into line with the reportage of the pro-Tory newspapers and succumb to their headlines of a “booming” British economy.
Illustrations: Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, 21.3.2017