While Vote Leave has been found to have broken the law, attention has shifted to the baffling behaviour of the BBC in its approach to the story of referendum campaign overspending. And once again, the Corporation has come up woefully short in its response. The tone-deafness was thrown into sharp focus by the Beeb’s response to criticism from the Observer columnist Nick Cohen.
Laura Kuenssberg - questions continue
Cohen had written a piece for the New York Review of Books in which he accused the Corporation of “losing the plot” on Brexit, and specifically declining an opportunity to run a Panorama special on the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal. As he has told, “When news broke that Cambridge Analytica had collected identifying personal information for some 87 million Facebook users, Facebook stock fell by $134 billion”.
Carole Cadwalladr - ignored and shouted down
But then “the BBC’s investigative program Panorama backed away. There was no ‘smoking gun,’ it said. Within days, the smoke from Facebook’s burning reputation was billowing from its Palo Alto headquarters”. Worse, “The pattern repeated itself with Shahmir Sanni from the Vote Leave campaign … Once again, the BBC did not want the scoop. ‘We don’t have enough evidence to turn this around in three weeks,’ a Panorama bureaucrat wrote to [Carole] Cadwalladr”. Apparent cowardice.
Isabel Oakeshott - allowed to to the shouting down
It was the same when Ms Cadwalladr revealed all those meetings between those involved in the Leave EU campaign and the Russian ambassador: “All the Today program would do was try to set up a staged confrontation between Cadwalladr and a propagandist for Brexit. It would not report on the emails as news; nor did it use its vast resources, hundreds of times larger than those of The Observer, to investigate”.
At this point, the BBC decided to issue a statement attempting to refute Cohen’s accusations; this was endorsed enthusiastically by presenters and others, lauded as an excellent response to inconvenient thought. But the rebuttal’s key point has already run into trouble. This concerns the aborted Panorama broadcast.
The BBC Press Office has claimed “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”.
Peter Jukes of Byline Media, who has worked with Ms Cadwalladr recently, was unimpressed. “As I understand it, @BBCPanorama was given access to all the evidence that led to the @ElectoralCommUK report today on @vote_leave - and yet you cancelled the programme. There should be an internal inquiry into this at the BBC. In some ways it's as significant as #Savile”.
Worse, the way in which the Corporation’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg took Vote Leave’s briefings - presumably by Matthew Elliott - without even seeking comment from Ms Cadwalladr or either of the whistleblowers is once again generating disquiet, with Jolyon Maugham asking “Why did the BBC twice give Vote Leave a basically unchallenged platform to smear the finding it broke the law and cheated?” Why indeed.
The severity of this apparent lapse was underscored by Jukes’ response: “It's worse than that. Unless I missed something, Matthew Elliott lied to the pubic about co-operating with the @ElectoralCommUK and the BBC allowed him to do without rebuttal or checks”.
That is bad. It is very bad indeed. Bad enough for Mike Galsworthy’s response not to be exceptional. “I am *done* with the @BBC. They report on Vote Leave breaking the law... then give the last word on it to: Vote Leave. And not just a snippet quote. The last SIX paragraphs are all Vote Leave‘s words under the title ‘Motivated by political agenda’”.
Who is driving the decision making, the shaping of this narrative? We may never find out. But the conclusion from this sorry affair has been summed up by James O’Brien: “So not only did the BBC shamefully allow Vote Leave to define the terms for breaking this story, they also appear to have amplified their untruths unchallenged”.
Why this continued, almost obsessive use of Vote Leave spin matters has been shown by an intervention from David Aaronovitch. “Vote Leave's attack on the political motivations of the Electoral Commission is now par for the sorry course. You don't like the decision of an impartial body? 1. Lie about it. 2. Slag them off for being part of the establishment”.
Added to which is that key comedy word, timing, as Ms Cadwalladr has pointed out. “And leak the story to the BBC to get your side of the story out first. At midnight after a world cup quarter final. That was so disgraceful”. That was also never explained satisfactorily.
Small wonder that Jukes has concluded worryingly “The scariest thing about all these revelations about corruption, illegality around Vote Leave, Leave EU and Cambridge Analytica. If we'd relied on the BBC, none of it would have been exposed. Take a deep breathe and think what that says about our national broadcaster”.
To which Tone’s former chief spinner Alastair Campbell could only agree, and then tag Sarah Sands and Rob Burley. This means we may hear more of this, as those with a more significant media presence are alerted to the controversy.
As I’ve told previously, most people trust the BBC ahead of all other news sources. Not only that, they want, in an uncertain media world, to be able to trust it. The Corporation’s reaction to the scandals of the various Leave campaigns, and especially its acceptance of Vote Leave spin - on more than one occasion - undermines that trust. That is all.