Opinion: Brexit challenges the meaning of ‘political’ reporting

The problem isn’t just about quoting unnamed sources. It’s about what’s reported in the name of ‘politics’

It’s not just about Westminster: narrow definition of ‘politics’ influences public perception of Brexit

By Peter Ungphakorn

Some hard-hitting comment has been written recently about the dangers of using of unnamed sources in reporting about Brexit. Less attention has been paid to how the main broadcasters put different aspects of Brexit into separate reporting categories — particularly “politics” — and how this affects the debate.

The two issues are linked, though. The priority given to what the “sources” say colours the meaning of “political” reporting too. Journalists compete to get the scoop instead of providing the most informative coverage. They are not the same.

On the use of “sources” we’ve had Jill Rutter on the HuffPost website (“Anonymous Number Ten Briefings Do The Public a Disservice. Journalists Should Stop Reporting Them,” October 7, 2019), Peter Geoghegan in the Guardian (“These are busy times for ‘No 10 source’. Journalists should refuse to be played,” October 15, 2019), and Meera Selva and Richard Fletcher on The Conversation website (“Brexit: democracy needs journalists to be transparent about their political sources,” October 25, 2019).

Receiving perhaps the most attention was political commentator Peter Oborne on the Open Democracy website (“British journalists have become part of Johnson’s fake news machine,” October 22, 2019).

“In 25 years as Sky News’ political editor I never sought favours and was never given them, perhaps because I worked for challenger companies rather than the legacy duopoly of ITV and BBC. […]

“I can confirm that I and my Sky News colleagues still work with the same ‘no favours’ impartiality. It hasn’t done us much harm.”

— Adam Boulton

Then, on October 26, 2019, one of the key players waded in: Sky News’s political editor Adam Boulton (“Sky Views: Journalists, don’t be part of the government’s ‘fake news’ machine”). He didn’t spell it out, but clearly his targets included his counterparts Laura Kuenssberg (BBC) and Robert Peston (ITV).

(The BBC has defended citing the “sources” on the grounds that it’s information that should be reported. But the question is not whether the information should be reported but how it’s reported.)

All those pieces are well worth reading, particularly the ones by Oborne and Boulton. They have received attention mainly because of the claim that Dominic Cummings, Number Ten’s controversial political adviser, is the main “source”, although the PM’s office has had spin doctors for decades. I won’t discuss that here.

This article is about the way Brexit news is framed and how that influences public perceptions of what is happening in Brexit.

My comments come mainly from consuming BBC programmes, but also watching Channel 4. I am not a BBC-basher. Once upon a time I worked for it. However, on Brexit, I would give BBC programmes a mixed review:

  • PM on Radio Four is good, because Evan Davis is on top of the subject and brushes aside nonsense with good humour as if it were just banter among friends. Eddie Mair before him was also good, in his own way.
  • Today (also Radio Four) is mixed — some interviews are good but items are frustratingly short and untruths go unchallenged. Yes, the truths are complex, but after all this time the programme should know better.
  • I watch BBC One’s News at Ten grudgingly, in order to know what the main TV news is reporting.
  • BBC Two’s Newsnight is better, primarily because it features discussions among a wide range of politicians and analysts.

Some people appear on many of those and are always good, such as Chris Morris and other BBC fact checkers on Brexit.

Channel 4 news tries to be different and is more sceptical of spin.

And now we go straight to …

The villain is the main TV news. By choosing a particular approach, it has perpetuated the widespread impression that the biggest problem with Brexit is troublesome politicians, not the complexity, trade-offs or dilemmas.

It has done this by adopting two questionable approaches. One is its definition of “politics”. The other is its fear of alienating its audience by going into the details, so we get little beyond soundbites and labels.

Take the day the Johnson government reached agreement with EU negotiators on a modified Withdrawal Agreement, October 17, 2019.

TV news follows a typical pattern and this bulletin is no exception. The news reader presents the headlines. Then: “we go straight to our political editor”.

Fine, except the political editor’s role is defined far too narrowly. It’s all about Westminster, how the parties react, the possible vote count, and little more.

Quite a long way into the bulletin we get a summary of today’s actual news: what has been agreed, confirmed for the first time. It’s a rather odd summary but at least we get one.

Surely if there’s been a major breakthrough, the first thing we need to know is what the breakthrough contains, don’t we? (See how far down this BBC website story we have to go before the content is mentioned at all.)

We don’t get it because the most senior reporter on Brexit is the political editor who never discusses the substance of Brexit, only party-political machinations in Westminster and what Number Ten is leaking.

And yet even “politics” is much broader than that. It overlaps with economics and trade through the effect on different groups, such as Brexit’s impact on farming and manufacturing communities — and no, I don’t mean vox pops.

A lot of the content of the Withdrawal Agreement is about security, citizens’ rights, institutional arrangements. They are all political.

But because the news is compartmentalised, those subjects are covered by economics, security, home affairs and other teams. And because the different subject areas have a hierarchy, “politics” always comes first.

Blame the politicians

No wonder so many people just blame politicians and nothing else for the mess. No wonder they just want to get Brexit “done” as if it will go away anytime soon. The main message they get from the principal news bulletins is that it’s all about squabbling troublemakers.

Any interesting policy involves dilemmas. Brexit’s dilemmas are mind-boggling.

And yet month after month, year after year, the main focus of the Brexit news has been on those squabbling politicians.

Even the politicians face dilemmas, on the substance too, but we hear little about it.

There have been exceptions that show how politicians can be a lot more thoughtful than the news soundbites suggest. See, for example this 40-minute discussion from Channel 4 News.

Now, I’m not suggesting the news bulletins should air 40-minute thoughtful conversations between, say, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Diane Abbott — although I’d definitely watch that one.

Nor that they should explain the UK’s agricultural tariff quotas, or the pan-Euro-Mediterranean Convention on cumulation of origin, or the WTO’s Green Box of farm subsidies.

But when something new and important breaks, at least it should be made prominent and explained as simply as possible.

In the revised Withdrawal Agreement, there were two main developments: the border down the Irish Sea and moving “level-playing-field” provisions into the non-binding political declaration.

Surely they should have headlined. What is meant by checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea, how much paperwork is involved, how does it affect companies and their costs? What has happened to the level playing field provisions, what does the phrase mean, what exactly does it cover, what does the shift imply?

These are not difficult issues for us to grasp. If they had been put at the top of the bulletin would we really have switched to another channel? I don’t think so. The broadcasters have professional reporters who can make that kind of information useful, understandable and interesting.

Sadly, it was a missed opportunity. So long as the main broadcasters stick to this approach, we’ll have to invest our own time and energy into finding out what Brexit is really about. Few of us can afford to do that, or have the patience for it.

It only takes a quick glance at the Withdrawal Agreement to see how much background knowledge you need to understand it.

The broadcasters have no excuse. This has been going on since 2016.


There have also been numerous comments on the broadcasters’ interpretation of “balance”, which seems to give equal treatment to stronger factual arguments on one side, and counter arguments that are less based on facts or merely assertions of faith on the other, simply to avoid being accused of bias. Here are two:

Updates: October 29, 2019 — adding the P.S. section with the links to two more articles.

Credits: Photo from Pixabay, CC0


Author: Peter Ungphakorn

I used to work at the WTO Secretariat (1996–2015), and am now an occasional freelance journalist, focusing mainly on international trade rules, agreements and institutions. (Previously, analysis for AgraEurope.) Trade β Blog is for trialling ideas on trade and any other subject, hence “β”. You can respond by using the contact form on the blog or tweeting @CoppetainPU

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