BBC Presenter, Labour Peer: Scrap Impartiality Laws Because We Lost The Referendum

A Labour peer, who last week launched a report on the future of public broadcasting, has called for a rethink on impartiality laws. Lord Puttnam said Brexit voters are ignorant, and his remarks have been echoed by BBC Today presenter Justin Webb.

Lord Puttnam told Open Democracy that TV coverage of the European Union (EU) referendum had created “a deeply ignorant society”. Saying broadcasters had been “careless”, the Labour peer said the vote for Brexit was due to people voting “out of a combination of fear and ignorance”.

Criticising the BBC’s coverage of the EU referendum as being “constipated”, Lord Puttnam said the public broadcaster is hamstrung by impartiality laws. He said the laws, which state that broadcast journalists must produce politically impartial content, should be scrapped and that the BBC must “take positions based on known expertise”.

The Labour peer boasted that he had successfully campaigned for the BBC to change how it covers climate-change, and called for a similar overhaul on its coverage of issues like the EU.

Lord Puttnam said he believes Ofcom, the body which regulates broadcasters’ output, must “take a good long, hard look at its responsibilities”. He said the watchdog thought of viewers as consumers, and argued it should instead think of them as “citizens”.

The peer said, of the report he launched last week:

“What the report says, and what I say in my forward, is that we’ve managed to create a deeply ignorant society – we’ve been careless – and what happened last week, with the Brexit vote, was people voting out of a combination of fear and ignorance. We allowed a parody, a Monty Python parody of Europe, to become commonplace.”

BBC presenter Justin Webb echoed the peer’s thoughts and called for a “discussion about impartiality in the modern era”. He said that during the referendum campaign, audiences were “hungry for real knowledge”. Mr. Webb slammed broadcasters for presenting both sides of an argument, saying they should only show “what [is] true”.

In the Radio Times, the Today presenter wrote: “Some of those on the losing side [of the EU referendum] think they were let down. The Oscar-winning film producer Lord Puttnam is among those who wonder if impartiality rules torpedoed the search for truth: he accused the BBC in particular of providing ‘constipated’ coverage.”

Mr. Webb said: “We tend to regard campaigning as promising policies or aspirations that can be tested against the facts of the real world. A combination of forensic interviewing and zealous fact-checking strips away the nonsense and allows the public to make a balanced choice.

“Seriously? In the modern world, this is not necessarily what happens. It is a truism to say we’re post-ideological: we don’t vote tribally for ‘the workers’ or ‘toffs’, based on a love for socialism or capitalism. It is equally cliched to talk of post-factual debate, where no one accepts the version of reality presented by anyone but their own side.”

The former director of BBC North America criticised the “new era of identity politics”, writing:

“Our real problem might be that we are entering, as the Americans seem to have entered, an era of identity politics where the politicians, the campaigners, are seeking by a process of nods and winks to let you know: ‘Hey, this is where you belong. Your people are here.’”


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