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Guest on episode 2 of the Know How Podcast
Mark Rigby
Arts & Culture Series: Expert Comment

Breaking or Broken News? The Challenges of Reporting Brexit

The Knowhow Podcast speaks to three leading journalists about the trials and tribulations of covering Brexit

by Sophie Cubbin (Head of Communications and Events)

In the first live recording of The Knowhow Podcast at City, University of London, three journalists joined academics from the Department of Journalism to share their insights about what it is really like to report on Brexit.

The Knowhow Podcast is aimed at bringing academics and professionals together to dissect the pressing matters of today. It’s hosted by City, University of London’s journalism department

L-R: Laura Hughes, Dr Glenda Cooper, Holly Watt, Dr Lindsey Blumell, Ric Bailey

For this episode, Dr Glenda Cooper and Dr Lindsey Blumell were joined by Ric Bailey, the BBC’s Chief Political Adviser, Laura Hughes, Political Correspondent at the Financial Times and Holly Watt, author and former Whitehall Editor of The Telegraph.

In front of an audience, which included many students from the Department of Journalism, the panel discussed the challenges of reporting on Brexit and what influence journalism norms of objectivity, impartiality and telling ‘both sides of the story’ have to play.

Holly Watt, author and former Whitehall Editor of The Telegraph said:

"I think it’s been this massive lesson for the media - if you give people a platform and let them spout whatever they want to say for a long time, and they’re perceived as humorous, interesting entertainment, then people will start to listen to them and that will have real consequences - we’ve seen that increasingly right the way around the world.

"The first time, for me, that I realised how dangerous that was, was in the run up to Brexit – you could see if happening".

Impartiality vs balance

Dr Lindsey Blumell said that the desire to tell ‘both sides of the story’ can have the effect of simplifying complex issues or introducing extreme views in otherwise agreed upon knowledge. She asked if this approach is still relevant today.

Ric Bailey, the BBC’s Chief Political Adviser, replied:

I loathe the word balance and I think it is completely inadequate as a description of what you are trying to do.  Balance implies there are only two sides and it implies simplicity.  Impartiality is much more nuanced concept which recognises that you can have bias by omission, by leaving things out, by putting emphasis in different places, by not being consistent.

“The problem of polarised politics, which are characterised by referendums, and we saw this first in Scotland before we ever got to the European Referendum… is when you’re in that binary position you find yourself very quickly in the place were politics is reduced to those two sides.  So, in reporting it we are trying to fight that all the time, but politics itself has become both sides and binary in a way that doesn’t help people understand what’s going on”.

Relentless reporting

Dr Glenda Cooper asked the panel how journalists are managing to keep up with the relentless rate of news about Brexit.

Laura Hughes, political correspondent for The Financial Times, said:

“It’s been extraordinary. I think the Laura Kuenssberg documentary really got it because she’s running – she’s literally running - and that’s how we all feel. It’s a case of what is someone saying now, what is someone saying next? Everyone’s exhausted - MP’s are exhausted journalists are exhausted.

“There’s a sort of frantic air and I know, for me, I’m rushing stories sometimes and not giving them all the attention I might have been able to do in a normal week were you have a day to write a story.  At the moment, the story is changing so rapidly that staying on top of it is really hard, it is moving all the time and it is really complicated - I just feel for the public watching the news".

Ric Bailey said that in spite of the complexity, the appetite for coverage of Brexit is still there, citing how BBC Parliament is achieving record viewing figures:

“I think that’s what’s heartening from a journalistic point of view, as against perhaps a UK point of view, is that people, despite how difficult it is and how boring it can be, actually people do seem really interested in it.  They are trying to follow it and are hungry for information about it in a way that is not inevitable – people could have turned off from it completely”.

Listen to the full episode of The Knowhow Podcast here

It is presented by Dr Glenda Cooper and Dr Lindsey Blumell and produced by Atina Dimitrova.

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