BBC had too many Remainers and not enough Brexiteers on Question Time, Richard Sharp tells MPs

The BBC often had too many Remainers and not enough Brexiteers on Question Time, the broadcaster’s incoming chairman told MPs today. 

Richard Sharp, who has been chosen by the Government as its preferred candidate for the post, said the ‘breadth of the coverage’ on Brexit was largely ‘incredibly balanced’.

However, he admitted he thought there were times when the BBC’s representation of voices in the debate was ‘unbalanced’. 

Mr Sharp added he thought the Question Time programme had sometimes featured more Remainers than Brexiteers.

The BBC has previously been accused of Brexit bias after it allegedly drafted in more Remain than Leave supporters in certain panels.

Richard Sharp (Seen today), who has been chosen by the Government as its preferred candidate for the post, said the 'breadth of the coverage' on Brexit was 'incredibly balanced' when he appeared before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

Richard Sharp (Seen today), who has been chosen by the Government as its preferred candidate for the post, said the 'breadth of the coverage' on Brexit was 'incredibly balanced' when he appeared before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

Richard Sharp (Seen today), who has been chosen by the Government as its preferred candidate for the post, said the ‘breadth of the coverage’ on Brexit was ‘incredibly balanced’ when he appeared before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

Last February, fury erupted after a programme saw a Remainer-only panel be quizzed by host Fiona Bruce shortly after Britain formally left the EU on January 31.   

The BBC was also forced to defend its impartiality in May 2019 after Brexiteers accused it of downplaying the Brexit Party’s victory in its election coverage.

The corporation said it featured ‘a range of voices’ after angry viewers claimed it emphasised the strong performance of the Remain-supporting Greens and Liberal Democrats rather than focusing on Nigel Farage‘s triumph at the polls.    

Appearing before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee today, Mr Sharp addressed issues including impartiality and his donations to the Conservative Party.

Asked whether he was a supporter of Brexit, he replied: ‘I am considered to be a Brexiteer.’

He said it was not a ‘universally held view’ that the BBC had been partial in its coverage of the Brexit referendum.

The BBC has previously been accused of Brexit bias after it allegedly drafted in more Remainers than Leave supporters in its panels. Pictured: Question Time in November 2019

The BBC has previously been accused of Brexit bias after it allegedly drafted in more Remainers than Leave supporters in its panels. Pictured: Question Time in November 2019

The BBC has previously been accused of Brexit bias after it allegedly drafted in more Remainers than Leave supporters in its panels. Pictured: Question Time in November 2019

The BBC has also previously faced bias allegations after Boris Johnson was confronted by an hostile audience during a Question Time election special in November 2019. Pictured: Kate Rutter, who grilled former Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson

The BBC has also previously faced bias allegations after Boris Johnson was confronted by an hostile audience during a Question Time election special in November 2019. Pictured: Kate Rutter, who grilled former Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson

The BBC has also previously faced bias allegations after Boris Johnson was confronted by an hostile audience during a Question Time election special in November 2019. Pictured: Kate Rutter, who grilled former Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson

He said: ‘Those people in favour of Remain felt the BBC didn’t appropriately discuss the accuracy of the Brexit campaign.

‘Brexiteers felt that, and there have been studies done, that the representation of Brexiteers on the news and certain programmes, for example Question Time, wasn’t balanced.

‘I suffer like anybody, like each one of you, confirmation bias and the question is, ‘What is the empirical truth?’

‘And there have been studies and there has been some acknowledgement that some aspects of the Brexit coverage, from time to time, was not balanced.

‘But I think both sides have issues with how the BBC delivered its view.’

Asked whether he himself believed the BBC’s coverage of Brexit had been unbalanced, he said: ‘No, actually I don’t.

‘I believe there were some occasions when the Brexit representation was unbalanced.

Critics accused the BBC of choosing 'political activists and trade unionists' instead of ordinary voters for its audience. Pictured: Fiona Bruce

Critics accused the BBC of choosing 'political activists and trade unionists' instead of ordinary voters for its audience. Pictured: Fiona Bruce

Critics accused the BBC of choosing ‘political activists and trade unionists’ instead of ordinary voters for its audience. Pictured: Fiona Bruce

‘So if you ask me if I think Question Time seemed to have more Remainers than Brexiteers, the answer is yes, but the breadth of the coverage I thought was incredibly balanced, in a highly toxic environment that was extremely polarised.’     

Mr Sharp said he had donated approximately £400,000 to the Conservative Party in the past 20 years, plus £2,500 around the time of the last general election.

Mr Sharp, who was once Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s boss, will take over from Sir David Clementi as the BBC faces scrutiny over equal pay, diversity, free TV licences for the over-75s and competition from streaming services such as Netflix, as well as the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

Mr Sharp will earn a salary of £160,000 for three to four days’ work per week.

The BBC has also previously faced bias allegations after Boris Johnson was confronted by an hostile audience during a Question Time election special in November 2019.   

In his half an hour session, the Prime Minister faced unremittingly hostile questions and struggled to get answers in as he was repeatedly heckled.

At one point Ms Bruce had to repeatedly intervene to stop an audience member who refused to stop shouting at Mr Johnson. 

An exasperated Miss Bruce shouted: ‘Can you hold on a minute I am in charge of this thing.’

It also emerged that one of the questioners was an actress from I, Daniel Blake, a film by left-wing director Ken Loach.

Kate Rutter grilled Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson on whether she regretted voting with Conservative Party during the coalition.

She asked: ‘You talk about the Lib Dems as a viable alternative to Labour of Tories. 

‘I’d just like to ask you that with 14million UK citizens living in poverty do you regret consistently voting with the Conservatives and in favour of harsh and uncaring benefits cuts. 

‘Is there any kinds of alternatives to the Conservative Party?’

A rough tally from a senior Tory source had suggested Mr Johnson was interrupted by the audience and Miss Bruce four times more often than Jeremy Corbyn.

Critics accused the BBC of choosing ‘political activists and trade unionists’ instead of ordinary voters for its audience.  

Robbie Gibb, a former senior BBC executive and ex-Downing Street Director of Communications said: ‘The best TV audiences are designed to give ordinary people the opportunity to challenge and question politicians. However many of these questioners are clearly political activists and trade unionists. Spoils the programme.’

The BBC insisted the audience of 150 people in Sheffield was a ‘roughly equal’ split between Labour and the Conservatives, with a ‘smaller number’ of Liberal Democrats and SNP supporters.

It also claimed there were more Leave voters than Remain in the audience to reflect the Brexit referendum result.

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