At first, the BBC got its reporting spot on: Leave EU, one of the principal Leave campaigns in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum, had been caught breaking the law and slapped with a fine close to the maximum allowable. “Campaign group Leave.EU has been fined £70,000 for breaches of election law during the 2016 referendum and a senior figure has been referred to the police” they told. And there was more.
“The Electoral Commission said the group - which was separate from the official pro-Brexit group Vote Leave - failed to report at least £77,380 it spent … Bob Posner, the Commission's director of political finance and regulation, said it was ‘disappointing’ that Leave.EU, which it called ‘a key player’ in the EU referendum, ‘was unable to abide by these rules’ [adding] ‘The level of fine we have imposed has been constrained by the cap on the Commission's fines’”. Their CEO had been referred to the Police.
So it was clear that, first and foremost, the story was that Leave EU had broken the law, exceeding its spending limit by at least 10%, although the Electoral Commission believes the unlawful overspend may have been considerably higher. Then came the report on the Beeb’s World at One, and all was miraculously changed.
Changed so much, in fact, that MEP Molly Scott Cato has now complained to Director General Lord Hall-Hall, noting that “the story was presented as 'Leave.EU launching a scathing attack on the Electoral Commission, with Arron Banks describing the findings as a 'shambles' and accusing it of 'a politically motivated attack on Brexit and on those who voted to leave the EU.’” Banks was allowed to play the plucky victim.
She was not impressed. “I would expect BBC coverage of this story to lead with the conclusion of the formally constituted body on an attempt to subvert our democracy and their strong response. The suggestion that such illegal activity would lead to a heavy fine and police investigation should act as a disincentive and strengthen our democracy”.
But “Instead the story was led by the very sources of that subversion, especially Arron Banks, who was given an opportunity to frame the story as one of the vigilante challenging the establishment and to portray the Electoral Commission as politically motivated. The way in which the BBC has reported this story effectively legitimises Arron Banks’ challenge to the Electoral Commission”. And her conclusion is scathing.
“Most worryingly, by presenting the shocking abuse by Leave.EU in this way the BBC has
presented these breaches of electoral rules as a political debate with two sides. This not only undermines the rule of law, it also threatens our constitution and weakens democracy”. Leave EU broke the law. There can be no “he said, she said” angle.
The Corporation has already come under fire for the amount of airtime it has given to former UKIP Oberscheissenführer Nigel “Thirsty” Farage, a situation exacerbated by his propensity to say things that are provably untrue. Now it is on the ropes for presenting flagrant lawbreaking as if it were the cue for a little debate.
Bunging a football referee or drug abuse in athletics would not be a matter for debate. Neither should Leave EU cheating to swing the EU referendum. Full stop, end of story.