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Monday, April 25, 2016

The European referendum and the use of language

There was an interesting article in yesterday's Observer in which Will Hutton deprecates the way that the European referendum has slipped into carelessness when it comes to facts and the truth.

He is particularly exercised about Boris Johnson's abhorrent article for The Sun on Friday morning in which he repeated the smear often peddled by the US radical right that Barack Obama’s Kenyan origins somehow mean that he is not a “real” American. The implication is that we should not trust part-Kenyan Obama and his urging Britain to stay in the EU.

Hutton says that the slur was 'partisan, unforgivable nonsense, with uneasy tones, at best, of crude identity politics, at worst, of sinking to a semi-racist smear.'

What stood out for me in the piece however was Hutton's chiding of the BBC for their rather shallow approach to impartiality:

Universities have recommitted to be firm custodians of academic freedom in the quest for understanding, backed by evidence. The BBC, a public broadcaster born of the best Enlightenment tradition of reason, should rejoin their ranks. Its new understanding of objectivity – to treat everything as equal claim and counterclaim – is to surrender. It is not good enough in reporting, say, Treasury analysis on the economic impact of leaving the EU to then “balance” it with a one-liner from Boris Johnson or an interview with John Redwood who have plainly not had time to read the 200-page document.

If Leave have fact and analysis with which to respond, that is different. Both sides should earn their place on news bulletins, not be gifted it because they have an opinion whose value is allegedly equal. If the BBC is terrified that John Whittingdale will take his revenge, after 23 June, if it sticks to Reithian rigour then so be it. Better go down fighting than turn into a glorified clearing house for rival press releases.

The referendum may be unedifying, but it is showing up the great cleavage in our country. Are we so keen to assert an idea of Britishness and so careless about evidence-based argument that we will damage ourselves economically by leaving the EU? Is politics to be framed by unfounded prejudice, funny one-liners and untruths? Do the majority of us want to live in a country constructed by the Eurosceptics and their press? Johnson’s article, I feel, was a watershed moment. I hope others see it that way too.

The decision we face on 23 June is too important to be dictated by popularism, sound bites and one liners. It is up to the media, and the BBC in particular, to ensure that both sides of the argument are properly scrutinised so that when we go to vote we have all the facts at our disposal.
It is one thing to say that Obama was influenced by the British internment and torture of his grandfather (note: no racial implication) and quite another to refer to his "part-Kenyan heritage" which has clear racist overtones.

In fact, even the internment turned out to be a family myth: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2161817/Obamas-grandfather-Stanley-Armour-Dunham-tortured-British.html

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