War Game: How the BBC’s Programming Schedule Impacted the Brexit Results

Illustration by Federico Gastaldi

Since 1927, the BBC has claimed their news coverage is completely neutral and devoid of political leaning. Whether, in actuality, this is true or not is an on-going debate — and fiery debate has certainly occurred across both the country and its political parties. Recent instances, such as last year’s global warming interview with Nigel Lawson on Radio 4, sparked suggestions that the BBC were not following their mandate as strictly as possible, seeing as Lawson is a staunch climate change denier and the BBC did not challenge his questionable (read: appalling) claims on global warming. Meanwhile, Robert Peston, ITV’s political editor, has suggested that the BBC were not impartial during the Brexit referendum, allowing controversial Europhobes airtime “in the name of impartiality”, despite their radical views. With these examples in mind, it’s fair to ask questions regarding the rest of the BBC’s content — if they are indeed lax in sticking to their own political neutrality mandate, then what about the political nature of the documentaries, dramas or films they show on any 1 of their 9 national TV channels and on iPlayer? Or their radio content, such as radio plays on BBC4, which are broadcast to over 11 million listeners? After all, news is not the only form of output which influences public opinion.

Yes, this is another article on Brexit, but instead of looking at its current farcical state, I’m concerned with how we ended up where we are. I believe the BBC’s programme scheduling played a pivotal role in guiding the British audience towards a pro-Brexit mentality.

Have World War I and World War II ended? You’d think not, judging by the never-ending slog of WWI and WWII-orientated content coming out of the BBC — from dramas set in the midst of battle against those pesky Germans in Our World War, to documentaries such as Britain’s Great War and Blitz: The Bombs That Changed Britain, which detail the realities of British people both on and off the battlefield. Over on iPlayer (supposing you’ve paid the excessive licensing fee) an astronomical 50-plus war-orientated TV shows, documentaries, dramas, and news pieces can be viewed — like Forgotten Warriors of World War One, The First World War from Above, and Hitler V Churchill, for example. Seeing as iPlayer is the digital home for recently-aired programmes, this staggering number just goes to show how relentlessly the BBC televise World War-related content. Similarly, turn on Radio 4 at any given time and chances are high that you’ll hear a mid-war radio drama brimming with excruciatingly bad middle class and/or Cockney accents (in Britain, no other accents existed from the 1910s to 1940s, apparently) — like Tommies or Home Front. The onslaught of World War dramas is so tedious that even the banality of The Archers offers brief respite. Suffice to say, the BBC is besotted by the narratives of the World Wars. Any of these shows — visual or aural — would be fine on their own, but, with the BBC’s programming schedule, there’s a perpetual overkill of World War material, no matter if it’s the centenary of World War I or not. And while the truths of history are, of course, important to acknowledge and understand, rehashing a narrative which is so inherently nationalistic — and enforces the idea Brits are brave heroes while Europeans are, for want of a better word, the ‘villains’ — is dangerous. Especially since there’s something of a civil war brewing between the Remainers and Brexiteers.

The picking and choosing of which parts of history the BBC cling onto is frightening. The BBC (and this is assuming that their WW1 and WW2 shows do indeed bring in a large number of viewers, otherwise why would they keep showing essentially the same material again and again?) are dogs with a bone when it comes to the World War narratives — narratives which, now, have been warped and tainted by nostalgia. Considering the BBC’s World War fixation, it begs the question: what about the nastier, more insidious parts of our history — colonialism, for instance? Where are the programmes showing how, after Britain’s colonisation of India in 1757, the British caused millions of famine-related deaths, ran detention camps, and wildly escalated the on-going feuds between Hindus and Muslims? Or how the British devastated African villages and settlements and became the world’s most prominent force in slave ownership and trade? Sugar-coating history, revelling in the positive and veiling the negative, undoubtedly sways an audience’s opinion and fuels nationalistic pride. So, after contemporary British audiences have tuned into the BBC’s latest war-driven romp which so earnestly wants to tug on people’s heartstrings, I believe the audience are left with a faux pride for Britain — a pride which allows them to believe the British in 2018 — just as they were all the way back in 1918 — are courageous, strong, and, ultimately, correct in all their endeavours. This ideology, however, couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Brexit is a shambles. At the time of writing, three ministers have left their post after it emerged Theresa May had agreed on a Brexit deal with the European Union. It’s not known whether Theresa May will be ousted from her Prime Ministerial position in a vote of no confidence, if she’ll quit her post out of her own free will and/or desperation, or, in an attempt to (bizarrely) resemble Margaret Thatcher, carry on in a bullish, ignorant way, bringing home a deal she believes to be beneficial, but in reality, is harmful to all residents of Britain.

Brexit is a shambles — yet it needn’t have happened in the first place. The vote between leaving and remaining a part of the European Union was tight: 52% voted to leave, 48% voted to remain. The reason the Leave vote topped Remain was down to misinformation from the media. The right-wing press, much of which is owned by the insidious Rupert Murdoch, charged ahead with a fear-based xenophobic and racist campaign and accused the European Union of “opening the floodgates to immigrants” to win Leave votes from fearful Middle England. Meanwhile, the BBC continued its barrage of saccharine, nationalist war stories, filled with the tired tropes of love, death, and heart-warming endings, because their analysts knew the network would achieve optimal viewer ratings by showing such material. This toxic combination consequently caused Britain to become an inward-looking nation, inebriated on its mythologised, honey-coated past. So, yes: Adieu, Adieu, to you and you and you, EU27. It’s doubtful that this drama will end positively, but at least you didn’t have to pay an extortionate license fee to watch it all unfold.