After 28 months, 143 podcast episodes and four BBC1 television shows covering the most controversial topic in modern British political history, the BBC’s Brexitcast is yet to receive its first official complaint.
The breakthrough format, in which four leading BBC journalists give the inside track on the week’s events in Brussels and Westminster, began as an experiment and now finds itself playing a crucial role in the output of BBC News at a critical moment for the broadcaster’s reputation.
Brexitcast’s informal and often humorous tone, combined with deep analysis of the shifting political sands, has ensured that it has mostly avoided the accusations of unfairness that are routinely directed at news media over coverage of a notoriously divisive subject.
The host quartet of political editor Laura Kuenssberg, political correspondent Chris Mason, Europe editor Katya Adler and Brussels reporter Adam Fleming relinquish the formalities of the news bulletin ‘stand-upper’ format in favour of relaxed conversation. The half-hour running time allows them to bring in nuance and context that they don’t normally have time for.
“We don’t get accused of being biased,” says Brexitcast’s editor Dino Sofos. “If you listen to half an hour of us talking in great detail about the story of the day, the lack of time constraint [means] there is very little room for ambiguity. We are not talking in short phrases that sometimes can be left open to different interpretation.”
The BBC now seems likely to extend the Brexitcast approach – straddling podcast and television – to cover other political and cultural themes that can benefit from informal and extensive discussion by specialist reporters over multiple episodes.
In its first month after transitioning to BBC1, where it is shown on Thursdays after Question Time, Brexitcast is averaging audiences of 1 million. It is also being screened on the BBC News Channel and the global service BBC World News. The podcast generates between 120,000-150,000 downloads per episode.
Plans are underway to use the format to cover the impending general election (Brexitcast grew out of an original podcast called Electioncast).
Politicians are going out of their way to appear on Brexitcast. Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, and Keir Starmer, his Labour opposite number, have both come on to take the podcast’s Brexit quiz (rather embarrassingly for Barclay, who scored 1.5 out of five). Boris Johnson has promised to give it a try. “We doorstepped him at Tory conference and I shoved a microphone in his face and Adam asked him if he’d come on and he said ‘Yes’,” says Sofos.
Brexitcast went out on the road during conference season and, in an era when journalists are becoming accustomed to playing an Aunt Sally role at political gatherings, Sofos claims the team had a “really positive” reception from the party faithfuls. “People were running up saying ‘Brexitcast? Can we talk to you?’" he says of his trip to Conservative conference.
The show’s secret appears to be its combination of presenter expertise and audience interactivity. While so much media political commentary is dismissed as the distant sound of SW1, Brexitcast constantly encourages its followers (‘The Brexitcasters’) to react, to send in Brexit poetry and Brexit soundtracks. “People are quick to tell us if they didn’t like something, they feel it’s their podcast, which it absolutely is,” says Sofos. The approach helped Brexitcast win the Listeners’ Choice award at the British Podcast Awards this year.
He admits that when the big cheeses at BBC1 requested that the show be adapted for linear TV, the sense of elation was mixed with concern for the show’s podcast audience. “We didn’t want to suddenly alienate our very loyal listeners who have been with us right from the start,” he says. “We all agreed without having to say it that this is a podcast and we are not suddenly turning it into a TV programme, all sitting on a sofa [like] The Graham Norton Show.”
The BBC1 show is shot in the BBC Westminster studio, where Brexitcast was made when it was only in podcast format. The presenters still wear their large headphones and talk into big, fluffy microphones. Separated by a glass screen, Sofos still sits in his usual seat behind Kuenssberg. “None of them ever looks at the camera, it’s completely shot fly-on the-wall and there are no camera operatives in the studio, we have cameras triggered by whoever is talking. There isn’t a floor manager or a director.”
The effect is an informality which builds trust. Kuenssberg sometimes uses language (“a word in his lughole”) she would probably avoid in a two-way with Huw Edwards. She reveals that she has the sound of Big Ben as her mobile ring tone (“the best 79p I ever spent”).
“You will see Laura and Katya talking in a way that they wouldn’t talk in a 90-second roundup after their package on the Ten O’Clock News because there is time to kick off their shoes, lean back in their chairs and go ‘This is what happened today’. We are talking as four friends – which they are – at the end of the working day, going over and comparing notes,” says Sofos of Brexitcast’s unique tone. “We take the subject incredibly seriously because it has serious implications for everyone, whether you voted Leave or Remain. But we don’t take ourselves seriously at all, and that’s the difference.”
This means that Brexit obsessives can get their fix without having to venture into the toxic exchanges on Twitter or Facebook, where tribalism and anger are rampant.
“As a vehicle to tell the story I think people welcome that relief, that, yes, this is really serious but it’s nice that these guys at the end of a long day don’t take themselves too seriously and see the funny side,” says Sofos. Fleming’s dry wit is at the centre of the banter, while Brexit offers ready supplies of comic material, from Belgian politician Guy Verhofstadt’s cardigan to Johnson being admonished by an aide for having a disposable coffee cup.
The polarising issue of Brexit has been a hugely difficult story for BBC News, with its obligations to be even-handed at all times. As the national broadcaster it finds itself attacked for unfairness by Leavers and Remainers alike. The Observer recently ran a major story headlined “Is BBC News Broken?” It quoted former Radio 4’s chief Mark Damazer’s essay for Prospect magazine, which itself asked: “Could Brexit break the BBC?”
But Brexitcast is challenging this impression of a broadcaster struggling to cope. What began as an “experiment” has become a “really core” part of the BBC News output, says Sofos. “Brexitcast now is a really vital vehicle for the BBC’s Brexit coverage and politics coverage in the round.” He says that editors from other BBC outlets, including Radio 4, like to include excerpts from the show. “They say we love this tone, this is human and it shows our correspondents in 3D.”
He argues that much of the criticism of mainstream BBC News is unreasonable. “You see on social media people saying ‘I can’t stand BBC News but I love Brexitcast’ and you think these are the same journalists that are broadcasting on the Ten O’Clock News!” he says. “So many times people will leap on something that one of our correspondents says in a tweet or in one line in a bulletin and say ‘That’s not fair, that’s not balanced’,” he says.
Brexitcast, which can run to 38 minutes (it’s 29 minutes on TV), doesn’t. “Having that time and space to provide the context really does help us provide depth.”
He expects the show to last well beyond 31 October but realises that the subject matter means it has a shelf life. “Whether Brexitcast still exists in five years’ time is obviously very unlikely.” But it will have a legacy, he insists. “We have stumbled across a format that really works and I think the format will inform what we do next in this space – 100 percent!” he says. “The format of four knowledgeable correspondents talking about something that they know more about than anybody else is a really great one.”
In the meantime, Brexitcast’s big-name presenters are happy to work on it each week, despite the round-the-clock commitments they already have to the BBC’s other outlets. Kuenssberg, who has suffered terrible online trolling as she goes about her day job, recently described the show as a “total pleasure and a total joy”. Thanking its audience, she said it was a “smutty, interesting, sometimes ridiculous but hopefully informative club”.
Sofos says his chief difficulty is getting four of the BBC’s busiest journalists together at the same time (especially as he is considering a live edition for the EU Summit in Brussels on 17 October). “It’s always just a logistics issue, it’s never a question do they want to do it – they always want to do it. This is one of the highlights of their working day. It’s never ‘bloody Brexitcast, do I have to do it?’”