17 Apr 2019

Revealed: Brexit group covered up its targeting of right-wing extremists

Brexit-backer Arron Banks repeatedly denied that Leave.EU appealed to National Front supporters – in a bid to get the BBC to drop an investigation



Arron Banks repeatedly lied to cover-up his Brexit campaign’s effort to attract far-right extremists.

Leave.EU paid for Facebook adverts targeted at supporters of the National Front, the BNP, Britain First and the EDL.

But when the BBC asked for a response to a story they planned to run, Mr Banks sent a barrage of emails in an attempt to get the story dropped.

Leaked emails, seen by Channel 4 News, show Mr Banks insisted the BBC’s accusation were “wholly wrong” – despite his own staff telling him the story was true.

One Leave.EU employee told him: “Those are our ads, we have targeted those groups since the beginning of the campaign as they gain most traction.”

Another Leave.EU staffer proposed telling the BBC: “We pay for target ads for all political parties, not just right wing.”

But Mr Banks replied: “Not the right answer.”

Instead, Mr Banks told the BBC: “It’s wholly wrong to say we have targeted extreme right parties… your report needs to reflect this or it will be biased and if we have to we will take whatever legal action we need.”

Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU’s Head of Communications, even appealed to the head of BBC Westminster, Robbie Gibb, in a further attempt to prevent the story from being run.

Mr Gibb is now Theresa May’s head of communications.

In a series of late night emails to Mr Gibb, Mr Banks described the story as a “smear campaign” and threatened to make a formal complaint.

Afterwards, Mr Banks emailed another Leave.EU director, saying: “I don’t think they will Run it after all that lot . You will have a busy week next week since Robbie will react by giving us massive exposure.”

The BBC dropped its investigation. They told us this was because they were unable to establish that Leave.EU had targeted far right groups deliberately.

A version of this story about Leave.EU targeting the far right was eventually reported by the Sunday Times.

In his book about the referendum campaign, Arron Banks recounted the incident, claiming: “Robbie Gibb is being quite helpful and says he’s trying to hose it down.”

The former Chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, told us: “These are serious allegations and that the BBC’s Director General should investigate why the story was dropped”.

The BBC told us our story is “untrue” and that they had resisted pressure from Arron Banks.

Robbie Gibb told Channel 4 News: “These allegations are ridiculous and without merit. I remain proud of my contribution to the BBC’s impartial coverage of the 2016 EU referendum campaign.”

When asked for a response to this story, Leave.EU questioned our methods and journalistic integrity – and also threatened to post one of our journalist’s personal phone number on social media.

The BBC’s full statement is as follows:

“Three years ago, the BBC investigated allegations about Leave.EU and the deliberate targeting of far-right organisations on Facebook. Since we were unable to establish that Leave.EU had targeted these organisations deliberately, the story wasn’t broadcast.

“The correspondent involved has made it clear that due to a lack of evidence, he did not run this story. He would not allow a story to be spiked for any other reason.

“Mr Gibb was not the editor involved with this story. He had no say in the decision to investigate the issue or the editorial decision not to run it. He did not – and could not – prevent this story being broadcast across BBC News.

“Richard Tice of Leave.UK was dropped as an interviewee by the editor of the Andrew Marr Show while we investigated this story. There were no other factors involved or wider discussions held. Indeed, Leave.UK objected to this decision.

“The leaked emails Channel 4 News has obtained simply give an insight into the fact that senior editors in BBC News are regularly subjected to lobbying, pressure and complaints from political groupings. It is pressure which it is incumbent on the BBC to resist – and it did. Indeed, Nigel Farage did not appear on the BBC’s Great Debate despite Leave.UK’s determination that he should.

“The BBC covered hundreds of stories on Brexit. We have seen no evidence to substantiate claims that our editorial standards have been compromised in any way. There were no upheld complaints about a lack of due impartiality in our Brexit coverage, the standard by which our output is judged.”

Channel 4 News Investigations Team.