The foreign secretary’s comments echo those of other Conservatives, whose outcry prompted the Daily Mail to run the story on Thursday’s front page.
The Mail quoted Conservatives including Nicholas Soames and Iain Duncan Smith, who said the BBC had “questions to answer”.
The BBC’s press team tweeted on Wednesday night to say the audience had been assembled not by its own staff but by Comres, a polling company, which has defended its process.
Andrew Hawkins, founder of ComRes, said there would inevitably be cheering skewed in one direction because there were two rightwing parties and five broadly leftwing parties represented at the debate.
The largest share of voters present were Conservatives and Labour but the smaller parties had an “appropriately lower” number of supporters in the room. ComRes also weighted the room to have a 50:50 split of remain and leave voters, screened out any recent activists, and recruited them via a two-phase online and telephone process.
“If you have a panel of people – one from the governing party [Conservatives], one from what’s regarded as a rightwing party [Ukip] and five from broadly leftwing parties – and you give those speakers equal airtime, it means you’re giving five slots of airtime to the leftwing parties for every two slots to the not-so-leftwing parties,” he said.
“Therefore it’s inevitable that the cheering is going to be skewed in one direction. What I can say is that the recruitment for this was more complex and more rigorously executed than any I’ve ever witnessed.”
He said Brexit had complicated the selection process because an equal number of leave and remain supporters had to be chosen.
“We screened out people who have campaigned politically at any time in the last three years,” he said. “But equally, you need to get people who are politically engaged so the audience don’t sit there and say nothing and do nothing, so you do get some reaction.”
Hawkins said the audience response was “a reflection of the fact that the Conservatives were on the back foot because Theresa May didn’t turn up – and therefore it’s a bit of an easy target”.
Asked about the debate on Sky News, Johnson criticised the audience’s reaction, saying they seemed biased against Amber Rudd, the home secretary, who was standing in for Theresa May.
“You had the most leftwing audience I’ve ever seen, you had Tim Farron and the Scottish Nationalists supporting [Jeremy] Corbyn, and they would effectively be going into the negotiations in Brussels backing him up, but with a very different view of what they want the outcome of the Brexit talks to be,” he said.
Speaking later on BBC Breakfast, Johnson said of the debate: “It was a yammering cacophony of views, many of them leftwing. Even by the BBC’s standards … that audience was notably to the left of many people in this country.”
Johnson told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that Rudd’s debate performance had been “heroic”.
Author: Peter Walker and Rowena Mason