A frequent problem in the BBC’s coverage of EU issues, as John Humphrys has accepted, is a failure to present the full facts: bias by omission.
If the BBC collectively doesn’t like an aspect of UK policy – such as the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ – there is a relentless editorial focus against it. No stone is left unturned by BBC reporters in finding opposition to the measure, and correspondents take every opportunity to fire barbs against it.
But the Corporation is in favour of the EU project as a whole, and News-watch research has shown that its stance regularly leads to both bias by omission and distortion.
This was definitely the case in coverage of the so-called ‘debate’ held on Thursday night (May 15) by the EU featuring leaders of five groups in the European Parliament. The BBC billed it online as the political equivalent of the Eurovision song contest. And though words of caution were buried in the small print of the reports, the concerted aim was clearly to project the event as a triumph of EU democracy.
Gavin Hewitt, the BBC’s Europe editor, trumpeted in the beginning of his article that this was part of the ‘EU’s election race’ and that the debate featured ‘five candidates for Europe’s top job’- the presidency of the European Commission. He also faithfully reflected the EU’s claim that this was a ‘great debate’ and gave the clear impression that it was part of the May 22 elections for the European Parliament.
Mr Hewitt further suggested that the exchanges – between the five leaders of the pro-EU groupings in the European Parliament – were a key event towards the ‘election’ not just of MEPs, but also to the EU’s top political and administrative job, the presidency of the EU Commission.
FACT 1: the poll to elect MEPs on May has nothing to do with the presidency of the EU Commission. Some in the EU want this to change, but there is little prospect of this.
FACT 2: the next president of the European Commission will most likely be chosen by the Council of Ministers when they meeting in Brussels at the end of June. In theory, the appointment could be blocked by the European Parliament, but this is most unlikely.
FACT 3: the European Commission, which in effect drives the EU legislative process (though the European Parliament can recommend some changes), is not and never has been elected.
FACT 4: Was this a debate anyway? As even Gavin Hewitt noted, all the participants agreed that the way forward for the EU was further integration.
The ‘debate’ on Thursday night might therefore be regarded as nothing at all to do with ‘democracy’, but rather a cynical and blatant PR exercise to distort or disguise the real nature of how the EU operates.
Gavin Hewitt must know this – and indeed, his report contains hints that this is the case – but he projected instead above all else that this was both part of the European elections and would have an impact. He ignored and down-weighted the key facts. It was thus a classic case of bias by omission.