One interview sequence is rarely definitive proof of BBC bias. But a recent Today feature about the private member’s bill to commit to a referendum about membership of the EU comes very close to it – and it has now become the subject of a complaint to the BBC.
The interview sequence in question, broadcast on January 10, also underlines vividly what Newswatch surveys repeatedly show: that editors and interviewers give most space to those who want closer ties to the EU and sideline, limit or disrespect the arguments of those who do not.
Update: Lord Pearson of Rannoch and the MPs Philip Hollobone (Conservative) and Kate Hoey (Labour), have lodged a formal complaint about the feature on the ground that it was ‘a striking piece of BBC bias at a crucial time in the debate about the EU referendum’. The full correspondence on the matter can be seen here.
At 8.10am, in the front page slot, Evan Davis interviewed Michael Dobbs – the Conservative peer guiding the private member’s bill through the House of Lords – and Peter Mandelson, the former Labour minister and spin doctor who, it transpires, believes that a referendum should not be held because it would be ‘a lottery’.
Both men were actually on air for about the same time. But the way they were treated was emphatically noteven-handed. One crude measure is that Lord Dobbs had just 250 words to put his case across, while Lord Mandelson had more than 750 to elaborate his anti-bill arguments. The difference in treatment went much deeper, in that Evan Davis allowed in some depth (without interruption) Lord Mandelson’s attack, both on the need for the bill and the reasons why advocates were supporting it.
But I leave you to decide for yourself why – the full transcript is below.
What leaps out is that Lord Dobbs was asked primarily about how he would vote over the bill and whether the measure was a waste of time on the ground that it would be the next Parliament that actually decided the matter. In consequence, he had only two short opportunities to explain why he was introducing the legislation.
After a brief initial question to Lord Dobbs about why he supported the bill, Mr. Davis quickly moved on to what was clearly his main focus – how Lord Dobbs would vote and whether the measure was a waste of time because it would be the next Parliament that determined whether the referendum would actually be held. Lord Dobbs managed to deliver only 250 words (about 95 seconds) about the reasoning (essentially that it was about giving people choice) behind the bill. His argument was heavily curtailed by Evan Davis’s interventions in which he put instead the points about how Lord Dobbs would vote.
By contrast, it was clear from the start that Evan Davis wanted Lord Mandelson to have space to put across his detailed reasoning why the bill was essentially ill-conceived, was Political grandstanding, and was a waste of Parliamentary time. In the end, he was afforded the opportunity to deliver three lengthy sequences amounting to more than 750 words in which he advanced his case that the bill was primarily designed to try defuse the UKIP threat.
On the face of it, elements Mr Davis’s approach to Lord Mandelson were adversarial, in that he suggested that the pro-EU case was not being put very well. But on closer analysis, his questioning actually delivered a framework for Lord Mandelson to plough on expansively with his substantive points. It seems clear, too, that Mr Davis had no desire or intention to interrupt in any significant way. For example, when Lord Mandelson, made the sweeping and politically partisan claim that the bill was grandstanding and playing to the UKIP gallery, why did not Mr Davis intervene to suggest that UKIP actually had popular support and this might instead be seen as something that aimed to give British people (as Lord Dobbs had suggested) a definite opportunity to express their opinions?
This all adds up to a striking example of BBC bias at a crucial moment in the debate about a referendum. And it fits closely with the longer-term and more detailed analysis by Newswatch, which shows consistently that those in favour of the EU almost invariably get the most space and most favourable framework to advance their views.
A decision by BBC Trustees to reject a complaint about the BBC’s EU coverage was a ‘farce’, leading Eurosceptic MPs Kate Hoey and Philip Hollobone have said.
The complaint – based on research by Newswatch – centred on an edition of Newsnight last January which covered David Cameron’s decision to announce a radical overhaul of EU policy to include a referendum on withdrawal.
Mr Hollobone, who has written to BBC Trustees attacking heir ruling, said: “The programme featured 17 Europhiles pitched against one person who supported withdrawal. It was blatant imbalance.
“Yet the BBC says this did not matter because this was not a major news event and they were
therefore gauging reaction to the proposal from politicians and those affected by it. That’s the sort of sleight of hand excuse that shows that the BBC complaints process is completely rotten and stacked against complainants. They make the rules, they interpret them and they kick out most of them on the most spurious reasoning.”
A succession of top BBC executives, including former DG Mark Thompson, and more recently former head of television news Roger Mosey, have admitted that BBC EU coverage has been totally biased against the withdrawal case.
Mr Hollobone added: “Our complaint showed in detail that on the day of this major development in EU-related policy, this edition of Newsnight did not properly take into account the withdrawal case, and indeed went to absurd lengths to stuff the programme full of figures who wanted to shoot down both the idea of a referendum and the case for withdrawal.
“In terms of BBC coverage it was thus par for the course, but the Trustees have now performed a farcical series of contortions to argue the programme was fair”.
He added: “The BBC complaints procedure is clearly not fit for purpose because no-one involved is genuinely independent. It exists to protect the BBC’s back rather than the proper investigation of bias. It’s time for major change”.
Kate Hoey said: “I have grave concerns about how the BBC is going to be impartial during the coming debate on our relationship with the EU and a referendum. Chris Patten as a former EU commissioner really must prove he has left his Europhile position behind him and that he can ensure genuine impartiality”
Read the Newswatch-researched complaint here.
Newswatch figures show fewer than one in 1,000 contributors to Today’s EU coverage were supporters of withdrawal from the Labour party or the British left.
BBC Director General Lord Hall told the House of Commons select media committee in a
hearing in October that the Corporation was determined to deliver impartiality by ensuring
that a range of voices on key issues was heard.
Newswatch’s latest figures – based on monitoring approximately half of the Today editions
since 2005 – show the programme has carried interviews and soundbite contributions
from only three left-wing advocates of withdrawal. The statistics show that there were
3,513 contributions to the various EU discussions on Today in nine years, but that
withdrawalists from the Labour Party and British left represented just 0.09% of guests, or
one in every 1,171 EU-related appearances.
The three speakers who contributed to the EU debate were Labour MP Austin Mitchell in
September 2009, Labour MP Gisela Stuart in October 2012, and Labour Party donor John
Mills in June 2013. Their combined contributions amounted to approximately 5 minutes
of airtime, but only 1 minute featured the speakers actually making any sort of case for
Newswatch surveys: Since 2005, Today has carried only six minutes a year of those who support EU withdrawal talking about the subject
Latest Newswatch report: Today ignored UK Withdrawal from the EU, but gave multiple airings for those who want stronger EU ties.
The latest News-watch report shows that Today went out of its way to give those who were opposed to change in Britain’s relationship with the EU – including Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – multiple platforms in which they had clear time and space to advance arguments in favour of their views, including the hotly disputed claim by Europhiles that 3.5m jobs would be lost if the relationship with the EU was fundamentally changed. This assertion went unchallenged by the Today presenter.
Is the BBC properly balanced and impartial in its reporting of complex issues such as the EU, immigration and climate change?
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