At what point do BBC ‘correspondents’ cross the line from offering a properly judged and impartial assessment into propaganda and overt electioneering?
News-watch surveys provide abundant evidence that it is all too often – and a new prime example was 556 words on the doctrine of climate alarmism from Roger Harrabin the BBC’s ‘environment analyst’ on Radio 4’s The World This Weekend yesterday. (His report starts at a round 1.25pm)
This amounted to a BBC party political broadcast against elements of the Conservative party, and especially – to Harrabin – the real villains of the piece, Ukip.
A transcript of the full horror of what he delivered in this ‘impartial assessment’ is below.
Where to start? In Harrabin’s world, our seas are ‘full of plastic’ (!), and the fact that Stephen Hawking thinks that climate change is the biggest long-term threat to humanity makes his speculation sacrosanct.
Then we must take into account that, according to government surveys, only 1% ‘strongly oppose renewables’ and so that, in Harrabin’s world, makes the spending of billions on such energy (instead of, say, the NHS) OK.
No mention in his equation of the thousands of old people who freeze in winter because of the huge bills generated by wind farm and solar subsidies.
And who, according to Harrabin, are the irresponsible and reckless parties who are opposing the climate alarmism agenda? Top if his list are ‘Conservative libertarians’, followed by – boo, hiss! – Ukip. Of course! Every BBC correspondent’s favourite whipping boys. Along with Donald Trump, who also dares to question this sacred dogma.
Next on the list of Harrabin infamy is The Mail on Sunday, which had the temerity to launch its Great Green Con campaign and thereby ‘legitimised’ anti-environmentalism’. How very dare they.
Next target? Brexit – this is the BBC so how could another aspect of related problems be avoided? , Now at risk is all the wonderful legislation emanating from Brussels designed to ‘restore nature’ (whatever that means). As a result ,too, of leaving the EU at risk will be flood control, along with the drive to spend billions on insulating millions of homes.
Harrabin concludes – with outrageous partiality – during an election campaign:
The Conservatives’ ambition looks limited here compared with the Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru and also Labour who want to make home insulation an infrastructure priority. The SNP hasn’t published its manifesto yet but it too wants to take a strong line on climate change.
So there we have it. Vote anything but Conservative and Ukip, and avoid Brexit and all will be well with the world. Humanity will be safe.
Transcript of BBC Radio 4, ‘The World This Weekend’, 28 May, 2017, Climate Change, 1.27pm
MARK MARDELL: And as one Carlisle resident said, there hasn’t been much about the environment generally, even though it was once near the top of many a politician’s agenda. What happened? Here’s our environment analyst Roger Harrabin.
ROGER HARRABIN: Air pollution, melting sea ice, wildlife depletion, a soil crisis, seas full of plastic. Why isn’t the election full of environmental angst? Well I think it’s mainly a question of worry capacity. Stephen Hawking would tell you climate change was the biggest long-term threat to humanity but in the meantime we’re also beset by terrorism, the refugee crisis, Brexit – they’ve filled up our worry-space. Coupled with that there’s been a shift in the way the media discusses the environment. The old consensus on climate change has been rattled by a long campaign from Conservative libertarians and UKIP. They scored their first success with wind farms, scattered protests against turbines were at first below the radar of the national media, but those angry local voices were eventually amplified by the Telegraph, and that began to influence policy. The government’s own surveys actually suggest that just 1% of the populace strongly opposes renewables, but that’s by the by. Then the Mail on Sunday launched its Great Green Con campaign criticising failings in renewables and highlighting uncertainties in climate science. When it was previously non-PC to declare yourself a climate change sceptic, a stance of what you might call anti-environmentalism has now been legitimised. This steady pressure from over its right shoulder has led the government to mostly gag itself on climate change over recent years and the sceptics have been claiming victory. But wait a minute – except UKIP, all the manifestos published so far, that’s including the blue one, recommit to the Climate Change Act. That sort of consensus hardly stimulates media interest, but it does prove the issue hasn’t gone away. There are details over policy of course. The Conservative manifesto aspires to the cheapest energy prices in Europe. The Greens promise affordable energy, not cheap energy. But as a slogan that’s not quite so catchy. For all parties Brexit looms large, 80 % of the UK’s environmental policy comes through the EU. How will politicians translate that into UK law? How will they handle the massive opportunity to restore nature as they’ve promised following British withdraw from the common agriculture policy? Can they direct some of the agricultural budget to catching water on farmland to prevent the floods we discussed earlier? How will they improve the chaotic waste and recycling policies and how will our next government solve the conundrum of persuading tens of millions of people to insulate their own homes as part of the supposedly inexorable drive towards the low carbon economy? The Conservatives’ ambition looks limited here compared with the Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru and also Labour who want to make home insulation an infrastructure priority. The SNP hasn’t published its manifesto yet but it too wants to take a strong line on climate change. Then how will the parties deal with the thorny issue of air pollution? Policies are there in other manifestos but details are strikingly absent from the Conservative document, presumably to avoid upsetting diesel drivers. So many environmental questions still, so many unanswered.
YouGov’s latest poll on attitudes towards Brexit – as the New Statesman outlines here – demonstrates that 69 per cent of the public now support leaving the EU and only 21 per cent want to ignore the result of the referendum.
Not only that, 25 per cent in the Brexit-supporting total are Remain voters who accept that the British people have voted to leave, and that the Government thus has a duty ‘to carry out their wishes and leave’.
In other words, they concur that the referendum vote is confirmation – despite the frantic protestations of Tim Farron – that Leave does indeed mean Leave. The 48 per cent support for Remain on June 23 is distant history. The majority of Remain voters have moved on.
Put another way, only around 9 million Britons out of the 43.5m who voted on June 23 are still hankering for a re-run.
Will someone please tell the BBC? New Statesman Political Editor George Eaton pulls no punches in his assessment of how devastating the figures are to the Remain case. He states:
“After voting Remain, they ceased to act as a unified political bloc. The crucial figure for understanding May’s decision to pursue Brexit is not “the 48 per cent” or “the 52 per cent” but the 69 per cent – the number who believe the Government has a duty to leave the EU (more than a third of whom voted Remain). A mere 21 per cent agree that the government should either block Brexit or seek to prevent it through a second referendum.”
Yet the BBC continues to behave as if it is their main duty to show audiences how difficult the Brexit road is going to be, and how suspect the ‘Leave ‘vote was, as is detailed by News-watch here.
BBC Media Editor Amol Rajan has now even also seriously floated on the Today programme (at 8.20am in the edition) what amounts to a conspiracy theory about the Vote Leave project. He has suggested it was backed by a shadowy ‘millionaire’ (how much dodgier in the BBC lexicon can you be?) combined with a publicity-shy software company called Cambridge Analytica, who – shock, horror – are also, in an equally shadowy way, behind Donald Trump.
All this is beginning to look like the BBC – in its dogged opposition to Brexit – is acting like a millenarian cult. A fascinating book on the psychology involved is here. The end of the world is nigh and they are jolly well going to tell us about it – despite what voters now think and very clearly want. And despite any amount of positive news to the contrary.
This is an election like no other for the BBC. They have a mission.
Two weeks ago, as is laid out here, Today presenter Nick Robinson effectively declared war on Brexit with his statement that the Corporation would henceforward work flat out to find the problems with Brexit, and not bring balanced coverage of the Leave perspective. Of which, more later.
Since then, it has become painfully evident what he meant. The Corporation’s Article 50 coverage relentlessly highlighted the difficulties, with pride of place given to predictions by correspondents of decades-long wrangles, inflation of perceived problems over Gibraltar, the continuing need for the European Court of Justice and dire warnings that the British tourist and hospitality industry would collapse if the UK did not have continued access to EU labour.
In the same vein, after the general election was announced, Today’s business news – like a heat-seeking missile – sought out the views of the (ex BBC) DG of the CBI, Carolyn Fairbairn, on the need for continued free movement, reinforced an hour later by the ultra-Remain businessman Sir Martin Sorrell, who predicted that the real reason for the election was so that Mrs May could achieve a soft-Brexit in line with his own objectives.
To be fair, Andrew Lillico, a pro-Leave business figure also appeared, but there was no doubt which views were considered to be the most important.
So what will happen during the general election? This – despite what the Conservative Party machine might say – is effectively a second Brexit referendum, brought about because, as Theresa May has acknowledged, the Remain side are determined to thwart Brexit.
There are, of course, special rules for broadcasters during general elections. Broadly, they provide that much more attention must be paid to balance between the parties contesting the election.
But here, in this election, is an immediate problem. Those rules (as defined, for example by Ofcom in Section 6 of its programming code) are designed mainly to prevent imbalances between political parties.
That creates an immediate problem with an election so inevitably focused on a single issue: that the overwhelming majority of current MPs (most of whom will become candidates after May 3) were Remainers, and after the referendum vote want a strongly-limited and compromised form of EU exit.
Labour, for example, as exemplified by shadow chancellor John McDonnell on Today on Wednesday morning, says it now supports Brexit. But the form of Brexit it wants is continued membership of the single market, and qualified support for free movement. The Liberal Democrats and the SNP, of course, aggressively oppose Brexit – and make no bones about it.
The BBC, in this framework, has oodles of ‘wriggle-room’ to sidestep the election rules, and to continue to pursue vigorously its self-declared campaign to expose to the maximum the pitfalls of Brexit throughout the election period.
Of course, election coverage of the issues involved is also subject to the normal over-arching rules of public service impartiality. But it is precisely here that the BBC – as is clear in the Nick Robinson Radio Times piece – has interpreted the clauses relating to ‘due impartiality’ according to its own anti-Brexit ends. In the Corporation’s estimation, it is on a mission to spread ‘understanding’ about the exit process. In reality, that means something very different: the goal is to portray exit in the most negative light possible.
News-watch coverage of previous general elections has shown that, despite the supposedly strict general election impartiality rules, the BBC’s approach to EU coverage was seriously flawed. After the 2015 poll, it was noted:
…the analysis shows that the issue of possible withdrawal was not explored fairly or deeply enough…Coverage was heavily distorted, for instance by the substantial business news comment on the Today programme that withdrawal would damage British trade and jobs. The message of potential damage to the economy was supplemented by the provision of frequent platforms for Labour and Liberal Democrat figures to warn of the same dangers. The spokesmen from these parties were not properly challenged on their views.
Will this change in 2017? Fat chance. Subsequent News-watch reports have shown that this bias has continued, regardless of the June 23 vote.
The problem now is that – despite the new BBC Charter – the Corporation’s approach to impartiality in news coverage is mainly self-regulated through its own Complaints Unit. Ofcom only enters the frame if there is an appeal against the BBC’s own rulings, and that’s a procedure that takes months. News-watch’s complaint about the BBC’s fantasy race hate murder in Harlow took six months to grind through the BBC machine.
The Conservative Party under David Cameron fluffed the opportunity to achieve genuine reform of the BBC. Will that glaring failure now come back to haunt Theresa May?
BBC presenter and ex-political editor Nick Robinson has been sounding off aggressively against those who he complains are ‘moaning’ that the Corporation’s reporting of Brexit is biased.
‘Calm down dears’ is his core, patronising message.
The Radio 4 Today presenter has declared in the Radio Times that, as departure negotiations proceed, there is no need to provide balance between the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ sides in BBC coverage of post-Brexit developments.
Instead, the requirement is only for ‘due impartiality’(defined, as always of of course, by the BBC itself) and the goal is is to scrutinise ‘new questions’ about ‘immigration, trade and industrial policies’.
Robinson is bluntly critical of those who ‘do not accept that the war is over’ and have challenged the Corporation’s coverage by getting out their ‘stopwatches and calculators’ and by querying ‘the alleged tone of questions’ and ‘the number of interruptions’.
In terms of detail, Robinson’s praise for the BBC reporting seems to be based primarily on the Corporation’s Manual of Usual Excuses. This is wheeled out every time the word ‘bias’ is mentioned, and vigorously deployed by the BBC Complaints Unit to repel all boarders.
Direct from its grubby pages come the wearyingly predictable defences.
Robinson first claims that both sides have complained, so that means the BBC must be getting things right; then that Brexiteers such as Gove, Fox and Johnson are ‘remarkably reluctant’ to appear, so any shortcomings in that respect are their fault; and finally (the trump card!) that the BBC’s duty is in any case to its audiences, and they – he opines – don’t care about the obsessions of stop-watch wielding politicians. The only duty (again, of course, on the BBC’s terms) is to make sure they ‘understand’.
This all adds up to classic Corporation extreme stone-walling. It has been voiced by Robinson but has undoubtedly been cleared and co-ordinated by the BBC high command – and must also be seen as the official response to the complaint filed a couple of weeks back by Tory MP Julian Knight and 70 other cross-party MPs who wrote to Director General Tony Hall about the Corporation’s failure to explore and reflect the pro-Brexit perspective.
And, with Robinson’s scathingly condescending references to stop-watches and calculators, it is also framed as a direct attack on the latest academic research from News-watch into six months of Today’s business news output. This found a serious failure to air pro-Brexit viewpoints and an unjustifiably heavy focus on gloomy forecasts for the UK economy that added up to a continuation of the Remain side’s Project Fear.
But despite all the bluster, this exercise in smoke-screen obfuscation is remarkably threadbare.
It boils down to a chilling statement of intent that coverage henceforward will be whatever the BBC decides is impartial – no matter what evidence is produced to the contrary.
The reality is that, as the latest News-watch report detailed, the BBC’s coverage of post-Brexit developments is sharply skewed towards the Remain side – and that in the Corporation’s self-declared agenda-setting business slots, in six months, there were only only 10 contributions from clear supporters of Brexit, ranged against dozens who were not.
Robinson might rail against the use of ‘stop-watches and calculators’ but how can such lack of ‘balance’ or ‘due impartiality’ ever be defensible – and how else other than by careful, systematic counting can such blatant negativity be identified?
The BBC will NEVER countenance a complaint based on detailed research of their output – and that’s a gross affront to the licence fee payers that Robinson claims to be serving and helping to ‘understand’.
It is true that as Brexit unfolds, some elements of coverage do contain a wider range of anti-EU opinion than ever before. Prominent Leave campaigner, the Labour MP Gisela Stuart, for example, was afforded a very unusual brief slot on Today on the day of the Theresa May Article 50 letter to outline her timetable towards Brexit.
But small morsels aside, the Corporation is otherwise relentlessly focused on the Remain agenda. There’s a continuing, avid search for anything that suggests that ‘race hate’ has escalated as a result if the Brexit vote; Nigel Farage and Ukip continues to be pilloried – on Wednesday night, BBC1’s main bulletins reported Farage’s contribution to the European Parliamentary debate on Brexit in the worst possible light; and every obstacle in the Brexit negotiations, such as the Gibraltar clause, are seized upon with over- enthusiastic glee.
Robinson may claim that this is simple scrutiny of ‘immigration, trade and industrial policies’, but he’s wrong. It adds up to that since June 24, the BBC has mounted a declaration of war against the Brexit prospects and has sided firmly with the remain side.
There has not been a single BBC programme that has looked at Brexit optimistically.
A report by News-watch into the BBC’s coverage on Brexit covering the six month period after the referendum vote has found overwhelmingly negativity about Britain leaving the EU – breaching the Corporations rules on impartiality.
The report into the BBC flagship Today programme on Radio 4 found that of the 366 guest speakers who appeared in the Business News segment, 192 of them (52.5%) were negative about the impact of the vote and only 60 (16.3%) expressed opinions which were pro-Brexit or saw the post-referendum economic outlook as positive. There were 114 (31%) neutral contributions.
That there were three times more anti-Brexit speakers than pro-Brexit ones invited by the BBC to participate in the prestigious slot breaks its charter requirements to be impartial.
The most serious imbalance was that only 10 (2.9%) of the Business News interviews (from six speakers) took place with supporters of withdrawal from the EU. They were a tiny minority in the overall welter of negativity, and their positive points were generally not followed up by programme presenters and the pro-Brexit sector of business was virtually ignored.
News-watch, who carried out the investigation, has been scrutinising the BBC’s EU output since 1999.
In the six months between June 24 (the day after the EU referendum) and December 22, 2016 it monitored all 208 EU-related items broadcast on Radio 4’s Today programme in its Business News slots.
The investigation – which involved analysing more than 130,000 words of transcription – took place to check whether the BBC’s coverage met Charter requirements to be impartial in what the Corporation declares is the ‘agenda-setting’ platform for the Business News sector.
The intensive analysis shows that the overwhelming editorial purpose of the Business News slot was to air sustained and multi-faceted pessimism about the immediate and long-term consequences of the vote to leave the EU.
In classifying 60 speakers as ‘positive’, News-watch has erred on the side of caution. Only 31 were strongly optimistic about the post-Brexit economic landscape. The others were favourable, but only lukewarm or qualified in their assessments.
The BBC’s negativity towards Brexit was also blatant in the introductions to the Business News sequences. Only 22 (10.6%) of the opening sequences were clearly positive – though often even they were immediately followed by negative interviews.
Between them, the negative guests painted a relentlessly pessimistic picture of gloom, doom and uncertainty; of plunging economic prospects; of a collapse of consumer confidence; of rising inflation; of a drying up of investment; of job freezes; of a drain of jobs from London to mainland Europe; of skills shortages because of the ending of free movement; of the introduction of tariffs; and of endless complex renegotiation.
Given the BBC’s over-arching requirement for impartiality, the simple question that must be asked is: how the BBC can justify this gross imbalance given the pro-Brexit vote?
Based on the analysis, it clearly shows that the Today programme has effectively continued the Remain campaign’s ‘Project Fear’, beginning at dawn on June 24 and persisting until Christmas despite mounting post-Brexit positive news.
Another startling finding which has come to light through News-watch analysis is the massive level of bias by omission: a failure to include on Today at sufficient levels those who favoured withdrawal. By largely ignoring and not following up the themes and perceived opportunities which the few pro-Brexit guests did raise, and excluding from coverage important business figures who supported Brexit, the BBC appears to have further compromised itself.
The BBC is now duty bound to explain to the people who fund it how this editorial imbalance could have been allowed to occur. Failure to do so will seriously damage people’s confidence in its future coverage of Brexit.
This analysis is being circulated with the endorsement of a cross-party group of politicians who urgently request that the BBC’s director-general, Lord Hall, tells the truth to all licence fee payers about the astonishing catalogue of failure which News-watch has uncovered.
The killing last August of a well-liked Polish man, ‘Arek’ Jóźwik, after a late night fracas in a pizza parlour in Harlow sent the BBC newsgathering operation into overdrive.
It was the end of the silly season and only ten weeks after the referendum.
The BBC, of course, was then, as now, hell-bent on finding and giving maximum exposure to every possible reason why the Brexit vote was a catastrophic mistake.
To the Corporation, which for years has also been on a mission to downplay the impact of immigration on the UK and to label opponents as at best xenophobic, at worst racist, this was a story that ticked every box. They dived into reporting the crime with grim, hyperbolic relish.
BBC1 man-on-the spot Daniel Sandford gave most prominence in his feature for the BBC1 bulletins on August 31 to that the alleged crime – prematurely said by him to be a ‘murder’ – was being investigated as a frenzied attack by a gang of six local youths triggered by race hate stirred up by the referendum vote.
To ram home the message about the race-hate dimension, Sandford carefully collected and edited quotes from the Polish ambassador and Robert Halfon, the local MP.
To be fair, he also mentioned that police were considering other options, such as ‘youths looking for trouble’, but there was no doubt which reason for the attack he thought was more likely.
And later that evening, on BBC2’s Newsnight, correspondent John Sweeney’s outro to his feature about the death was a quote from a friend of Mr Jóźwik, who declared that Nigel Farage had ‘blood on his hands’. The full transcripts of the Sweeney and Sandford reports are contained in the correspondence with the BBC, below.
Fast forward to the present. It has since emerged that Mr Jóźwik’s death was not murder at all. Nor, say the police, was race-hate involved, and nor was the crime committed by a frenzied gang of youths.
Instead, a sole 15-year-old youth has been charged with manslaughter. He has indicated a plea of ‘not guilty’ at a preliminary hearing at Chelmsford Crown Court and has been released on conditional bail until his trial, which is expected to be in July.
It has also emerged since Sandford’s report in August that police are now convinced that a rise in the reporting of race hate crimes during the summer – heavily stressed by the BBC after June 23 and undoubtedly part of the reason the facts of the Harlow killing were so heavily exaggerated – was not linked at all to the referendum, but was the result of better and easier self-report procedures.
After Harlow, some journalists (unlike the BBC) decided to investigate further. They found that ‘race hate’ domain has become a major self-perpetuating and highly lucrative industry in its own right. One of the main hubs of this new world-wide enterprise is Sussex University where its principal advocate is partly lavishly funded by (you may have guessed)…the EU.
News-watch filed a formal complaint about Sandford’s report. This claimed in essence that the reporting of Harlow was deeply irresponsible journalism that deliberately sensationalised the known facts about the killing, and too readily linked it to ‘race hate.’ There was supporting evidence showing how very rare killings with a racial motive are in the UK, and warning that the available statistics were not reliable.
This was rejected by the Complaints Unit. The verdict? Move along there, nothing to see – Sandford (whose name was misspelled by the complaints officer) was merely doing his job.
Under the Corporation’s elaborate complaints rules, News-watch in early January submitted an appeal to the BBC Trust about the ruling. Former BBC producer Fran O’Brien, who is now the Trust’s Head of Editorial Standards, has now, finally – a month later than the maximum time permitted under the BBC’s own rules – responded.
Her decision? Surprise, surprise, exactly the same as the Complaints Unit. There was, she ruled, no exaggeration, no inaccuracy, no breach of rules linked to over-emphasising ‘race-hate’. Everything was totally tickety-boo and in line with the BBC Editorial Guidelines.
And that, said O’Brien, was that. Her verdict was final: there could be no appeal. As far as the Trust is concerned, the matter is well and truly closed. The full letter from O’Brien can be read below.
In two weeks, of course, from April 2, the Trust will be no more. Under the new BBC Charter, its role in adjudicating complaint appeals is being taken over by the Content Board at Ofcom.
But this last-gasp ruling underlines yet again that BBC journalism exists in its own bubble, and the Complaints Unit does nothing to prick it; if anything the reverse. The Corporation reports on its terms, no matter how inflammatory or at odds with the facts and common sense its output is.
The blunt truth is that the Sandford report of Mr Jóźwik’s killing grossly and irresponsibly exaggerated the race-hate dimension and must be seen in the overall context of the BBC’s determined desire to undermine the referendum result.
It’s now down to Ofcom to sort out BBC bias. Don’t hold your breath. First, the Content Board is packed with ex-BBC staff, and second, the overall Ofcom boss, Sharon White, seems more focused on the diversity agenda and getting more women on screen than clearing the Augean stables.
The reality is that until BBC bias is governed by genuinely independent scrutiny, the Corporation will remain locked in that skewed journalistic bubble – massively and crassly out of touch with the British people.
Britain’s Biggest Deal, BBC2’s programme about the triggering of the Brexit process, had a prime time slot, and was presented by the Corporation’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg. It was thus a shop-window effort.
Impartial, in line with the BBC’s Charter requirements? No. It was a no-holds-barred attempt to show how literally nightmarish the exit process will be.
Since June 24, as News-watch’s report on the Brexit Collection showed, the Corporation has been on a flat-out mission to show how stupid the British people were in voting ‘out’.
With Article 50 due to be triggered this week, Britain’s Biggest Deal can be seen as a culmination and a summation of those efforts. It ominously presages that for the next two years, as the negotiations unfold, the Corporation – led by Kuenssberg – will be cheering on every effort to undermine them.
Element one was a gross imbalance of speakers who wanted to rake up every conceivable obstacle to the the UK departure. Kuenssberg assembled a diverse and impressive cast-list: Tony Blair bellyaching about how important high volume immigration is to the UK economy; Sadiq Khan warning about the dire consequences of leaving the single market; Remainer William (now Lord) Hague intoning that this was the most complex diplomatic task ever undertaken; a West Country baker fearing major negative impact on his business; EU figures warning of dire consequences, of hard choices, and UK civil servants echoing the same.
Basic programme statistics confirm this gross structural bias. Fifteen of the programme contributors were Remainers, were pro-EU or thought that leaving could not be achieved in the allotted two years. Pitched against them were only five guests who believed otherwise.
In other words, 3:1 in favour of the Remain camp. And no-one from Ukip. Slowly but surely, the party is being air-brushed out.
Remainers spoke 3,700 words; those who were in favour of Brexit only 2,300. That’s a 3:2 imbalance.
Far more important in the equation, however, were the 3,000 or so words spoken by Kuenssberg, her handling of the programme guests, and her decisions on the programme structure.
‘Double, double toil and trouble’ …. springs to mind, and (for once) is here perhaps totally appropriate. No eye of newt and toe of frog in the programme brew, maybe, but a modern-day equivalent: first of all, the Tory Remainer from hell, Anna Soubry; then Blair, Sturgeon and Farron in full anti-Brexit cry, along with EU Harpies such as Karel de Grucht and Donald Tusk – and finally, an EU law ‘expert’ from Clifford Chance, one of the few legal practices to come out overtly (and aggressively) in favour of Remain (referred to here by Open Europe – link to pay-walled FT article).
Their combined oracle-reading was spine-chilling indeed.
Striking, too, throughout was Kuenssberg’s use of language to describe the Brexit process. It was, she posited at the outset, ‘a diplomatic mission from hell, a nightmare’, with political danger ‘all around from Westminster to Scotland’ (on high Dunsinane Hill?).
Then, as the programme unfolded, there was what amounted to a a torrent of negative observations and questions: were we, she pondered, ‘hurtling along a collision course?’; there was ‘a lot more to worry about than herring or cod’; ‘divorce was messy, breaking up is hard to do’; ‘could the whole deal be derailed before it’s even begun?’; and of course:
‘But as everyone knows, divorce isn’t only about cold, hard cash. Even if the money is settled, the deal means disentangling ourselves from the hidden ways that we are bound together.’
Followed soon afterwards by:
‘The lights in Whitehall are burning later than usual, with two new departments to cope. Government lawyers are right now trawling thousands of pieces of legislation to work out what’s next. Enough to make even the most brilliant minds boggle.’
And that was only in the first five minutes.
Also true, it must be acknowledged, is that Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis and Iain Duncan Smith were included in the programme mix, and between them made some strong points about positive outcomes.
But here, too, as Craig Byers notes in his blog on the programme, another type of bias was on display: Kuenssberg posed much tougher and adversarial questions to them than to the Remain contributors. She suggested, for example, to Lord Hague that this was a diplomatic nightmare. His answer simply and obligingly confirmed it.
In sharp contrast, Brexit minister David Davis was dealing with that ‘nightmare’ and there was hard-edged steeliness from Kuenssberg about looming ‘cliff-edges’.
Perhaps the most blatantly biased aspect of the whole farrago was the sight of Kuenssberg brandishing to shoppers a giant cheque for £50 billion, which, she repeatedly posited, could be the cost of Brexit. Rather predictably, they were horrified at the idea, and said so.
The programme can be viewed here. The full transcript is below:
Transcript of BBC2, Brexit: Britain’s Biggest Deal, 9 March 2016, 9pm
LAURA KUENSSBERG: Theresa May is about to press the button on Brexit and head off on a mission.
THERESA MAY: The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. And my job is to get the right deal for Britain as we do.
WILLIAM HAGUE: I can’t think of a more complex negotiation in modern diplomatic history.
LK: Outnumbered, facing 27 different countries across the negotiating table.
KAREL DE GUCHT Don’t believe that this is not going to hurt you, it will hurt you. And that’s why it is such a stupid decision to take.
LK: For Brexiteers, the dream is a quickie divorce.
BORIS JOHNSON: I am genuinely optimistic, I really am. I think we should aim to put a bit of a tiger in the tank.
LK: But there is political danger all around. From Westminster.
ANNA SOUBRY If she doesn’t deliver what they want, they will stab her in the back just as they did with Major and, in effect, with DC – with Cameron.
LK: To Scotland.
NICOLA STURGEON: I’ve, you know, been very clear. I think a second independent referendum is highly likely.
LK: The truth – no one knows where this will end up.
TONY BLAIR: My anxiety is that the gain is very small and the pain is going to be very large
MICHAEL GOVE: I think we should be confident, optimistic, pragmatic, open-minded.
LK: It sounds like a diplomatic mission from hell, a nightmare.
WH: I think it is. But it’s one the people have voted for, so it has to be carried out.
LK: When the Prime Minister packs her bags for Brussels, how hard is it going to be? Is she ready? Is the country ready to do the deal? (Programme Title, ‘Brexit: Britain’s Biggest Deal)
UNNAMED ARCHITECT: I had a secret wish to make a joyful building. To make a building that would relax people coming in and, you know, this is a very limited but still a power in architecture is to influence the mood of people.
LK: Welcome to the brand-new HQ of the European Council, where Brussels’s power lies. This is where the Brexit talks will take place.
UNNAMED ARCHITECT: I hope that it will help people respect each other and joyful meetings. I want to give them a homely space, a space where their deep talents can be expressed, like poets.
LK: But Brexit might mean more stern words than poetry.
ARCHIVE FILM: This has got to be clear, I’m leaving you for good and all.
ARCHIVE FILM: Council, if you’ll prepare a judgement of divorce in this matter.
ARCHIVE FILM: And you’ve got to divorce me.
LK: But divorce is messy, breaking up is hard to do. Britain wants out of the EU, but we’ve been in for more than 40 years, with our countries, our systems becoming more and more tangled up with each other, more and more enmeshed. And we only have two years to hammer out a divorce deal. British ministers are also all too aware that with a series of elections right around the continent, it could be months before they get down to any serious talking. So straightaway the clock is ticking.
WILLIAM HAGUE: This is the most complex divorce ever, in history. The number of assets and income streams and expenditures that have to be separated from each other, and I think people don’t always realise that, erm, that we have become, over more than 40 years, very integrated into the European Union, so no-one should underestimate the complexity of this task.
SIR SIMON FRASER Permanent Secretary, Foreign Office, 2010-15: There’s no real precedent for this other than Greenland. Now, Greenland is part of Denmark, which has about 60,000 people, and decided to leave the European Union and, actually, the main industry in Greenland is fish. And it took three years, actually, for the negotiations to be completed. Now, in the case of the UK you’re talking about the second-biggest economy in Europe, with 60 million people. So it is significantly a bigger challenge.
LK: And we’ve got a lot more to worry about than herring and cod.
SF: We’ve got a lot more than fish to deal with.
RADOSLAW SIKORSKI Polish Foreign Minister 2007-14: It’s going to be the mother of all divorces. Some people will do well – lawyers and accountants.
LK: The bean-counters could have a field day. Because the EU’s likely to make us pay – money, a lot of money is on the table. One of the first things the EU might well do is slap down a bill of as much as £50 billion for Britain to pay in order just to get out. That potentially massive bill is for Britain’s share of existing EU spending commitments like the pensions of EU officials. And if we don’t pay, the other countries will have to stump up.
WH: There are some liabilities there. It will be very hard to settle what they are and of course whenever you get into money, as in any negotiation in life, that is one of the most vexing and controversial things. Given the sensitivity in the UK to being, for many years, the second-biggest contributor into the EU budget and then the anger that was felt by people about that in the referendum campaign, any such question will be extremely sensitive.
LK: But hang on – remember this?
BJ: We can take back control of £350 million a week!
LK: Wasn’t the campaign based on getting money back from Brussels? What would we all make of an exit bill? (Carrying large cheque) So we have a cheque here for £50 billion to the European Union that UK taxpayers might have to pay to the rest of the EU to get out.
VOX POP FEMALE: We’ve been lied to.
LK: Is that how you feel?
VPF: Yeah, I don’t think anybody was explained to enough what was actually going to happen.
VOX POP MALE: I can’t believe it. We would have heard about that before, surely?
VOX POP FEMALE: Cheap at the price to get out of Brexit, yes. (sic)
VOX POP MALE 2: Who are we going to pay the money to?
LK: The European Commission in Brussels potentially.
VPM2: Exactly, well sod ‘em.
LK: Sod ‘em?
VPM2: Yes, and Gomorrah.
VPF: We should never, ever have given us a referendum (sic) None of us are educated enough to vote on something so serious.
VOX POP MALE 3: You just need to be tough, the same as any business deal.
VPM: I voted Out, so it’s all my fault, I apologise.
LK: (laughs) (cuts to interview with Michael Gove) You were the chair of the Vote Leave campaign, you gave people a sense of expectation we were going to get money back. Now, won’t it be rather embarrassing for you if instead we end up being asked to shell out to get out of the thing?
MG: We will get money back. Erm, there’s alway the chance, always the, er, potential that we’ll pay a one-off leaving fee. But that one-off fee having been paid, what will happen is that for years to come, money that we would have given the European Union we’ll now be able to spend ourselves.
LK: But if we have to pay a one-off fee of some billions, won’t some voters who were persuaded by your arguments have every right to feel pretty cross with you?
MG: Well, I think that we won’t be paying the enormous sums that have been talked of, in fact, in my view, we should actually be due a rebate. But we will see what happens in those negotiations.
LK: What does the British government say if Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, slaps down a bill for £50 billion?
BORIS JOHNSON: I think, er, I think we have, er…illustrious precedent in this matter. You will doubtless recall the 1984 Fontainebleau summit in which Mrs Thatcher said she wanted her money back, and I think that is exactly what we will, we will get. It is not reasonable . . .
LK: (speaking over) That we will say no, that is what you’re saying?
BJ: It is not reasonable, I don’t think, for the UK, having left the EU, to continue to make vast budget payments. I think everybody understands that and that’s the reality.
KAREL DE GUCHT EU Trade Commissioner 2010-14: I can’t see at this moment in time the constructive approach on either side, how do we make the best of this, you know? This is very much now a fight.
LK: Are we hurtling along on a collision course? If the EU tries to insist the cash is agreed upfront, cut the whole deal be derailed before it’s even begun?
KDG: I believe it will be a very tough negotiation and it could very well be that after a couple of weeks, everything breaks down because there is no agreement on the principal itself of a cheque to be paid here.
ANNA SOUBRY MP Conservative: I think the EU will indeed deliver that bill and I’ll tell what I think will happen, is in that event, part of the media will whip up even more a storm of anti-EU feeling and so even more people will come to the conclusion that the sooner we are rid of this ghastly bunch of people the better. And that will drive the cliff-edge scenario. Because “they’re unreasonable, you can’t do business with them,” it’ll be whipped up and you can’t get a deal and the sooner we’re out the better.
LK: But as everyone knows, divorce isn’t only about cold, hard cash. Even if the money is settled, the deal means disentangling ourselves from the hidden ways that we are bound together.
JESSICA GLADSTONE Lawyer, Clifford Chance: The EU and the UK have been intertwined for more than 40 years and that will take a lot of unravelling. If you like, you could picture it as a huge Jenga tower, and the task here is to remove or replace the elements that connect us to the EU without having the whole fall apart. It’s going to require, erm, a lot of concentration, a lot of skill, and it’s going to need a real appreciation of how the two interconnect.
LK: Since 1973, much in our daily lives has been governed by EU law. The quality of the water that we drink . . . the farms where our food is grown. And what happens to the law. All the rules and regulation. It all has to be worked out in a two-year deadline.
JG: One good example is the European Medicines Agency, which supervises the safety standards for all medicines that are available in the EU.
ARCHIVE FOOTAGE OF DOCTOR: I’m going to give you something new that we use with good results. You’ll be alright in a few days.
JG: Once the UK has left the EU, there’ll need to be something in place of that, make sure that the products available in the UK meet requisite standards.
WH: Even the way we do our air traffic control is now on an EU basis, you have to separate that out so that you know when aircraft can land, where people can fish, how farm subsidies are paid, and you could imagine talking for months about each of them.
LK: It sounds like a diplomatic mission from hell, a nightmare?
WH: I think it is. Erm, but it’s one that the people have voted for, so it has to be carried out.
LK: Our skies right now are governed by the EU, with a myriad of European legislation. It’s in both sides’ interests to sort it out, but it will take a lot of officials a lot of time.
JG: It’s the sheer scale that will be so difficult to manage, because there may be some tasks that in themselves are not particularly difficult, but when you add it to the huge to-do list that the government will have, to make sure that Brexit runs smoothly, then it becomes in itself a real challenge.
LK: The lights in Whitehall are burning later than usual, with two new departments to cope. Government lawyers are right now trawling thousands of pieces of legislation to work out what’s next. Enough to make even the most brilliant minds boggle.
PROFESSOR STEPHEN HAWKING: I deal with tough mathematical questions every day, but please don’t ask me to help with Brexit. (laughter and cheering)
LK: Remember, Theresa May doesn’t just have to sort out the money and, well, the whole legal system. But the hardest thing of all is how do we do business with Europe in the future? And for months she dodged the question.
THERESA MAY: Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it. (in another clip)People talk about the sort of Brexit that there is going to be – is it hard, soft, is it grey, white – actually, we want a red, white and blue Brexit. That is the right Brexit for the United Kingdom.
JOURNALIST: Are we going to get a detailed plan, Prime Minister?
LK: Finally, in January, she laid out her vision of what the referendum result really meant, and what kind of deal that would entail.
TM: The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union and my job is to get the right deal for Britain as we do. But the message from the public before and during the referendum campaign was clear – Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe, and that is what we will deliver.
LK: Gaining control over our borders and our laws meant losing something else.
TM: We want to buy your goods and services, sell you ours, trade with you as freely as possible, but I want to be clear, what I am proposing cannot mean membership of the Single Market.
LK: In one phrase undoing nearly three decades of British history. Since 1992, we’re done business in Europe largely without tariffs or barriers in the Single Market. Remember who used to think it was a good idea.
MARGARET THATCHER: The combination of a Single Market in 1992 and the Channel Tunnel in 1993 is going to make a historic difference to the future of the whole of Europe and its place in the world and our place in Europe.
LK: For many big British businesses the Single Market has been hugely beneficial. (in interview)We are walking away from the biggest trade partnership that exists. Will you admit there will be losers as well as winners? We cannot get a deal that is going to be as good as our current relationships inside the Single Market.
BJ: Well, with great respect, I think it’ll be considerably better. I don’t want to pretend that there won’t be difficult questions, because there will be challenges. By the way, I don’t want to pretend that this country doesn’t have economic challenges, of course we have challenges, but we can meet all those challenges, and I think the government is setting out a very positive programme for doing so. And we can do a great free trade deal with our partners.
LK: So what would a free trade deal with the EU look like?
JG: If you have a look at a free trade agreement – although I wouldn’t necessarily wish it on anybody – you’ll see at the back of the agreement there are schedules, and the schedules have, in minute detail, every different sort of product in every different form that that product might come in. And there is detail as to what tariff will apply in that case, and it’s line by line for literally hundreds, thousands of pages.
LK: So Theresa May has set herself a huge task. Any new trade deal will require the agreement of 27 other nations and to be approved by 38 different national and regional parliaments. But Britain is isolated. In Brussels it didn’t start well.
DONALD TUSK (unnamed) The brutal truth is that Brexit will be a loss for all of us. There will be no cakes on the table for anyone, there will be only salt and vinegar.
UNNAMED FRENCH SPEAKER: Today, Britain wants to leave but does not want to pay anything. That is not possible.
KDG: The mood is a little bit like you’re having a divorce, you know? They feel betrayed, this is not proper, you know – that’s the mood in Brussels at this moment in time. And nobody’s showing any flexibility.
LK: (referring to Theresa May) She knows Europe’s leaders feel the survival of their union is at stake. They fear a good deal for us would tempt this to leave.
RS: Well, I hope the continental negotiations EU-27 will do everything in their power to make it a friendly process – although it’s going to be very difficult. But I think those who imagine that Britain will be able to dictate to the rest of the European Union will be disappointed and they might find it humiliating.
LK: The strategy in Brussels is clear: for every single one of the 27 EU member states, apart from Britain, to stick together along with the European Council and the European Commission. But Britain knows they all have some different interests and some different agendas, so the British strategy: pick them off. Divide and conquer. And that means working not just with national governments, but powerful groups inside their countries too, and using them to apply pressure for a deal. Our fancy tastes might help. We drink more prosecco from Italy, and more champagne from France than anyone else. Surely the EU won’t want tariffs on those? Even more importantly, Britain is the biggest export market for Germany’s mighty car industry.
IAIN DUNCAN SMITH: The UK needs to identify very quickly every single nation’s real stake in this game and the number one thing that politicians react to is jobs? What happens when that million car workers in Bavaria, whose jobs rely on British exports, that’s one million people who are in work because they sell a large number of cars to the UK, what happens when they start saying, “Hang on a second, are you saying that my job will go because you will refuse to have an arrangement with the United Kingdom because you think, for political purposes, that’s best?” We should be talking and will be talking to the very people that make things and get people jobs and they pay their taxes because that’s where politics really sits.
LK: And there’s the City of London.
ARCHIVE NEWSREEL: Britain has one of the most highly developed banking and financial systems in the world.
LK: The UK will also try to persuade Europe it’s in everyone’s interests to give London’s massive financial services industry a special status in any deal.
SADIQ KHAN Mayor of London: I’m quite clear, I’m pragmatic, I’m trying to work with the Government to ensure when it comes to them doing a deal with the European Union, it doesn’t make us poorer. That means, for example, recognising the importance of privileged access to a single market. That means recognising the importance of our ability to attract talent. I think the reality of a so-called hard Brexit is we would lose, so would the EU, because the jobs that would leave London wouldn’t go to Paris, Madrid, Brussels, Frankfurt. They’d go to Singapore, Hong Kong or New York. A so-called hard Brexit means we lose as a city, our country loses, but so does Europe.
MG: It’s certainly the case that if the current negotiators on behalf of the European Union try to penalise the City of London, they would actually be penalising themselves because the depth and breadth of the capital market that is the City of London helps sustain European industry.
LK: So, we should ignore sabre-rattling from European capitals at the moment, should we?
MG: I think we should be confident, optimistic, pragmatic, open-minded.
LK: Aren’t you gambling that the European Union will put economics ahead of politics? I mean, when has the European Union ever put economics ahead of politics.
BJ: Well, I mean, I think, the answer to that is that I think the EU leaders will be very responsive to their electorates and to their business communities, who can see the advantage of striking a deal with the UK, where you have a strong EU supported by a strong independent UK, but where you maximise trade between them.
MARIO MONTI Italian Prime Minister, 2011-13 I know there is the view in the UK with many that economics ultimately trumps politics. Erm, I wouldn’t rely too much on that. Britain, on the 23rd of June, the economic argument for staying was overwhelming and yet it was the political set of arguments, however disorderly, which trumped the rather clear economic arguments.
LK: And a key ally of Angela Merkel warns we cannot have it all our own way.
DAVID McALLISTER MEP Chairman, European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee: Cherry-picking – that cannot really be an option. A state which isn’t a member of the European Union and which isn’t a member of a single market can’t be better off than a member state of the European Union, so whatever the new relation, the new agreement between the European Union and the UK will be, it will have to be less than the current EU membership of the European Union.
LK: But the real Brexit-enthusiasts believe the costs of leaving will be swept away by the trading opportunities with the rest of the world.
BJ: You’ve then got the FTAs, the Free Trade Agreements with the rest of the world that we will now be able to do. We’ve got an embarrassment of choice because a lot of people want to do a free trade deal and so the task will be how do we prioritise?
MG: If you look at other countries which have been outside the single market, they’ve managed to secure for themselves not just trade deals worth far more than the European Union has been capable of negotiating for itself, they’ve also been able to pursue economic policies which have fostered growth, creativity and innovation.
LK: But before any new deals can happen, we have to tie up the arrangements with the European Union. And it’s even more daunting, because there’s a deadline. Can we really move that fast? (in interview) How long do you think it will actually take?
SIR SIMON FRASER Permanent Secretary, Foreign Office, 2010-15: The average accession negotiation to join the EU, for example, is about seven years and if you look at the negotiation of the trade agreement between the European Union and Canada, that took about seven years to negotiate.
JG: So, I think the quickest one the EU has ever agreed has been within a period of about 4 years. Typically, 8-11 years is not uncommon for negotiating trade deals.
LK: But couldn’t we just put our foot down? Lawrence Tomlinson owns a string of businesses, including Ginetta Cars, and is a man used to doing deals. You might just remember him from the referendum campaign.
LAWRENCE TOMLINSON: Well, actually, Boris took me out for a spin to start with, which was quite disconcerting, but I was really surprised, he drove it very well and then we brought him back and we did a few doughnuts and it seemed to catch the imagination of the campaign.
LK: And now around here, you call it the Borismobile.
LT: We do, we call this old girl the Borismobile.
BJ: We’re taking back control.
LK: In terms of the length of time it’s going to take, you know, some people say this might take as long as a decade, it’s going to be very complicated and that delay is going to mean uncertainty and that can be really damaging.
LT: I think the Government will just plough straight on. I mean, it’s just utter bollocks that it should take ten years.
LT: Well, World War II took just over five years and, I mean, in fact, I think it shows the reasons why we should leave, you know, that things like this could perceivably take ten years. It’s ridiculous, so let’s get on, let’s get a nice clean hard Brexit and let’s dictate it.
LK: The government wants to get cracking. They’ve set themselves a target of negotiating a new trade deal in two years. On top of all that tricky divorce. (in interview) Every European diplomat, pretty much every expert, is very cynical about this being done within two years, why are you sure it can be done?
BJ: Well, it certainly can be done in two years and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be, and I think we should aim to put a bit of a tiger in the tank. As I say, the deal with the EU, that negotiation, I think, should be fairly straightforward because we are in line with the rest of the EU when it comes to our standards and our, our trade arrangements, we just need to perpetuate that agreement.
LK: What do you say to many supporters of leaving the EU who say, “Look, We could just repeal the act, we could just walk out. It could all be done in a couple of years”?
SF: My answer to that is you could do that, but you need to think about what you’re left with and if you’re left with not a very good relationship with other European countries and no clarity about the future arrangements in our biggest market because, after all, almost half of our trade is with the European Union, then I don’t think that’s a very satisfactory position to end up in.
LK: So it’s a kind of crash and burn? You could do it fast, but we’d burn ourselves on the way out?
SF: So you could do a quick deal, the question is could you do a good quick deal?
LK: Everybody agrees that getting it done in record time is a challenge of historic proportions. This is Down Street Station, hundreds of feet below the posh streets of London’s Mayfair and, during World War II, the government used to come down here for secret meetings. Churchill used to spend time in these warrens, trying to decide what to do in the war. (in interview) Some people compare it to the biggest job for any leader since the Second World War. For you, is it right to compare this to a challenge as great as the Second World War?
WH: In its complexity, it is right to compare it. This is nothing like as grave a challenge as the Second World War. It’s not even the gravest moment since the Second World War, but it is the most complex. That is certainly true. I don’t think ever before has a government had to negotiate over so many subjects with such a . . . a complex set of negotiating partners on the other side and so many competing demands on their own side. I can’t think of any parallel to that for any British government in history.
LK: Are ministers being straight with us about how hard it might be? One former Prime Minister doesn’t think so.
JOHN MAJOR: I’ve watched with growing concern as the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic. Obstacles are brushed aside as if of no consequence, whilst opportunities are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation. My own experience of international negotiations makes me doubt the rosy confidence being offered to the British people.
LK: Should you not just level with people and manage their expectations, because it’s one thing . . .
BJ: (speaking over) Okay, it’s a very important . . .
LK: . . . saying, “It might be a bit difficult, there might be some bumps in the road,” . . .
BJ: (speaking over) I think, I think that’s a very, very legitimate question.
LK: There are millions of people who are worried about what might happen here.
BJ: (speaking over) Yes, I think it’s very important, it’s very important to understand that, I mean, I mean, I am genuinely optimistic. I really am. I think it’s a fantastically exciting moment. I think we’re going to do brilliantly well, but it’s also important, at the outset of any negotiation, not to go into it with a sort of Eeyore-ish hesitancy about how things are going to turn out, but to, to, to recognise and to communicate to our friends and partners that this is going to be good for both of us.
LK: But, just as you suggest, Eeyore might have been a bit gloomy, Tigger might have been a bit naïve.
BJ: All of us who are working on this – Liam Fox, the Prime Minister – we all understand, the Chancellor, we all understand there are challenges and there are problems. None of them, individually, is by any means an insoluble problem and there are ways of taking advantage of the position we’re in, too, which will be greatly to the benefit of the UK economy, UK consumers and people in this country.
LK: This is Theresa May’s deal. Can she get it done. She has a wafer-thin majority, but, so far, she seems pretty much unstoppable. Her bill to trigger Article 50 and start the Brexit process passed through the Commons easily. (footage of vote passing Commons)
MG: It certainly felt historic, but I was also conscious that, in a way, this was the easy part. It was easy to make the case in the House of Commons that we should honour the referendum and respect the result. The difficult part is making the individual decisions that will ensure that Britain is in a stronger position in the future, but there are going to be, inevitably, difficult days ahead.
LK: What there hasn’t been yet is intense political pressure. The referendum turned everything upside down.
JEREMY CORBYN: Mr Speaker, it’s not so much the Iron Lady, as the Irony Lady.
TM: I’ve got a plan, he doesn’t have a clue.
LK: It’s left Labour divided and confused. (in interview) Do you think we are potentially at the start of a really fundamental reshaping of British politics.
TB: I just don’t think you can tell at the moment. I mean, what is clear to me is that, if the choice is between a sort of hard Brexit Tory Party and a hard left Labour Party, there will be millions of people who feel politically homeless. The fact, at this moment in time with this issue of Brexit, that you don’t have an opposition capable, or looking as if it’s capable of winning, is a problem. I mean, that is a problem for our democracy.
SIR KEIR STARMER MP Shadow Brexit Secretary: Brexit has clearly been difficult for the Labour Party, but I do think the worst is over and now we can hold the Government to account in a much more united way. The difficulty for us as a pro-European party was whether to give the Prime Minister permission to start the process. Now, we’ll hold her to account every step of the way.
LK: But one party has seen an opportunity in crisis. Tim Farron is Liberal Democrat leader, and he’s calling for a second referendum, but this time on the Brexit deal.
TIM FARRON: I think you kind of keep fighting for what you believe in. You’ve got to have the courage of your convictions and I think that what politicians tend not to do is say stuff that is uncomfortable. (leaving taxi) Thank you very much. Thank you, bye-bye.
LK: He’s off to Doncaster, where 70% of people voted to leave, to thrash out his plan with some of them.
TF: The bottom line is eventually she’s going to come back with some kind of a deal and the question is do you trust her and Parliament Our point is that people should be able to have one last look over the cliff and say, “I’m going over,” or, “Do you know what? I’d rather not.”
UNNAMED MAN IN FOCUS GROUP: I don’t agree with another referendum. You know, the country’s made a decision. Why are we having the bickering, so let’s go forward together, we will get there.
UNNAMED FEMALE IN FOCUS GROUP: It’s going to happen so, everybody, get behind it and make it happen in the best possible way.
TF: I don’t think it happens in the best possible way if there’s no resistance and no challenge to the Prime Minister.
UNNAMED MAN IN FOCUS GROUP 2: The trouble is it’s not a football match, it’s not like we’ve scored one goal, yeah, okay, you come in now, Tim, you get your referendum, you score another one and then we take it to a penalty shootout.
TF: I know it’s not best of three, I get that. Although we’ve had two . . .
UMFG2: But you get one crack at it, you see.
TF: What she’s doing by saying you’re out of the single market without even arguing our place is settling for a poor deal and that’s why, you know, amongst the things we’re saying is that the people should decide at the end. So, no, I think the job of a good opposition is to challenge the Government so that they’re better.
LK: For many voters though, here and round the country, immigration was the priority.
UMFG2: Right, the reason why they come here… The reason why they come here is because of…
TF: You’re about to say benefits, aren’t you?
UMFG2: Yeah, of course.
TF: It’s not. Honestly, it’s not. They’ve never heard of benefits.
UMFG2: Oh, come on!
TF: Honestly, they haven’t. Honestly, they haven’t.
UMFG: What’s in that coffee, I’ll have some of that! Your average European in Britain is youngish, working, paying taxes. They are. And we have a kind of misconcept of the value or the damage that European labour is doing here.
UMFG2: Democracy has spoken. Do you not believe in democracy?
TF: Yeah, I do. I think, I think democracy means two things. One is having the grace to accept when you’ve not won and the second is you don’t flipping give up. You stake out a case and you argue people to follow you, and you may succeed or you may fail. A referendum on the deal is not just democracy – It’s about closure. It’s about the country agreeing that, yes, this deal, we’re content with it. The danger of there not being a referendum at the end is the Government decides and three-quarters of the country say, “I didn’t vote for that,” and there is simmering resentment, and there’s no closure.
UNNAMED MAN IN FOCUS GROUP 3: I can see why, as a politician, he has a lot of personal charm. He is a very persuasive speaker, but did he change my mind? Not for a moment.
UMFG: We’ve got to take it on the chin and move forward as a United Kingdom and, actually, let’s make this happen, okay, let’s stop the rot, stop the circle, let’s just on with it.
LK: Theresa May’s calculation is that most Britons would agree with that. They just want her to get on with it. And it’s the decision to control the country’s borders that has defined the Prime Minister’s plan.. But will she actually be able to cut the numbers of people who come here?
CHRIS ORMORD: We’re seen as a brilliant business making brilliant cakes. We’ve been in Taunton since 1865, I’d like to think we’ll be here for another 150 years.
LK: Chris Ormrod owns and runs a bakery in the heart of Somerset.
CO: We employ 400 people locally, 200 of them British, and the other 200 are from a mixture of nationalities from the EU and in some cases beyond. So, if you suddenly give me a very hard Brexit and say, “You can’t employ unskilled labour,” I kind of worry where I’m going to get my staff from to do the sort of things that we do and to carry on growing the business for the future and that one, that is a sleepless night kind of question and I don’t know how to answer that properly at this stage.
LK: Chris isn’t the only person worried here. Chef Lubo has been in Britain for eight years.
LUBO ROTAK: When we first moved here, my daughter was five months old, and er, now she’s eight. My son is six so both my children were raised here. They went to kindergarten, they went to school here, they feel they belong here. If it was going down the hard Brexit way, then the worst case scenario for us would be to move, me and my whole family, over to Slovakia. That’s not what we planned, that’s not the future we planned for our children, so it’s not just about us, it’s about our children and it would have a massive impact on their lives as well, yeah.
LK: The fate of the three million or so EU citizens who live here, as well as more than a million Brits who live on the continent, will be on the table when the Brexit talks begin. But this business and many others depend on them.
CO: I suspect most people would say, “Why don’t you just hire Brits locally?” Believe you me, we have tried. As I stand right now, we’ve got 30 vacancies. That’s very nearly 8% of my workforce and I can’t fill them and the simple truth is there just aren’t enough local people that want to come and work in the factory.
LK: Fears shared in very different industries, in very different parts of the country.
SADIQ KHAN: Let me give you one simple statistic. 12.5% of London’s workforce – that is more than 600,000 Londoners and they’re Londoners, by the way, who were born in countries in the European Union. They work in construction, they work in finance, they work in tech, they work in the professional services. They help our city thrive and flourish. If we can’t continue to attract them, we’re going to struggle and suffer.
LK: But Theresa May has been absolutely clear. We’re not staying in the single market and she’s determined to bring immigration down and that means an end to freedom of movement.
SK: I accept the argument there are parts of the country that don’t want immigration. There are parts of the country where the voters there voted to leave the EU because they thought it would lead to less immigration. I’m quite clear in relation to London – if we’re going to continue to flourish and thrive, we need to continue to be able to attract talent.
LK: Since the referendum, the government’s tried to reassure individual industries they won’t lose their workers. But does that mean immigration won’t fall?
TB: Right now, on what the Government is telling us, we’re going to still be bringing the majority, probably the large majority, of these people in from Europe, yet that was the main reason people gave for pulling us out of Europe. So, all I’m saying is a very simple thing: you know, when people start not just to see the pain, but start to realise in terms of the gain, we’re not going to be pulling those European numbers down to a few thousand, people are going to carrying on coming because we want them to come.
LK: For how long should voters expect to continue to see significant levels of immigration from the European Union? Because that’s what it’s about, isn’t it? There was a political promise of us being able to bring immigration down, leaving the European Union . . .
DAVID DAVIS MP Brexit Secretary (speaking over) It will come down. Listen, make no bones about it, I mean, the Prime Minister, ex-home Secretary, is determined that it will come down, but it’ll come down in a way that doesn’t do harm.
LK: For swathes of voters, though, shouldn’t you be preparing them for something that feels rather different to what they think they were promised? I mean, might we not end up with a bad compromise here where significant level of immigration remain over time so that business doesn’t lose out, but then also a new bureaucratic system of dealing with work permits and visas for business? That’s not going to be a great compromise for anyone, is it?
DD: Look, it’s going to be a good outcome, (words unclear) compromise. It’s going to be a good outcome because A – we’ll control it, that’s the first thing. We’ll decide and we’ll make decisions on economic, and also on social grounds and so on. Secondly, the bureaucracy can be overstated, it doesn’t have to be bureaucratic, it’s very plain what we want to do, we want to keep our economy running at the same time as bringing immigration down, and we’ll do both.
LK: And how long should it take, how long should people expect?
DD: Well, it’ll take what it takes because the economy will drive it.
LK: But there’s another fault line, a fundamental one: the tension between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Just listen to this, from the Prime Minister’s very first speech on the steps of Number Ten.
TM: It means we believe in the Union – the precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
LK: Yet more than 60% of those who voted in Scotland chose to remain in the EU. That’s encouraged those who believe in independence to push for a second vote.
NICOLA STURGEON First Minister of Scotland: Theresa May, in deciding to play to the hard right Brexiteers of her own party rather than trying to find maximum common ground, is in danger of making a decision to leave the EU, which I already think would have been damaging, potentially quite catastrophic for the UK.
LK: Your opponents would say, though, you’re trying to use this situation to revive the independence arguments.
NS: I deliberately didn’t, the morning after the EU referendum, say, “Right, that’s it, we’re off and we’re having a second independence referendum,” because I wanted to see if we could find that compromise ground. I’m not hugely optimistic about it at this stage because we’ve been met with a bit of a brick wall from the UK Government, but I’m honouring the commitment I made in this very room on the 24th of June to exhaust all possibilities. But equally, you know, I’ve been very clear, I think a second independence referendum is highly likely.
LK: You just dispute the sense, the claim that the case for independence has been strengthened fundamentally by the fact that the UK is leaving the EU?
MG: No, the case for independence is weaker now.
LK: It’s weaker?
MG: The truth about the Scottish Nationalist Party is that they have one aim – they want to destroy the United Kingdom and they will bend and twist any aspect of politics in order to fit this preordained ideological goal. And we should call them out.
LK: In Westminster, some politicians think you’re bluffing about holding a referendum.
NS: I’m not, and I never have been. And, you know, I always think that sometimes kind of says more about them than it says about me because it suggests that there are politicians in Westminster who think Brexit and all of this is some kind of game. It’s not a game, it’s really, really serious and the implications for the UK are serious and the implications for Scotland are serious.
LK: Some of your colleagues now talk about autumn 2018 as a likely date?
NS: Within that window, I guess, of when the sort of outline of a UK deal becomes clear and the UK exiting the EU, I think, would be the common sense time for Scotland to have that choice, if that is the road we choose to go down.
LK: Just to be clear, you’re not ruling out autumn 2018?
NS: I’m not ruling anything out, no.
LK: It seems the government in Scotland is deadly serious about another vote on independence. It means when Theresa May is up to her eyes in trying to get a good deal from the European Union, she might also be grappling in a fierce fight to keep the UK together. There are serious issues for Northern Ireland, too. The peace process which ended the Troubles partly depended on an open border with the Republic in the south. But Theresa May’s decision to leave the single market and what’s called the customs union could force a return to a hard border, with echoes of the past.
TB: The risks to the peace process, I think, are substantial. If you start putting a hard border down there, quite apart from all the disruption and the difficulty, you will change that context in a way that is profound and adverse.
LK: Tony Blair has told us in this programme that there is a real risk to the peace process while the border issue is unresolved, that things could be very unpredictable in Northern Ireland. Is he right?
DD: Well, no, I don’t think he is and the reason he’s not right is because everybody is seized of the issue so we, all of us, want to solve it and what does solve it mean? It means having a frictionless border. It means not going back to the borders of the past. I am confident we can actually get a resolution which is comfortable for the people of Northern Ireland and also comfortable for Ireland, the Republic of Ireland as well.
LK: By the end of the month, Theresa May will press the button on two years of Brexit negotiations. They’ll be as complex and tortuous as anything that’s been attempted since the European Union was born.
TOM FLETCHER Prime Minister’s Foreign Policy Adviser, 2007-11: This time, every leader in that room is negotiating not just with their foreign counterparts, but with their own media, with their own parliament, with their own party and with their own public and that is a very, very tough negotiation to get right, that multi-dimensional chess game.
LK: There are crucial elections in France and Germany this year. With Europe’s most powerful politicians distracted, it may be autumn before any serious talks begin in this town. With so much to negotiate, no-one doubts one thing: there’ll be long days, late nights, it will go to the wire.
WH: In a negotiation which is relatively fixed in time, why would you make a major concession, once you’ve started the negotiations, half way through? You would save that all up for when you’re getting to the 11th hour, for when you’re approaching the end of the two years and that will make it an agonisingly difficult process. It always does, there’s always somebody holding out for a bit more. Most European deals, in the end, are settled either at the last minute or after the last minute.
LK: David Cameron learnt that lesson the hard way, in previous battles in Brussels.
DC: And it’s frankly not acceptable for the way for it to be left to this last minute and then attempt at reopening it and the sort of ambush at 1am at the end of a European Council meeting. I just think this is no way for an organisation to conduct itself and I find it immensely frustrating, but, you know, in this town, you have to be ready for an ambush at any minute and that means, you know, lock and load and have one up the spout and be ready for it, and that’s exactly what I did.
TF: The reality of these negotiations, particularly at three o’clock in the morning, is that no plan survives contact with the enemy. You can have spent months preparing the perfect game plan, but, just as in a military campaign, it will all come down to those fine, minute judgements you make on the spot.
LK: In this diplomatic game, the questions: who has most to lose, and who blinks first? This is Brussels’ most famous chippie and Angela Merkel even popped down here from a summit when things got a bit fraught late at night and round here, things do get very, very late and very, very tricky and the closer we get to the end of the two year deadline, the more pressure there is on Theresa May. Her opponents across the table, they know full well she doesn’t want to walk away with nothing. If the deadline looms and there’s deadlock, one option for the Government is to seek a temporary arrangement but that’s not what ministers want.
SF: What does that transitional arrangement look like? If it consists of more or less staying in the status quo in terms of access to the single market and everything that goes with that in terms of respecting the rules of the European Court of Justice, allowing freedom of movement of labour, then I think there are many people in this country who would find that very difficult to accept.
ANNA SOUBRY: Look, this is the reality. There’s a bunch of people. They have lived, eaten, drank, slept, everything for this moment and they are not going to let anybody snatch it away from them, and Theresa May knows that, you can’t appease them, and if she doesn’t deliver what they want, they will stab her in the back, just as they did with Major and, in effect, with DC, with Cameron.
LK: Ministers don’t want to extend the talks beyond the two years. So if there is no deal, that only leaves one option: the cliff edge.
JG: The cliff edge describes the reality of one day being in the EU, with everything that that means and the next day being out of it with no deal. And the level that you switch between, between those two worlds is very dramatic, which is why it’s described as falling off a cliff edge.
TB: There is a risk of no deal. If we get no deal, I think business would regard that as a pretty severe outcome so, you know, you’re playing for very high stakes in this for sure because there are a myriad of technical questions, all of which actually impact on jobs and business and industry and trade and commerce so . . . Look, I think no deal is a bad deal.
LK: If you are so optimistic about getting a good deal, though, why did you warn your Cabinet colleagues that the risk of us having to walk away and not getting a deal at all is very real?
DD (laughs) Be careful. What I said to them was they’ve got to do the, they’ve got to do the work for the so-called plan B or C or whatever it is. It’s not plan A.
LK: But you acknowledge it is plan B, plan C, plan D, whatever you call it, the risk of not getting a deal . . .
DD: (speaking over) Where, where, wherever it goes in the list, it’s our responsibility as a government to make preparation for all possible outcomes, right, we’re going into a negotiation. We don’t control the whole thing. By far and away the highest probability is plan A or some variant of it, namely a comprehensive free trade deal.
LK: You are acknowledging, very publicly, there is a real risk of what’s known as the cliff-edge? We walk away without a deal and some people say that’s a catastrophe even to contemplate that.
DD: If you . . . No, it’s not a catastrophe to contemplate things. You contemplate things so you either avoid them or mitigate them.
LK: (speaking over) But were we to walk away, would that not be a catastrophe?
DD: (speaking over) If you went out on the street today and said to the ordinary member of the public, “Should the Government prepare for all outcomes?” They would say, “Of course.”
LK: If you had to describe the chances in percentage terms of us getting a deal, what would you do?
DD: I don’t intend to go down that route. The aim of my department is to deliver plan A.
LK: In two years’ time, the world’s eyes will be on this building in Brussels. Whatever the outcome for Britain and the EU in March 2019, it will make history.
MG: There are both short- and long-term economic factors, which mean that Britain is likely to thrive and to succeed, provided we take the right decisions, provided we approach these negotiations and indeed provided we approach the world with the right attitude.
KDG: You will see the results, the negative results, one would say, sooner or later, but I believe rather sooner than later. Don’t believe that this is not going to hurt you. It will hurt you and that’s why it is such a stupid decision to take.
KS: I think this is a defining moment and Brexit has been a crossroads for politics and what matters now is the way ahead and I think the political divide will be between those that believe in a collaborative, cooperative approach with our EU partners, in other words changing the relationship, not severing it and those that want to sever it and walk off completely and that’s the real battle that now lies ahead.
BJ: We want the best for Europe, we want a new approach. They want us there at the table for so many reasons. There are so many things that we do together that we will continue to do together.
LK: Whether we crash out or sail smoothly, think of this. Theresa May will almost inevitably be the last British Prime Minister to sit at a European table like this. There’ll be no more – no Thatcher handbaggings, no Blair-Chirac bust-ups, no Sarkozy telling David Cameron to shut up – allegedly. It’ll be it. Probably one night in March 2019, probably one very late night, Theresa May will walk out of here, taking Britain out of the European Union with her. What she achieves, or does not achieve in this room will define her record and change our country.
The first interview featured Charles Moore of the Spectator, laying into the BBC’s ‘groupthink’ and the corporation’s lack of even-handedness when it comes to disputing/believing ‘facts’ (i.e. questioning figures from the Trump side whilst simply taking on trust figures from the anti-Trump side), plus making the contrast between how the BBC greeted the election of Barack Obama with how it’s greeted the election of Donald Trump.
The second interview featured James Harding, Director of BBC News. It was one of those BBC interviews when the senior BBC manager essentially says little other than that ‘the BBC is getting it about right’. Even when he sounded as if he was about to concede one of Charles Moore’s points, Mr Harding spun around and refused to concede it:
JAMES HARDING Erm, I think, let me say two things. One is: I think Charles Moore makes a really good point and made a really good point in that article which is, if you’re going to have an argument about the honesty of the President of the United States in picking a fight with the media about the size of his audience at the inauguration, then you’d better be as vigorous and as keen to monitor the numbers of people who go on marches. And I think that point is not just related to Trump, it’s related to that bigger issue about public protests and how do you make sure that you, you do that accurately?
STEVE HEWLETT: So do you think there was an element in the BBC’s reporting . . .
JH: (interrupting) So . . .
SH: . . . that could fairly be described as ‘uneven’ slightly?
JH: No, I just think, I think what that is an extremely important thing is (sic) to keep on reminding people that if you’re going to pick a fight over fake news – and there is a fight on all sides over fake news, then you keep coming back to the efforts you make to be accurate. That’s a really important point. Plus, he quite blatantly side-stepped some of Steve Hewlett’s sharper questions (or, to put it another way, failed to answer them), eg:
SH: I guess is . . . I mean, this is a very cheeky question . . .
JH: Hm-hmm (laughs)
SH: And there’s no reason why you should have a proper answer to it, in fairness . . .
JH: Can I just say, ‘No I don’t’ (laughs)
SH: Do you . . . well, that might be the answer. Do you know anybody on the journalistic or editorial staff at the BBC, who is pro-Trump?
JH: (two second pause) (inhales) So . . .
SH: As an individual I mean.
JH: So, so really important . . . there’s a really important thing here, which is that, people inside the BBC, they are all journalists, actually, one of the great misunderstandings about journalists is that there is such a thing as groupthink. Journalists, by nature, have really contrary opinions, they have different opinions, certainly when, when there’s a group of think— er, people who go in one direction, they, by nature, want to go the other direction, you know them as well as I do. Erm, one thing that is true of the BBC is of course, you leave all your personal opinions at the door.
It was a strikingly weak performance, all in all.
Transcript of BBC Radio 4, The Media Show, 25th January 2016, James Harding on claims of BBC Bias against Trump, 4.30pm
STEVE HEWLETT: Hello, he’s certainly been in the news alright.
NEWSREADER: The White House is accused of telling falsehoods in a battle with the media about President Trump’s inauguration.
SH: But has the BBC’s coverage of him and his administration been duly impartial? We’ll hear from the former editor and Telegraph columnist Charles Moore and James Harding Director of BBC News. (Discusses other stories coming up in programme). So, is the BBC Biased? It’s not exactly a new issue, but it appears to have been given a new lease of life by Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States. Charles Moore, Conservative commentator and Telegraph columnist wrote a piece attacking what he suggested was the corporation’s one-sided coverage of Trump. Whilst Trump’s attempts to challenge the otherwise low estimates of the numbers attending his inauguration were given a fully rigorous going over, estimates for attendance at the women’s march against Trump, put by organisers into the millions worldwide, were allowed to pass without question. Moore sees this as indicative of a much deeper malaise. In a moment we’ll hear from James Harding the BBC’s Director of News, but first I asked Charles Moore to explain his problem with the BBC’s reporting of President Trump.
CHARLES MOORE: Everything in the Trump side of things is challenged, not necessarily wrongly so, but it is challenged and everything on the anti-Trump side is not challenged. One of the reasons that Donald Trump is now President of United States is because of the massive counter-reaction in middle America against what they call the Liberal media, and in a way they are right, you know, the New York Times, ABC, CNN, etc, present particular view of the world which is extremely hostile to a certain sort of ordinary American. And the BBC, who Donald Trump describes as ‘another beauty’ is the most important exterior non-American network that also behaves like that. And so what this reporter is, about the figures is, is not actually really a sort of disinterested inquiry into the figures, it’s a battle between the Liberal media and Donald Trump.
SH: I mean, whereas the New York Times clearly defines itself, or declares itself to be anti-Trump, called him a liar, recommended a vote for Hillary, are you saying that the BBC in some ways sees itself as fighting the, in inverted comas, ‘the good fight’ against the evil Trump?
CM: Yes of course, it will try to, at least to some extent to present facts properly but secondly because it’s paid for by the licence fee and has a charter which says that it has to be unbiased, so it can’t actually write its own article as it were, saying, you know, ‘We hate Donald Trump’, which the New York Times can, but it does. And I think it’s so obvious it hardly needs description.
SH: But do you think there are a group of people somewhere in the BBC, sitting around a table deciding that this is the way things . . .
CM: (speaking over) No, no, no.
SH: . . . should be done?
CM: No, no, it’s like all, almost all BBC bias, it’s groupthink. It’s the same people thinking the same thing and it – by the way doesn’t only apply to Donald Trump, it applies to the assumption made about Brexit, it applies to climate change, a whole range of issues where there is an automatic assumption about what a decent person would feel. And, I don’t regard this as a conspiracy, but I regard it as quite a serious dereliction of duty about reflecting the variety of opinion in society.
SH: But if you have someone like President Trump, for example, issuing forth with – I think of myself as a reasonably independently minded observer of these things, things that are really demonstrably untrue, or at the very least massively exaggerated, I mean it’s just this weekend we had the inauguration figures, we had his assertion that the media had concocted his feud with the FBI and CIA, when you look back at the tweets he issued around the time, that seems to be just plain nonsense. He then had to go on illegal immigrant voters, that last claim was made without, from what I can see, a single shred of evidence, and even senior Republicans are saying to him, ‘Please stop saying this, it’s going to get us all into a lot of trouble’. When you have someone doing that, is there any other way of dealing with him?
CM: I think the way you phrased your question shows what you think of President Trump in the first place and therefore confirms my point. By the way, I’m not defending the particular claims that President Trump makes. I personally haven’t criticised in public his tendency to exaggerate, but I think if you, if you think how you might approach other politicians with whom the BBC is less likely to disagree, they let them off, they don’t submit them to the same sort of relentless attack and investigation. He’s been treated like a witness who . . . and prosecution is . . . trying to pull him apart. If you were a challenger to the establishment from the left, the BBC would be welcoming him. So when President Obama comes in challenging a whole enormous range of American attitudes, partly because he’s the first black candidate, he gets the benefit of the doubt, 8 years ago, it’s . . . nobody’s going through all President Obama’s claims about whatever they may have been, because what you’re getting from the BBC is how wonderful it is that somebody has arisen against the white establishment. And now you have a great big white man who’s arisen against the establishment and he’s treated like a monster. This is simply because, or largely because, it reflects the BBC’s world view.
SH: Do you think that there’s anything the BBC could do to remedy this?
CM: First of all, I think it could knowledge it, and that would be a start to remedying it. Second, I think it should have an exterior investigation, not of . . . bias in the sense of cheating, but about mindset, about the way almost everyone in the BBC thinks the same thing, and is therefore – and this is really my biggest objection to it all – so behind the game about what’s happening in world news. It didn’t understand that we were going to vote for Brexit, it doesn’t understand and therefore its viewers and listeners, it’s much harder for them to understand, what the revolt that has produced Trump is all about, because it’s just regarded as wicked, and that sort of bias against understanding, which is a phrase that John Birt used many years ago, is a really serious problem with the BBC which its own authorities and possibly exterior authorities should be invited to investigate.
SH: So, James Harding, thanks very much for joining us. ‘A bias against understanding’ arising from groupthink, rather than kind of . . . any sort of clear, positive effort to mislead? Do you think there’s anything in that?
JAMES HARDING (sighs audibly) Well, firstly I should say, Steve, I think that having read you and listened to you for a fair few years now, I’m pretty sure that the way you asked the question about Donald Trump would be the way you would asked a question about a politician of any stripe. I mean, part of the job of the journalist is to lean into (fragment of word, or word unclear) people in positions of power. Erm, I think, let me say two things. One is: I think Charles Moore makes a really good point and made a really good point in that article which is, if you’re going to have an argument about the honesty of the President of the United States in picking a fight with the media about the size of his audience at the inauguration, then you’d better be as vigorous and as keen to monitor the numbers of people who go on marches. And I think that point is not just related to Trump, it’s related to that bigger issue about public protests and how do you make sure that you, you do that accurately?
SH: So do you think there was an element in the BBC’s reporting . . .
JH: (interrupting) So . . .
SH: . . . that could fairly be described as ‘uneven’ slightly?
JH: No, I just think, I think what that is an extremely important thing is (sic) to keep on reminding people that if you’re going to pick a fight over fake news – and there is a fight on all sides over fake news, then you keep coming back to the efforts you make to be accurate. That’s a really important point.
SH: (speaking over, fragments of words, unclear)_
JH: But can I just make . . .
SH: (speaking over) But when I looked at the website and so on . . .
SH: I haven’t seen all the broadcast coverage, but erm, it, it was quite clear, that whereas Trump . . . Trump’s numbers were being taken to task, now, in fairness to the journalists who did that, that might well be because there was direct, concrete evidence that what he was saying simply wasn’t true, or was massively exaggerated. When it came to the ‘millions of people’ quote . . .
SH: . . . around the world, I mean, that may simply not be checkable in any meaningful way, but nevertheless, you know, march organisers are renowned for inflating their numbers . . .
SH: . . . and there was no sign of any scepticism, being . . .
SH: . . . shown. Journalistic scepticism I mean, towards that number.
JH: (inhales) Look, there’s . . . there is a real risk here that we all lose our minds and we disappear into a debate about something that doesn’t . . . matter as deeply as the real changes that are happening in the world . . .
SH: (words unclear, speaking under)
JH: (speaking over) But let me just, let me just finish. There is clearly a difference between the President of the United States challenging a piece of reporting that compares the audiences in 2009 with the audiences in 2017. That is a, that is about whether or not President of the United States is using the podium in the White House to try and challenge what looks to be demonstrably true. There’s a second point which is: is the BBC when it makes estimates and any other news organisation to that matter, makes estimates of crowds, is it rigorous enough about those estimates and does it take into account inflation. I’ll just stand back to this for a minute. There is a really important risk here that the media turns into a circular firing squad and starts having such a huge discussion about itself that it misses what are the really essential changes that are happening. And just to take it back to how the BBC is thinking about this is: there are going to be, by the nature of the way in which the new President of United States operates, huge media flare-ups. He’s picked fights with certain networks, he’s had arguments about actors, about shows and these are fantastically interesting. At the same time of course there are really important changes to the way in which United States is operating in the world of trade, in the world of aid and development. One of the things we keep saying in our morning conferences, ‘Let’s keep an eye on those executive orders, make sure we’re really rigorous in understanding . . .
SH: (speaking over) Okay, (fragment of word, unclear)
JH: . . . what the President is doing. And I think that is really important this, because the media spat actually could distract us from some of the things . . .
SH: (speaking over) Okay.
JH: . . . that are quite important . . .
SH: We’ll come back to how you’re dealing with him . . .
SH: . . . and the things you may have to set up to do things differently given the sort of challenges that he and his regime clearly represent. Erm, but just to go back to one more specific thing, he says in the article, we didn’t hear it in the conversation there, that he says whenever Fox News comes up in the BBC’s coverage, it’s described as pro-Trump – there’s no real argument about that, it is, unquestionably, pro-Trump and (slight laughter in voice) I’m not even sure Fox News would deny . . . would seek to, would seek to avoid the charge.
JH: Actually, if you look back through the course of 2015-16, Fox as a Republican-leaning network actually had a quite ambivalent relationship with Donna Trump, it’s changed, obviously . . .
SH: (speaking over) Well, as of last weekend you were describing him, describing them as pro-Trump. However, when the New York Times or CNN or NBC or ABC turns up, all of whom are in their own ways anti-Trump, they’re never described as such.
JH: (inhales) I, I think, look, I think . . .
SH: (speaking over)(fragment of word, or word unclear) You’re not giving the same signal.
JH: (fragments of words, unclear) And again, this is my point about the media turning into a circular firing squad. Different networks there would take different views, and, you know, if you look at the way the US media works, it’s different to the way it works here in the UK. You know, in British newspaper, newspaper editor has control of the run of the news pages, and also the opinion pages, and the leader column. In the US it’s different. You run the news pages and there’s a separate group that runs opinions and leaders. So clearly, if you look at the New York Times, they’ve taken a, they took a very strong pro-Hillary, anti-Donald Trump position. Reporters there would say, ‘our job is also, in the news pages, to try and report the stories fairly and accurately.’ So, it is a complicated picture, I go back to my point I’m afraid, Steve, which is I think there is a big media argument happening, I don’t want to distract, it to distract us from actually the really key issue . . .
SH: (speaking over) But, but, but (fragments of words, unclear)
JH: . . . which is the presidency of Donald Trump.
SH: But you could resolve these, these, these . . . these are footling in a way . . .
SH: I take your point, it’s not . . . you know . . . their nuclear policy appears to be changing, (laughter in voice) rather more significant. Their policy towards China might be changing, you know, these things are really significant I actually get the point. But simply being even-handed about the way you describe other news organisations, being even-handed about the way that you deal with different claims to numerical accuracy, that’s not a . . . it’s only an issue if someone doesn’t fix this.
JH: And I guess what I’m saying is some people will make judgements about, particularly, networks, particularly on the TV networks, on the US papers, I think it’s easier to make that point, I think it’s, I think they’re clearer in their editorial position on the President.
SH: So, do you think the BBC should start describing CNN in matters Trump as being anti-Trump?
JH: I think (fragment of word, unclear) I think the BBC should, should focus on, on Donald Trump. I think that . . . I think that where you can see particular papers or particular news outlets taking a very clear editorial position, and it’s there in black and white or there in the soundbites, we should make that clear. Where there . . . where, where it’s more mixed, I think that the business of branding and seeking to brand every different outlet is probably a fools’ errand and actually is a distraction from the real story.
SH: So there are times when you wouldn’t label Fox News as pro-Trump?
JH: (two second pause) Yes. I think that’s right. And actually, if you look back at our coverage, that’s true.
SH: Okay. Just take his point more generally, or one of them anyway, about ‘groupthink’ – this is not the first time this has come up in the BBC, indeed, one of their own reports, run by, it was run by Stuart Prebble, ex-of ITV, and it looks at immigration and Europe . . .
SH: . . . and it concluded that the BBC did suffer, in periods, through sort-of groupthink . . .
SH: . . . because of the sort of people that the BBC was full of. It didn’t suggest any active attempt at bias or whatever, but, you know, these are people who grew up in a world where being anti-immigration meant you were rather uncomfortably close to the National Front and neo-fascism. So racism and fascism became very connected with anti-immigration, and so, you know, people just didn’t go there. So (fragment of word, or word unclear) sort of taken together, the BBC was exhibiting a sort of groupthink. It . . . is there anything, do you think, in Charles’s argument that over Trump something similar could be happening?
JH: I, I don’t think . . . I think if you look back at 2016, and people look back and say how do we understand the nature of Trump’s election victory over Hillary Clinton? Or the Leave victory over Remain? Actually, I think that in both of those cases, what the BBC sought to do – and we were right, to be honest with you, we were quite chastened by the experience of 2015 where, you know, as you remember, I think we discussed it, the experience of the polls, we weren’t reporting the polls, but the polls were reflecting the way in which we were conducting interviews, thinking about the likely outcome of the result. In 2016 I think we went into both . . . er . . . the June 23 referendum and the November election really clear in our mind that there was no trusting the polls, and one of two outcomes was possible in every case. And what we tried to do very differently last year was to make sure that we were not covering the, the race, we were covering the choice. What we set out very clearly to do last year was to make sure, actually, let’s report the choice. I think that we did that, and we did it extremely carefully . . .
SH: (speaking over) (fragments of words, or words unclear) The question, the question here . . .
JH: I don’t think we, we, we (word or words unclear due to speaking over)
SH: . . . I guess is . . . I mean, this is a very cheeky question . . .
JH: Hm-hmm (laughs)
SH: And there’s no reason why you should have a proper answer to it, in fairness . . .
JH: Can I just say, ‘No I don’t’ (laughs)
SH: Do you . . . well, that might be the answer. Do you know anybody on the journalistic or editorial staff at the BBC, who is pro-Trump?
JH: (two second pause) (inhales) So . . .
SH: As an individual I mean.
JH: So, so really important . . . there’s a really important thing here, which is that, people inside the BBC, they are all journalists, actually, one of the great misunderstandings about journalists is that there is such a thing as groupthink. Journalists, by nature, have really contrary opinions, they have different opinions, certainly when, when there’s a group of think— er, people who go in one direction, they, by nature, want to go the other direction, you know them as well as I do. Erm, one thing that is true of the BBC is of course, you leave all your personal opinions at the door.
SH: So says James Harding. And we also heard there from Charles Moore.
How totally hostile can the BBC’s coverage of the Trump presidency and Brexit actually become? Recent evidence suggests that the race to the bottom is well and truly on.
Exhibit A is the weight it gave on Tuesday morning to Kenneth Clarke’s utterly preposterous (and chilling) claim that the referendum vote is a reflection of the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ In the BBC’s world, that was worth Today headlines as part of the general Corporation-wide delight at the Supreme Court’s decision to put new hurdles in the way of Brexit.
Exhibit B in that same parallel BBC universe is that the prospect of a new free trade deal with America is no longer a potential benefit but a major threat to national wellbeing.
Mishal Husain (again on Today) suggested that such a deal would lead to a deluge of US Frankenstein chlorine and hormone-drenched foods on our supermarket shelves, bypassing (God forbid!) superior EU food regulations. In other words, to the BBC, trade with Trump’s America is a totally poisoned chalice.
Corporation chiefs claim with brass-necked obstinacy on their own tame ‘complaints’ platform Newswatch that they are justified in reporting in these terms because they are simply posing questions about unanswered details of policy.
Garbage. It’s an all-out war against what the Corporation sees as ‘populism’. The BBC is so locked in its £4 billion gilded cage of self-defined ‘truth’, ‘due impartiality’ and alleged fact-checking, that those who work there can’t even begin to see their grotesque bias against what the most senior among them so strongly dismiss – in lockstep with Kenneth Clarke – as the malign influence of demagogues.
Will it ever improve?
The Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee last week grilled former Bank of England deputy Governor Sir David Clementi about his credentials to take over as Chairman of the BBC, in charge of the so-called Unitary Board, which is part of the Corporation’s new charter.
Merchant banker Sir David, though possessing no broadcast experience, is unquestionably a smooth and accomplished operator, light years away in his abilities from the incompetent and utterly colourless predecessor as Chairman of the Trustees, Rona Fairhead.
But what also emerged from the Commons hearing was, in parts, deeply disturbing.
On the one hand, he said something encouraging, that – in the context of the reporting of Brexit – he felt that the BBC’s Public Purpose Charter requirement to ensure impartiality needed, in effect, more rigorous policing. He indicated that he wanted to consider the introduction of ‘scientific monitoring’ towards achieving that.
This would be a welcome development in that for years, senior news executives have strongly pooh-pooed such rigorous monitoring and have maintained that their own internal editorial meetings somehow keep an overview of coverage.
But – and it is a big ‘but’ – there were also clear signs that Sir David may already have gone native and is in the maw of senior BBC executives – even before his appointment is formally approved.
Why? Well, when asked further about coverage of Brexit, he declared that he believed the Corporation had got it ‘about right’, then added that the Brexit-related ‘reality checks’ introduced by the news department during the referendum campaign were a step in the right direction.
Poppycock! The BBC’s coverage of the referendum campaign was not anywhere near being impartial. This paper about Newsbeat explains why.
Further, as Craig Byers of Is the BBC Biased? adroitly chronicles here, the checking unit is itself a mouthpiece of strident pro-Remain bias. Of the relevant EU-related rulings between November and January, seven were pro-Remain and none at all were pro-Brexit.
Sir David has thus, in effect, already endorsed the deeply-flawed internal BBC processes that over decades have made the BBC into a fountainhead of right-on bias.
Forces against Clementi’s plan for other ‘more scientific’ monitoring are in any case also already circling. Ray Snoddy, former Times and FT media editor who presented the BBC’s Newswatch programme, and has since become a mouthpiece of pro-BBC opinion, has forcefully attacked the concept.
He sneeringly dismisses all such work as being by right-wingers with stopwatches – despite the fact that the BBC Trustees themselves used such methodology by former senior BBC staff at Cardiff University to defend the Corporation’s output.
Clearly, Director of News James Harding is of the same mindset, as he showed when the BBC Trustees made a rare finding against BBC journalism. He simply dismissed it as wrong.
The reality is that until BBC journalists – including Harding – are subject to properly independent and highly-rigorous scrutiny in terms of impartiality, they will continue to inhabit their deeply biased, liberal bubble covering not just Trump and Brexit but populism in general, climate alarmism, multiculturalism, and much more.
Sir David Clementi, an outstanding operator with a sharply analytical mind, undoubtedly has a window of opportunity to transform things. But on the evidence so far, don’t hold your breath.
At the heart of the BBC’s reform under its new Charter – due to come into effect imminently – is that for the first time, an outside body, Ofcom, will become the final court of appeal in complaints about impartiality.
The idea is that this will clean the Augean stables and the Corporation will end its rampant bias towards Brexit, climate alarmism, the impact of immigration, multiculturalism and rafts of other issues.
This is looking increasingly like poppycock. For a start, the members of the Ofcom Content Board are drawn from exactly the same prejudiced background as the BBC Trustees. But putting that aside for one moment, the tale below illustrates precisely why.
On August, 31, Arkadiusz Jozwik, a Polish man living in Harlow, was killed in a late-night fracas in the pizza parlour where he worked.
In the immediate aftermath of the crime, police arrested six local youths (all under 16) but quickly released them on bail without charge. There were no further developments until this week when a 15-year-old from Harlow was charged with Mr Jozwik’s manslaughter. Of fundamental importance, it has also emerged that a race hate charge in connection with the death is not being pursued.
When news of the killing emerged, the BBC’s news operation went into hyper-ventilating overdrive.
On the BBC1 News at Six, reporter Daniel Sandford compiled a report in which the fulcrum was there were now fears that this was a ‘a frenzied racist attack triggered by the Brexit referendum’.
A few hours later, John Sweeney, on BBC2’s Newsnight – one of the Corporation’s main investigative journalists – took matters a step further in the editing of his report. He included as the conclusion so that it could not be ignored this inflammatory sounbdbite from another local Polish man:
But I mean, Nigel Farage, I mean, thank you for that, because you are part of this death, and you’ve got blood on your hands, thanks to you, thanks for all your decision, wherever you are, er . . . yeah, it’s your call.
Clearly in play and being reinforced to maximum extent by the Corporation was the central idea – evident in other programmes, too, as is documented on the News-watch website here – that June 23 had unleashed a torrent of racist venom. In the BBC’s world the jackboots were now out – and on the march.
The following Monday, Guardian columnist and political activist (sorry, ‘rights campaigner’) Garry Younge was allowed to put together for a BBC Radio 4 series a barrage of sensationalist allegations in the same vein: that Britain, overnight since June 23, had become a seething cesspit of race-hate. Attacks were underway in terrifying, unprecedented volume.
On the advice of a senior BBC news executive – who claimed that the Corporation was listening to problems about post-Brexit coverage – News-watch submitted a formal complaint about the coverage of Harlow killing to the BBC Complaints Unit, focusing principally on the Sandford report.
Over seven-pages, it detailed that his approach was sensationalist, deliberately contrived to give maximum impact to the race hate claims, and also pointed out that it was seriously irresponsible and premature – in the light of the facts known to the police on August 31 and more generally about race-hate crime – to speculate so prominently either about race-hate motivation or about the crime’s possible link to Brexit.
The BBC’s response? A curt high-handed letter. It asserted that such speculation was legitimate because there had been a rise in reports of race-hate crime since June 23, and because other possible motives for Mr Jozwik’s death had been included in Sandford’s report.
The letter – which was mostly in an obviously standard format, and was so slipshod that it even spelled the name of Sandford incorrectly, omitting the ‘d’ – glossed over with what can only described as haughty arrogance the key points.
In response, News-watch submitted a second complaints letter pointing out the omissions and stating that the reply was totally unsatisfactory. That was on October 20. On November 30 (ironically, the day of the manslaughter charges were laid) came the Complaints Unit’s second reply. It states:
‘We are sorry to tell you that we have nothing to add to our previous reply. We do not believe your complaint has raised a significant issue of general importance that might justify further investigation. We will not therefore correspond further in response to additional points, or further comments or questions made about this issue or our responses to it.’
The lessons learnt? The core BBC complaints process, which will remain as the conduit which will deal with most of the complaints submitted to the BBC after Charter renewal, is intrinsically and, irrevocably unfit for purpose. The Corporation remains the primary judge of what is deemed a ‘significant issue of general importance’
The second Complaints Unit letter does point out that the BBC Trust, in some circumstances, does entertain appeals. But the fact is that – as Richard Ayre, one of the current Trustees, has admitted – it has not upheld a complaint on EU-related matters in its entire existence.
Will Ofcom change that approach? Don’t hold your breath. And meanwhile, the totally inaccurate BBC assumptions about Brexit and race-hate continue to spew forth.
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