EU Referendum

Craig Byers: BBC ‘European’ Correspondent bias ‘off the scale’

Craig Byers: BBC ‘European’ Correspondent bias ‘off the scale’

Well, ten minutes after posting that piece about BBC Europe correspondent Damian Grammaticas’s Remain-biased piece for Monday’s BBC One News at Six his latest report popped up on tonight’s BBC One News at Six

…and I think we may now have the winner in ‘Most Biased Report in the BBC’s EU Referendum Coverage’ category.

I know it’s an early call but I really can’t see anything topping it over the next six weeks. It was that biased.

It discussed the UK’s contribution to the EU – a highly controversial issue. And what did impartial BBC Europe correspondent Damian tell us?

Well, firstly, he showed us a dramatic graphic showing the huge amount of money we make as a country each year (UK GDP 2014 – £1,817 bn) and then total government spending (£747 bn). One and a bit columns of huge numbers of coins stacked up next to him. The graphic then shed two tiny coins to show us our EU contribution (£11 bn). It make it look like mere chicken feed (or sparrow feed).

[Of course, comparing our EU contribution to the totality of the UK economy (and the totality of UK government spending) is the most extreme comparison imaginable. Of course it will make our EU contribution seem tiny. It makes nearly all UK government (i.e. UK taxpayer) spending seem tiny.]
A second graph then showed us that we put in way less than Germany and France (and even Italy). Ah, but we put more in that Malta: so a third graph was then used to show that “we pay by far the lowest measured by our share of national income” [his emphasis].

Why this “special treatment”? In two words (Damian’s own two words): “Maggie Thatcher”.

He called the rebate our “discount”.

“What happens to our cash?” he then asked. More than half “comes back to us”, he answered, “to be spent in the UK”. He then listed all the wonderful things the EU spends this money on here before saying:

If we controlled this money we could spend it on other things. But only by depriving these of funding.

And by ‘these’ he meant the list he’d just given: farmers, “poorer regions, roads, ports, businesses”, “research grants, universities, companies like Rolls Royce”.
Would you want to “deprive” those things of funding by voting to leave the EU? That was very clearly the unspoken question Damian Grammaticas was putting to BBC One viewers here.
After all this there’s still the UK’s net contribution to the EU of £5.5 bn [half of that ‘chicken feed’ figure he quoted earlier]. Damian quickly told us that we’re one of 10 countries that pays more in that we get back [so we’re far from alone] and that Germany and France pay more than us anyhow. The money goes to Europe’s farmers, poorer regions and Europe-wide projects – infrastructure, energy, “spent in space even – European rockets and satellites” [and who doesn’t like European space missions involving the UK?].
And this tiny £5.5 bn figure?

Essentially it’s our fee for entry into Europe’s single market, with which we do more than 40% of our trade.

Who wouldn’t want to pay such a tiny amount to get us that much, and as well as saving Rolls Royce?
Frankly, my Biasometer was going off the scale by this point. But then came Damian’s closing comments and it exploded. The BBC man – despite a pretence at even-handedness – played the ‘uncertainly card’ (the ace in Project Fear’s pack):

But all these figures could be dwarfed by what might happen to our economy if we quit the EU. If it grew a lot or shrank a lot the impact either way on our government’s finances and on us all could be huge.

And that was how it ended.
This article first appeared on Is the BBC Biased
MARDELL: ANTI-BREXIT BIAS CONTINUES

MARDELL: ANTI-BREXIT BIAS CONTINUES

Analysis of 15 editions of World This Weekend from January 24 – May 1

The programme is presented by the BBC’s former ‘Europe’ editor, Mark Mardell.

Under his watch, the programme has worked consistently hard to present the arguments for ‘remain’, given more time to ‘remain’ supporters, and has featured most heavily stories which favour the remain side. It has paid much less attention to the leave case. At least seven of the editions have been heavily skewed in favour of the remain side; none has strayed even marginally the other way.

No edition has set out with claims from the ‘exit’ side on the ascendant, or has sought as its main editorial thrust to push the ‘remain’ side to justify their stance.

A recurrent editorial approach has been the investigation of divisions over the EU within the Conservative party. There has been no equivalent exploration within Labour of issues such as the impact on the working class vote of the parliamentary party’s strong support of EU immigration policies.

The partisanship of the editorial policy is perhaps best epitomised by tweeting from the programme on April 17, which sought to highlight that Lord Hill, the UK’s European Commissioner, was warning that British agriculture would face severe financial problems if Brexit occurred.  Such front-foot promotion of the ‘remain’ arguments confirms the programme’s partisan approach.

PROGRAMME BIAS

News-watch analysis recorded in site blogs has already established that three editions of the programme since January 24 were seriously biased in favour of the ‘remain’ case.  The sequence from Portugal on February 7 (also analysed here h/t Craig Byers) looked at attitudes in that country to the UK’s requests for benefits and immigration reform. All the speakers including those from the Portuguese government, were strongly in favour of free movement and the current EU regime in that respect. The discussion afterwards was focused on the EU referendum and gave far more time to former CBI chairman Sir Mike Rake, the ‘remain’ spokesman, against Richard Tice, a supporter of Laeve.EU.    The full programme analysis, in the form of a complaint submitted to the BBC, is at Appendix A.

The edition of February 28 focused on that The British Disease’ – discontent with the EU – could ‘be catching’.  Explaining what this meant, Mark Mardell emphasised that this included the rise of the ‘hardline anti-immigration party’ in Denmark. The Czech Republic’s Europe minister Thomas Prouza warned that a British exit could force Europe back ‘towards the Russian sphere of influence’. Bruno Grollnisch, an MEP from the Front National in France, countered that the British were setting a good example and showing that renegotiation with the EU could be achieved. BBC correspondent Nick Thorp, reporting from Hungary, said that ’populist right winger’ Viktor Orban, the prime minister, was promising a referendum. The goal was ‘defending his country from immigrants’ and he was thus popular with many other Eastern European countries. Finally, Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek government minister, warned that the EU was collapsing, but wanted integrated action by the EU to prevent this. Overall, the item suggested that ‘British contagion’ – linked to right-wing populism – was spreading across Europe and was endangering the EU itself. The main manifestation of the ‘contagion’ was in anti-immigration movements, with pro-EU figures suggesting that on the one hand there was a danger of ‘Europe’ being pushed closer into the Russian orbit, and on the other without steps towards greater unity, the EU would collapse, unleashing a 1930s-style depression and other consequences.

On March 20, the EU-related feature looked briefly at the resignation from the government of Iain Duncan Smith, and then the impact on business of staying in or exiting the EU. Mark Mardell spoke to two business owners with divided opinions. The questions put to the ‘exit’ supporter were much tougher than one who wanted to remain, and were designed to show that ‘exit’ would create potential problems. There was a contribution from Stuart Eizenstat, a former economic advisor to President Clinton, who said that leaving the EU would be a ‘disaster for the UK’. There would be economic stagnation no trade deal with the US. Gordon Ritchie, who had negotiated Canada’s recent trade agreement with the EU suggested that a better deal could be achieved by the UK. Mark Mardell, despite Mr Ritchie’s answer, persisted in focusing on how difficult such deals were, and then whether it would be easier to focus on a Commonwealth deal. Sir Andrew Khan, of The City UK, who Mardell said had previously been in charge of the UK’s government body promoting exports, said he was in favour of staying in the EU and claimed it would take 10 years to reach trade deals with countries like China.  He further claimed that leaving the EU would lead to 20 years of sub-optimal growth. Mardell then interviewed Peter Lilley. He attacked the idea that it would not be possible to reach a deal with the US or China.   Overall, this was less blatantly biased than the Portugal edition, but by far the most prominence and emphasis was given to the obstacles to leaving the EU.

The edition of April 10 was based on a meeting of an Italian think-tank in Lake Como, and it was particularly biased against the ‘exit’ case. They had gathered there, it was said, to discuss global economic problems including the possible impact of Brexit. Mark Mardell interviewed a former adviser to President Obama, a Chinese economist, a German government minister and the president of a major global investment fund (Allianz), all of who attacked this ‘stupid’ (as one contributor said) and damaging prospect. In their collective eyes, membership of the EU was unquestionably vital to the UK’s future. Their contributions were followed by a live interview with Labour donor and Vote Leave supporter John Mills, who Mardell introduced only as ‘the founder of a mail order company’. His tone and approach changed immediately – he was much more adversarial. To be fair, Mills was given a far crack of the whip in answering the points raised – and gave credible answers – but it was his contribution was in a much narrower channel, and he was subjected to more scrutiny. Mardell’s editing meant that the pro-EU side appeared more authoritative and more polished.

On April 17, the main focus was a warning from Lord Hill, the UK’s European Commissioner, that outside the EU, British agriculture would face a very bleak future, and farmers would receive less subsidy. The programme elected to tweet this warning (without any balancing material)  as an important development in the referendum debate.  In his introduction to the item, Mark Mardell noted that Brexit and remain supporters had been trading insults over the warning, then said that David Cameron had claimed that farmers could lose up to half their income and also face 70% tariffs on their exports. The first part of the feature was interviews with two farmers, one in favour of leaving the EU, the other who claimed that the need was for a level playing field, and it would ‘get hilly’ if there was an exit. Mardell then interviewed Lord Hill and created a framework in which he could project strongly his negative claims about EU exit. Mardell’s main challenge was that this was ‘project fear’. Agriculture minister George Eustice was able to put across that he did not believe that farming would suffer on Brexit, or that exports to the EU would stop, but Mardell pushed hard that this was strongly disputed by the Treasury as well as David Cameron.   Overall, the programme, in its tweets and the editorial structure, put most weight on the David Cameron/Lord Hill claims that agriculture would face serious threats if Brexit occurred. The balance provided through the appearance of George Eustice did not cancel this out.

More major bias featured in the edition of April 24, the weekend of President Obama’s visit to the UK. The problem here related to the weight that Mardell ascribed to the importance of President Obama’s intervention in the referendum debate. He amplified that he had taken a ‘wrecking ball’ to the Brexit case, and while Liam Fox was given the opportunity to respond to some of the points, his arguments were swamped by Mardell’s commentary and guest contributions that underlined the damaging nature of the president’s comments and also included opinion that the attack on him by Boris Johnson had been racist and ‘weird’. Mardell’s attitude and approach could be summed up by one of his introductory remarks:

The UK part of his farewell tour wouldn’t even count as a long weekend, but it might prove the most important 50 hours in the referendum campaign so far. Here was one of the most popular and powerful politicians in the whole world pulling no punches.

This was followed by:

It was a week when we could have been forgiven for being rather inward-looking, staring backwards at the past – a very British history-soaked week of pageantry, the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Queen’s 90th birthday – time to revel in nostalgia for both the Elizabethan ages. And the Associated Press notes the President’s political intervention was “wrapped in appeals to British sentimentality”. But the blunt, unsentimental job he set himself was to send a wrecking-ball into the Leave campaigners’ case.  

The May 1 edition examined what Mark Mardell claimed were ‘slogans’ by Brexit supporters about regaining control of the UK’s borders in order to limit immigration. Most of the programme focused on the views of figures who foresaw problems in trying to do so, or who thought immigration was in any case vital to the economy.  The main speakers were John Vine, a former inspector of UK borders, who warned that it would be very difficult to introduce further border checks; Elmar Brok,the German MEP, who warned that any changes in border controls would meet with strong retaliation;  Heather Rolfe, a spokesman for the ‘independent’ National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), who said that immigrant labour was benign and vital to the British economy; and Tim Martin, the managing director of pub chain Weatherspoon.  The latter was said to be a supporter of Brexit, but he argued that immigration from the EU was vital to keep his service sector functioning. The recorded interviews were followed by an interview with Leave.EU founder, Aaron Banks. He argued that inequalities of wealth within the EU were creating the flows of people. What was needed was an Australian points system, with a cap of 50-60,000 annually. Mardell said the NIESR report showed that the British economy needed more people and was struggling to find them. Banks (AB)  said the UK was a small island and there was a need for controls. Mardell (MM) said the boss of Weatherspoon’s wanted more migration. AB said he thought it was good but had to be at a pace that was reasonable. MM asked if the UK imposed a points-system, the EU would retaliate. AB said that was possible. MM asked if it was worth that. AB replied that open door immigration could not continue. MM said:

Because lots of people have different views on this, would you expect any vote in favour of leaving the European Union to be an instruction to a future government to control this immigration?  Because some people might say, well (fragments of words, unclear) it’s more important to stay in the single market, and will accept free movement?

AB:        Of course. That’s, I think, probably the main reason, isn’t it?

In summary, Mardell again placed most editorial emphasis on the ‘remain’ case. Banks responded on several of the points, but in the context of tough questioning which meant tht overall, the need for continued high levels of immigration came across most strongly.

CONCLUSION:

Seven of the 15 editions of TWTW from January 24 were thus heavily biased in favour of the ‘remain’ side. Analysis of the other programmes shows that there was nothing in any of them that offered counter-balance. Mark Mardell’s approach appears to be amplify the benefits of remain, and to investigate and expose in whatever ways he can problems of the Brexit case.

 

 

APPENDIX A

COMPLAINT:  Mark Mardell on Portugal, World This Weekend 7/2/2016

This was a seriously unbalanced item that explored whether David Cameron’s proposed curb on in-work benefits for EU migrants would be accepted by Portugal.  A report from Lisbon was followed by questions to two leading figures on each side of the British EU referendum debate. The interview sequence inexplicably gave more than double the space to the pro-EU case. Overall, Mark Mardell’s editing presented a one-sided view of the Portuguese attitudes to EU reform. Further, the pro-EU commentator, Sir Mike Rake, the past president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) – whose background as a pro-EU campaigner was not properly identified to listeners – had the time and framework to advance a reasoned case that it was vital that the UK should stay in a reformed EU and that the David Cameron reform package was in Britain’s interests.  Richard Tice of Leave.EU was afforded much less time (approximately two minutes compared with five and a half minutes) to outline why he disagreed, and he was pushed in his responses by Mr Mardell’s questions into a narrower and more negative framework.

SUBSTANCE

The purpose of the location report was to gather the views of ‘typical’ Portuguese young people opposed to David Cameron’s stance on reform of the EU, especially with regard to immigration and benefits.

The report showed that the Portuguese who had been to Britain had done so for work, not benefits. Were their views typical? – there was no way of knowing. Those selected for inclusion in the package wanted to come to the UK for a variety of positive reasons, and Mark Mardell edited their contributions to bring this out. Of the eight vox pop contributors who featured in the report, the only benefit claimant was a nurse who had become pregnant while in the UK.  She felt it would have been unfair to stop her child benefit because she had paid taxes. All of the respondents felt that the Cameron approach was wrong. General comment was proffered that immigration was vital to the UK economy.

Mr Mardell also included a comment from the President of the Portuguese nursing organisation, who said that Britain needed nurses from abroad, and that stopping benefits of Portuguese immigrants was both unfair and would hit the NHS. She felt her country would oppose the plans at the EU level.

Mr Mardell then asked João Galamba, the Portuguese government’s economics spokesman, what he thought about Mr Cameron’s plans for curbing immigrant benefit claims. Mr Mardell mentioned that the government was anti-austerity, but did not say it was otherwise strongly pro-EU. The government spokesman asserted that Britain was asking for an unfair deal at the expense of other countries and should not get it. He further argued that the UK had received too much favourable treatment in the past.  The answer to the immigrant question was that the EU should adopt a federal system of benefits, because that was the only way of dealing with the differences of approach in each country.

Back in the studio, Mark Mardell introduced Sir Mike Rake as ‘the chairman of BT’, and Richard Tice, who was said to be ‘one of the founders of Leave.EU.’  More should have been said to identify Sir Mike’s position: he is an immediate past-president of the CBI, which under his tenure strongly supported continued British membership of the EU. He is on record making strongly pro-EU remarks that were clearly intended to be part of the ‘in’ campaign.

In the sequence that followed, Mr Tice spoke 403 words and Sir Mike Rake, 1,098 words. The latter had 2.5 times more space to advance his case and on four occasions Mark Mardell allowed Sir Mike to speak more than 180 words without interruption, with his longest contribution extending to 306 words (1 min 26 seconds). By contrast, the longest Richard Tice contribution was just 168 words (57 seconds), and aside from one sequence of 152 words, none of his other contributions was longer than 32 words.

These ‘metrics’ confirm that Sir Mike Rake had over five and a half minutes of airtime to make contributions which combined to form a largely uninterrupted, multi-pronged and detailed case why Mr Cameron’s reforms were necessary and proportionate, and why Britain, for a variety of factors, should stay in the EU.  Sir Mike spoke about how the UK had ‘benefited hugely’ from foreign direct investment, through being able to export to the European Union and beyond, and argued that there had been ‘enormous benefits’ from the free movement of labour, including in the health service and tourist and leisure industries.  He said he believed the reforms being sought by the Prime Minister were sensible, given different standards of living within Europe, but that the UK itself has had a skills shortage, and it was important to have the ability to bring in those ‘who are really critically important to various aspects of our society.’  He said that the government’s own studies had shown that net migration had been ‘nothing but a benefit’ to the UK economy ‘at every level’, but he conceded that issues such as the refugee crisis were causing concern.  On the question of Britain leaving the EU, Sir Mike said that his business would indirectly suffer, and pointed out that 45% of British exports go to the eurozone, including 53% of all manufactured cars, which creates ‘hundreds of thousands of highly paid jobs.’  He also made the point that although Britain’s gross contribution might look like a significant figure, in net terms it was not, because of previously negotiated rebates, grants and subsidies.

Mr Tice had only two minutes – in essence, two segments of a minute each – to advance a general case about why the UK should leave the EU, and why Mr Cameron’s ‘reforms’ were ineffective. Having been granted such limited space, he could only posit short one-dimensional declarations that trade with the rest of the world was now more important than that with the EU, that the EU economies were uncompetitive, that there was too much regulation and too many UK EU contributions.  In his first answer, he said the prime minister’s plans to put a brake on immigration would not work. Immigration was needed, but not at current levels, and the red card system proposed by Mr Cameron to protect British interests was not new and was a ‘deception’.

The questions put to Sir Mike Rake by Mark Mardell were: whether the curb on benefits would discourage immigration, whether his reform package would work because the feature showed that immigrants came to Britain for factors such as higher wages rather than to claim benefits, whether it was a mistake by the Prime Minister to make the deal look ‘so pivotal’ and what it would mean for BT if the UK left the EU. He thus had a broad, open canvas against which to put his various points.

By contrast, Mr Tice was asked only one direct question: if the ‘emergency brake’ would work. It was then put to him negatively that leaving the EU ‘would be a huge leap in the dark, would it not’. He thus had a much narrower platform on which to advance his views.

CONCLUSION:

This was not a simple in/out item because the framework was whether Portugal would accept the reforms on the table. Asking whether the package could be vetoed and/or would be effective was an important line of inquiry. However, the item that was constructed was seriously imbalanced. From Portugal, Mark Mardell presented only opinions that were pro-EU, pro-immigration, and anti-the UK’s approach to change. In the discussion that followed, the views of Sir Mike Rake – clearly there to represent the ‘stay in’ side of the EU debate – were inexplicably allowed to be overwhelmingly dominant, with Sir Mike Rake’s contribution accounting for 73% of the total airtime, and Mr Tice just 27%.  Richard Tice had the opportunity to put briefly a few points against Sir Mike’s stance, but from questions that forced him into much narrower explanation.

Another way of looking at the item overall is that there were at least 11 speakers who were essentially in favour of the EU’s current arrangements ranged against one speaker who was not. Weekly current affairs are not obliged to have balance of speakers and due impartiality in every edition, but when did The World This Weekend carry a feature which had such numbers of anti-EU speakers ranged against only one with pro-EU views?  And is one planned? A second important point related to impartiality is that all the speakers from Portugal expressed similar views. There was no breadth of opinion, and no attempt was made to include opinion from figures with a more sceptical outlook.


 

Photo by theglobalpanorama

BBC Bias: an EU referendum campaign progress report

BBC Bias: an EU referendum campaign progress report

News-watch has been carrying out detailed monitoring of news output since mid-January. A large number issues relating to impartiality have been noted, and overall, there is still, despite improvement, significant cause for concern that the ‘exit’ case is not being properly represented.

On the plus side:

There is definitely and clearly an effort to explore the respective ‘leave’ and ‘remain cases. ‘Exit’ guests are appearing in unprecedented numbers, and are often being treated with due respect.  Pro-EU politicians such as George Osborne are, on occasions, being subjected to rigorous scrutiny. There is evidence that presenters and correspondents are better briefed on EU issues than in the past, and are challenging the key economic points from positions of real knowledge.

This improved coverage to date underlines just how much the ‘exit’ case had previously been neglected, and its advocates under-represented, denigrated or often ignored.

But:

That said, there are still major issues. All of them are fully evidenced on the News-watch website, and for the sake of economy, the key points are only summarised here.

The BBC has not explored much the issue of the validity or otherwise of David Cameron’s reform package. From the off, website copy suggested it was valid, and there has been no determined exploration of whether it is. This is central to the ‘remain’ case and the absence of scrutiny is bias by omission.

Though some programmes are going off-diary and exploring the roots of the current debate, as yet there has been no obvious effort to investigate critically the full nature of the ‘leave’ movement, and what it represents. Nick Robinson’s survey of the history of the UK-EU relationship was purely through the lens of Westminster Bubble, that is, the leading politicians and the main political friction points. It added nothing new, and if anything served only to reinforce the stereotypes that have characterised the BBC’s coverage of what it calls ‘Europe’ for far too long. Who are those who actually want to leave the EU?  They are not simply racists, anti-immigration fanatics, over-zealous ‘populist’ patriots, disaffected Tories, disgruntled fishermen and lazy working class louts who fear foreign competition. What is the ‘leave’ case and what are the historical roots, both inside and outside Parliament?  Nothing has yet been done in that terrain, and that’s a glaring omission.  Unanswered questions include why the most left-wing, radical Labour leadership in two generations has allied itself with the CBI, the big Banks, and the IMF, and against thousands of its traditional working class supporters in wanting to stay ‘in’. The BBC talks freely and often about the low-hanging fruit of a ‘Tory civil war’, but this debate is about much more – and nothing in the coverage has explored that area in any but a fleeting (and often derogatory) way.

Heavy and increasing weight has been given coverage of those who say ‘Brexit’ will be damaging, such as the IMF, the Treasury and the CBI. Senior BBC political correspondents have reinforced this by suggesting (18/4) that the ‘leave’ side case is ‘cobwebby’ and not fleshed out.

Analysis conducted by News-watch of BBC2’s Newsnight typifies the problem. This covered 40 editions. ‘Exit’ guests were appearing for the first time – a big step forward – but there were still serious inadequacies. The programme has not sufficiently explored the ‘exit’ case, and has routinely given far more prominence to the remain side. There have been fewer ‘exit’ guests, and the imbalance is not accounted for by a tougher treatment of the ‘remain’ side – if anything, the reverse applies. Against this already skewed background, the decision to use the Sealand defence installation as a metaphor for what exit might look like was silly. It skewed the first Newsnight special referendum programme (11/4) strongly against the ‘exit case’. It may have been intended to be a humorous approach, but given the BBC ‘s past track record of denigrating the exit case, it came across instead as a deliberately negative editorial device.    On Tuesday night (19/4) the different treatment of Emily Maitlis of her two guests, Pascal Lamy and Lord Owen, underlined the problems in the Newsnight approach. Towards Mr Lamy, she was thoughtfully inquisitorial, and allowed him plenty of space for his answers; towards Lord Owen, she was much sharper, interrupted much more, and scarcely allowed him to respond.

Similar detailed analysis (20 consecutive editions)  by News-watch of Radio 4’s 10pm programme, The World Tonight, also highlighted significant impartiality problems. The programme explored the ‘remain’ and exit’ arguments from its more cross-border perspective, and mounted special programmes assessing opinion to the EU debate in Berlin, Spain and France. But most weight was given to the pro-EU perspective in those features.  In separate studio interviews, ‘remain’ figures such as Alan Johnson had more opportunity to put their case than ‘exit’ ones.

Since January, News-watch has also analysed a number of referendum-related special programmes, including ones on Greenland’s exit from the EU, Norway’s existence outside the EU, a survey of the EU’s impact on countryside issues (Costing the Earth), and Nick Robinson’s Europe: Them or Us.  All of them have shown a distinct bias towards the ‘remain side. Nick Robinson’s description of Winston Churchill as the ‘father of European unity’ stands out as particularly biased because he chose as the bedrock of his programme a provocative historical interpretation that is hotly contested by the ‘leave’ side. The Greenland and Norway programmes particularly over-stressed the difficulties of leaving the EU, and the Costing the Earth programme gave much more space to the ‘remain’ side.

Analysis of Mark Mardell’s reports on World This Weekend is underway. Two editions, one from Portugal and the other from a meeting of The European House think-tank at Lake Como, have already been specially analysed and noted for their pro remain bias. On both occasions, Mark gave significantly less prominence to the respective ‘exit’ spokesmen and gave them less space to answer the points put to them.

Analysis of a strand broadcast on Radio 4’s World at One, by Professor Annand Menon raised serious bias issues.  The five three-minute segments (from 12/4) were presented as objective analysis of aspects of EU operations and impacts, but they were anything but. For example, he played down the complexity of the EU’s structure – flying in the face of one of the principal objections of the EU from Eurosceptics.

This brief synopsis of bias is not exhaustive, but gives an overview of some of the key issues.

Photo by rockcohen

Bbc correspondents’ comments raise impartiality issues

Bbc correspondents’ comments raise impartiality issues

Monday can be seen in referendum terms as the day that the Remain side produced what it believed was an Exocet.

Chancellor George Osborne released what he projected – to the point of pro-EU fanaticism – as a killer economic document which, on the basis of complex, algebra-led economic analysis, suggested that if the UK left the EU, every domestic household would be £4,000 worse off by 2030 and that income tax would rise by 8p in the pound.

How did the BBC do in covering this? That’s a tough question to answer because a News-watch transcript document covering everything that was reported and said about the Chancellor’s predictions on the mainstream news programme – starting with Today on Radio 4 and Breakfast on BBC1, and finishing with a 45-minute special edition of BBC2 Newsnight dealing with the economy in the event of a British exit – amounts to a boggling 36,000 words.

That, at an average speaking speed of 150 wpm is 240 minutes, or four solid hours of coverage. The issue in analysing this blizzard of coverage is where to begin?

One immediate point is that the BBC’s news judgment was that this was definitely a headline development in the campaign. They assigned immediate huge importance to the Chancellor’s report and freely suggested that it could be a defining moment in the campaign. From Today onwards, the Osborne document led the bulletins, and Today was crammed with references to it, for example in in the newspaper reviews and in the in business news. This was the BBC news machine in overdrive with all their big guns deployed.

In that sense, the Chancellor’s document was given huge credence. But was it properly scrutinised? The devil can often be in the detail. Early signs were not good. On Today’s business news, for example, Peter Spencer, chief economic advisor of the EY Club, and David Cumming of Standard Life Investments, were both asked what were said to be ‘quick questions’ about the report.

Their verdict? Spencer said that ‘it was not difficult to come out with figures like the Treasury have’ – suggesting the findings were credible – and Cumming, asked the loaded question  if the referendum itself was ‘already an economic drag’ replied that consumer spending was already being hit. He concluded:

‘I can see where the Treasury is coming from because the prospects for growth investment and profits would be poorer if we left the EU.’

There were no balancing comments, and these early verdicts thus stand out. So too, does the Today programme’s editorial decision to allocate 20 minutes at 8.10am to George Osborne’s advocacy of the report, against only around five minutes at 7.10am to John Redwood’s rebuttal. There is no doubt that Nick Robinson was robustly adversarial in the Osborne interview, but so too, was Sarah Montague in the exchange with Redwood.

Further question marks in Today’s coverage are raised by assistant political editor Norman Smith’s analysis at 6.35 am. He stated that the Osborne document was meant as the ‘Government’s big killer argument, that we will be poorer permanently if we leave the EU’. The bulk of his analysis focused on the key points of the report, and then, when asked about the likely repose from the Leave side, said that its reliance on attacking the reliability of past Treasury forecasts, for example, in supporting the euro, had ‘something slightly cobwebby’ about them. He contended that the problem they had was ‘being able to come up with a factual response’, then asserted:

‘And the reason they struggle there is because there’s nothing they can look at there’s nothing they can model it on, because no one has done this before. So they are in the realms of asserting that Britain would be more self-confident, we’d be more buccaneering, we’d be more entrepreneurial, we’d be more go-getting, but they have nothing to actually build a factual case.’

Almost 12 hours later – when the mighty BBC news machine had chance to analyse the report more fully, to talk in depth to the Leave side about the actual content of the report (the document was not released until 11am), Norman Smith’s boss, political editor Laura Kuenssberg was equally as attacking of the Leave case.  On the flagship 6 pm Radio 4 bulletin (clearly projected as the overview of the day’s events). Her conclusion?

‘….the weight of the establishment is moving more and more openly in favour of Remain, leaving the politicians arguing for exit seem like rebels with a cause.’

In 24 hours, it’s impossible to come up with a definitive verdict on whether 36,000 words of coverage were genuinely impartial. But here, on what was a crucial day in the referendum coverage, there were, some very loud flashing lights indicating significant cause for concern. Yes, the BBC are putting on Brexit voices. Yes, they are exploring the arguments of both sides. But Kuenssberg and Norman Smith are key figures in the BBC’s interpretative voice. And here – in the close analysis of the detail of their coverage – is clear prima facie evidence that they believe the ‘Remain’ arguments are stronger.

Photo by Working Word

Nick Robinson twists history to make Churchill ‘father of European unity’

Nick Robinson twists history to make Churchill ‘father of European unity’

An earlier blog noted that the first part of Nick Robinson’s series Europe: Them or Us had presented an account of the development of the EU that had badly distorted history by placing wrong emphasis in its role as a force for peace, and had amplified EU propagandists by projecting Winston Churchill as a warrior for a United Europe and thus as the ‘father’ to today’s EU.   What has now emerged as a result of further digging is something a whole lot murkier.

An initial negative is that it is now clear that Robinson’s first programme was not at all original. It was actually a re-hashed version of the BBC’s 1996 series The Poisoned Chalice. Robinson’s primary role was simply to re-voice that earlier commentary so that it sounded new. Should he have told viewers about this? That he did not is at best disingenuous…at worst downright misleading, passing off old goods for brand new.

Further analysis of the transcripts (h/t Craig Byers – plus a senior academic who did her PhD on The Poisoned Chalice) also shows that Robinson is guilty of something far more serious: he doctored some of the original commentary to make it fit with EU’s hagiography about its formation.

An important factor to note is that the original programme was itself deeply biased. The Poisoned Chalice chose as its start point the arresting concept that perhaps the ultimate embodiment of British patriotism, Winston Churchill, was an early enthusiast for ‘the idea of European union’.

Michael Elliott (presenter): There was a time, not so long ago, when Britain welcomed the idea of European union. In June 1940 London was bracing itself for the fall of France to the Nazis. General Charles de Gaulle came to London to put an astonishing rescue plan to Winston Churchill: Britain and France should unite as a single nation.

Robert Makins (Foreign Office, 1940): When he arrived he was taken straight into the cabinet room and, of course, we we all agog to know what it was all about, and we were afterwards informed that he had come over with a proposal that there should be a union between France and Britain. with common citizenship.

Michael Elliott: The scheme had been dreamed up by Jean Monnet, a civil servant who would later become the Father of the European Community.

Jean Monnet (reading from his draft declaration): The government of the United Kingdom and the French Republic make this declaration of indissoluble union. Every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain. Every British subject will become a citizen of France.

Michael Elliott: Monnet’s draft was agreed in a hurry by Churchill and the war cabinet, with one prophetic proviso. They couldn’t stomach his proposal for a single currency. In any case, it all came to naught. The French cabinet turned down Monnet’s plan a few hours later.

The message could not be clearer. Churchill, as long ago as 1940, was advocating a form of ‘European union’. Elliott did not say ‘the’ European Union, of course, but there could be no doubt what he was implying; the man who had saved Britain from the Nazis was working in the darkest days immediately after Dunkirk towards the formation of a supra-national European body that would include from the start the United Kingdom.  Nick Robinson in his programme took this even further. His commentary closely echoes that of Elliott, but he made important changes. He said:

‘This wonderful treasure trove of interviews with the key decision-makers filmed 20 years ago, many of whom of course are no longer with us, gives us a real insight into the decision that we now face.

There’s one interview we haven’t got, it’s with the man who in many ways was the father of a united Europe. No, he wasn’t a Frenchman, he wasn’t a German, he wasn’t a Belgian, he was, in fact, the British Bulldog himself, Winston Churchill.

In the desperate days of June 1940, Britain’s new wartime leader’s first instinct was to go for full political union, quite unthinkable today. Churchill’s plan, in a last-ditch effort to stop France falling to the Nazis, was that Britain and France would become a single country, an indissoluble union with one war cabinet running defence and the economy on both sides of the Channel.

The British Cabinet backed it, but with one prophetic exception, they simply couldn’t stomach the idea of a single currency. Days later France fell, and with it, at that stage, the idea of political union.’

This was the bedrock of the programme that followed: Churchill, the saviour of the country, was dreaming of a United Europe in Britain’s darkest hour. Nick Robinson’s embellishment of Elliott’s already deeply skewed analysis took it many steps further. Churchill was baldly and without doubt ‘in many ways the father of a United Europe’, the implication being that it was on this momentum the project was built.

In order to show how risible – and deeply skewed – this interpretation is, the genesis and handling of the ‘Frangleterre’ idea needs unpicking.  It was born in June 1940 after Dunkirk fell and as the Nazi Blitzkrieg was heading towards France. The French cabinet was panicked and divided; prime minister Reynaud wanted resistance to continue while figures such as Petain were contemplating suing for ‘peace’. In this fearsome crucible, de Gaulle spoke to Jean Monnet (widely seen as the ‘father’ of the Treaty of Rome), who was then working in London with the War Cabinet on the North Atlantic supply route. Monnet had been developing ideas of a supra-national European Union for at least two decades, and he proposed a daring plan: Franco-Anglo unification to facilitate fighting on. De Gaulle decided he would put the idea to Churchill. Churchill himself was deeply cynical, but he had only recently become prime minister and knew that because it had come from de Gaulle, he must put it to the War Cabinet as a whole. That happened the following day, and much to Churchill’s surprise, it was accepted as a possible way forward. Two provisos were added – that it would only be for the duration of the war, and there would be no unification of currencies. De Gaulle then took the proposal back to the French cabinet. It was rejected almost immediately. The reality was that many ministers believed the invasion of Britain by Hitler was only months away, and they were deeply angry at what they saw as the British collapse at Dunkirk. In the discussions that followed, Reynaud resigned and Petain took his place; within days the French cabinet was suing for peace with the Nazis. Petain later dismissed the de Gaulle plan as the equivalent of ‘strapping France to a rotting corpse’.

The reality is that the ‘Frangleterre’ idea never stood the remotest chance of being accepted, and even if it had been, would have been only for the duration of the battle to defeat the Nazis. Robinson projected, in suggesting that it was the root of European integration – a provocative, deliberate, one-sided view of history. It is impossible to tell what was actually in Churchill’s mind in 1940 as the country he loved with a passion appeared to be rapid collapse towards Nazi domination. The paper trail left behind suggests that the War Cabinet backing of this half-baked Monnet plan for ‘Frangleterre’ was based only on expediency, and consider-all-options – however potty – desperation. Dunkirk had fallen; the horrors of the Nazi Blitzkrieg had been unleashed towards France and the United Kingdom, and both the British War Cabinet and de Gaulle were prepared to look at any options to prevent both invasion and the formidable might of the French navy falling into Nazi hands.

Is there any basis for Robinsons claims in what happened subsequently? After the war, Churchill, of course, made several speeches which pro-EU figures, political parties and organisations – including especially the EU itself- have claimed also showed that he wanted a ‘United Europe’, for example in Zurich in 1946. He most certainly did want a form of unification and proposed the especially brazen idea (in the context that a merciless war was only just over) that at its heart should be an alliance of France and Germany.  But there are two very important caveats in the equation that firmly disqualify his ideas as footsteps towards the formation of the actual European Union.  First is that Churchill never envisaged that the UK would be part of such as scheme. He made it very clear that the United Kingdom’s primary allegiance was with the Commonwealth and the ‘Anglosphere’, the United States especially. He never thought  the UK would become a full member. Second, as the post-war dust began to settle, it became clear that the biggest threat to world peace was Russia’s annexation of numerous European states – especially Czechoslovakia – and its hostility to the values of the ‘West’. Churchill wanted a European ‘Union’ primarily as a bulwark against this. He saw the concept as a component of hard-headed diplomacy in a world that, as the 1940s drew to a close, seemed yet again on the brink of war. His ideas, insofar as he wrote them down, were not based on ideology linked to Monnet’s desire for ‘ever closer union’ but political practicalities.

A final point to take into account is an issue of hindsight. Of course what became he EU did have its roots in the 1930s and 1940s. But no-one knew at that time what it would become, including Churchill. He was pushing the concept of ‘united Europe’ with no firm grasp of what it would be. In the event, the ideas that led to its foundation did not come from his concept of unity at all, but those – as was pointed out in an earlier News-watch blog – by figures such as the British civil servant Arthur Salter and the French businessman-turned-politician Jean Monnet. And in their plans, the driving force was a supra-national Commission which would take from each country most of the law-making powers and sovereignty, and be answerable only to what it saw as the greater good of ’Europe’ – as defined by itself.

In fact, no one envisaged what a United Europe could look like – and it did not become a practical possibility – until the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957. Proof of this is that the year before, the French prime minister, Guy Mollet, resurrected the idea of a France-UK union and put it formally to his British counterpart, Anthony Eden.  The proposal was triggered because France was desperate after the Suez crisis and saw such a move as its economic salvation. The proposal was kept secret until 2007 with the release of British cabinet papers.

In that overall context, it was doubly wrong of Nick Robinson to select the 1940 ‘Frangleterre’ idea as evidence that Churchill was the ‘father’ of a united Europe. First, because in 1940 the plan was based not on EU-related ideology, but desperate expediency.  And second because the ideology on which the EU was founded was nothing at all to do with Churchill: the ideas were rooted in the supra-nationalism advocated by such figures such as Jean Monnet.

Nick Robinson is a former BBC political editor. It is deeply troubling that he should project such bias, at any time – but especially during the EU referendum. It seems that he deliberately chose to amplify the ‘Churchill is father of European unity’ concept.  Clearly, no one at the BBC can see that bias. It is evidence of a deep institutional pro-EU mindset.

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BBC Bias – A Progress Report

BBC Bias – A Progress Report

News-watch’s monitoring of the BBC’s EU referendum coverage has now been underway for three months and this is a progress report.

In one sense, tectonic plates have moved.  Speakers who support British exit have invited on BBC news programmes to discuss the topic. For years anyone who was an ‘outer’ was completely ignored, or – in their rare appearances, as Ukip spokesmen regularly were – treated as xenophobic, or crassly inept, or worse.

But, as always with the BBC, the devil is in the detail.  The reality is that the Corporation has no choice; it has had to change. Research so far indicates there is a very long way to go before anything approaching genuine impartiality is achieved, and the exit case treated with respect.

Exhibit A is from Radio 4’s World at One starting on Monday.  Presenter Martha Kearney introduced a new series which she said would explain how the EU ‘actually works’. The first two were presented by Professor Anand Menon, who, Ms Kearney said, is Professor of European Politics at King’s College, London.

What she did not say is that her guest is not neutral about the EU. Far from it. He is also director of a think-tank called  The UK in a Changing Europe which contains a raft of papers that, to put it mildly, are hugely critical of the Brexit case. The one about the Norway option, for example, is headed: ‘Norwegian model for the UK; oh really.’

Further digging yields that back in 1999 – when the entire European Commission of Jacques Santer was forced to resign because of a financial scandal – Menon wrote a long article for the London Review of Books defending the importance of the Commission and claiming that, in effect, the impropriety involved was inconsequential.

Menon’s first talk was about the Commission set in the wider context of the governance of the EU.. Basically, he argued that the EU – despite claims to the contrary – is no more complex than any other system of governance; that the Commission is not made up of ‘unelected bureaucrats’; that the Parliament and the Council of Ministers acting in concert are a model of democracy in action; and that – although the Commission is the sole originator of EU legislation – this is a perfectly legitimate form of operations because it has the interests of Europe as its main objective. Europe.

In other words, he completely rubbished the ‘exit’ case and presented the Peter Mandelson view of how the EU works.

Exhibit B is a Newsnight special – one of six focused on the EU referendum – on Monday night which examined the issue of sovereignty. A full analysis of this programme will follow in due course,  but one factor immediately stood out.   Someone in the production team decided that the best illustration of what Brexit might look like was Sealand.

Where? Well it’s a very ugly pair defence towers built illegally by the British government during the Second World War in North Sea international waters near to the Thames Estuary. Back in the 1960s the huge ‘fortress’ was stormed and occupied by an ex-army major called Roy Bates and he and his family have since turned it into what they claim  is an ‘independent country’.

Presenter Evan Davis was duly winched down to Sealand, and used this as a subtle-as-a-brick metaphor for how the UK would  look if it was outside the EU: battered, totally isolated, totally eccentric, if not downright batty, completely on its own, a decaying hulk battered by the North Sea and outside the law.

That editor Ian Katz could not see that this was totally negative and totally inappropriate illustrates how far away from understanding the Brexit argument he and his senior BBC colleagues are. Light years.

Exhibit C was Sunday’s The World This Weekend. The presenter was former BBC ‘Europe’ editor Mark Mardell, and he chose to mount the programme from a rather select conference  in Lake Como organised by a strongly pro-EU think thank called The European House – Ambrosetti.

They had  gathered there, it was said, to discuss global economic problems including the possible impact of Brexit. Mardell produced an Obama adviser, a Chinese economist, a German government minister and the president of huge global investment fund (Allianz), all of who, with differing degrees of stridency, attacked the effrontery of such a ‘stupid’ (as one contributor said) prospect. In their collective eyes, membership of the EU was unquestionably absolutely vital to the UK’s future.

This carefully-edited sequence of pro-EU frenzy was followed by a live interview with Labour donor John Mills, who Mardell introduced as ‘the founder of a mail order company’.  Mardell’s tone and approach changed immediately. With his Ambrosetti guests, he had politely elicited their views. With Mills, he became sharply interrogative and sceptical.

To be fair, Mills was given a far crack of the whip in answering the points raised – and gave credible answers – but it was in a much narrower channel, and under far deeper scrutiny. And Mardell’s careful editing meant that every element of the pro- EU side appeared more authoritative and more polished.

Overall, the BBC may have upped its game in terms of the breadth of coverage in in some respects. News-watch analysis has revealed big problems not only in the examples above, but also serially and cumulatively in programmes such as Newsnight and World Tonight. The referendum campaign enters its final stage this week. The BBC is not yet mounting properly balanced coverage, and seems blind to its shortcomings.

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Radio 4 World Tonight investigation finds more BBC pro-EU bias

Radio 4 World Tonight investigation finds more BBC pro-EU bias

A News-watch investigation into one of the BBC’s flagship news programmes has found it to be heavily biased in favour of Britain remaining in the EU.

Twenty  consecutive editions of the programme – one of the main ‘hard news’ formats on the BBC – between February 22 and March 19 were surveyed. The main finding was that staunchly pro-EU figures had the lion’s share of comment.

Senior figures such as former French Prime Minister Edith Cresson and Alan Johnson, the head of Labour’s Keep the UK in the EU campaign, were given a platform to advance detailed arguments on why the UK should remain in the EU.

But only one supporter of the ‘leave’ camp – Wolfgang Ott, a member the German AFD party – was given the time to explain why he thought the British vote was essential in the interests of democracy. Ritulah Shah, the presenter of the programme, introduced him by saying he was from an “anti-immigrant party” that was “criticised for its links with the far right”.

World Tonight carried a dozen features focusing on the upcoming EU referendum, including an entire programme based on a range of contrasting views in the twinned cities of Freiburg and Guildford, as well as special features in other editions that included surveys of attitudes towards the referendum among ex-pats in Berlin and on the Costa del Sol.

Of the named guests (some were in vox pop items and therefore not named) who offered views about the EU, nineteen expressed pro-EU or pro-remain ideas, seven wanted exit or were clearly anti-EU, and eleven were neutral. This imbalance was made worse as seven of the pro-EU figures were given the opportunity to outline detailed arguments, whereas only three of the leave figures were allowed more than one or two sentences.

There were three editions in which the programme went out of its way to elicit comment from strongly pro-EU figures without balancing on the leave side in any of the 20 editions.

The three editions were:

  • On February 22, former Irish PM Dick Roche, former French PM Edith Cresson and former Polish finance minister Jack Rostowski discussed their reaction to the announcement of the referendum date. Both were strongly in support of remain and advanced detailed arguments why. The only criticism was that the referendum was taking place at all and of the concessions granted to the UK. Dick Roche warned that an EU exit by the UK would damage European security, and would trigger the emergence of “disruptive (Front National-type) forces from Holland to Hungary”.
  • On March 11, leader of the Labour Keep the UK in the EU campaign, was asked about his lecture to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Harold Wilson in which he had argued that the former prime minister would be a strong supporter of the EU now, and even more so than in the past because of its role in globalisation.  The interview was more than 1,000 words and ran for around eight minutes. It gave Mr Johnson the framework to attack Gaitskell’s dismissal of the EU as ‘hyperbole’, to claim that voters had known they were voting for more than an economic union in the 1975 referendum, that the EU stood for democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law and was the reason it had won a Nobel peace prize in 2012.
  • On March 14, P.J. Crowley, a former advisor on foreign relations to the Obama White House, was interviewed about his reactions to claims by Boris Johnson and others on the ‘leave’ side that Barrack Obama should not overtly support either side in the referendum debate during an expected visit to the UK in April. He advanced detailed reasons he believed the US should support the ‘remain’ side, and why the EU was important to the US.

None of these exchanges were adversarial to the extent that the presenters’ approach was sufficient to cancel out the heavily pro-EU points put across by the respective guests. Neither did material in other features balance these elements. In all other features, the presence of remain views was countered or balanced by further remain figures.

David Keighley, Managing Director of News-Watch said:

“This analysis shows that yet another BBC flagship programme is not being impartial in its referendum coverage. Far too much prominence on World Tonight has been given to ’remain’ figures. Their guests, such as Alan Johnson,  have taken the opportunity to expound their case with both hands. By contrast, ‘leave’ supporters have been far less prominent and the details of the arguments for ‘out’ have not been explored to anywhere near the same depth.”

 

Peter Bone MP said:

“This is yet another example of BBC bias in the EU referendum. The broadcaster has been warned time and again but they continue to fly the flag for the EU. I urge them, to refrain from bias on this issue of vital importance. This is a once in a generation opportunity for the British people to have their say on whether we remain or leave the EU and the BBC has an important duty to the public to provide balanced, impartial coverage and it is fundamentally failing to do this. It appears to many people that the BBC is institutionally bias towards the EU. I will be writing to the Secretary of State urging an investigation into the BBC’s coverage of the EU referendum.”

 

Other News-watch observations about EU referendum coverage on World Tonight:

  • On February 29, in a report from ex-pats living on the Cosa Del Sol in Spain, several ‘remain’ reasons were advanced by pro-EU contributors, including the likelihood increased medical bills and restrictions in freedom of movement. Christine Rowlands, chair of Conservatives Abroad declared that “you would be hard pushed’ to find anyone in the Costa Del Sol who wanted to leave the EU.” Against that, a radio show host said that ex-pats were put off by the EU because it had wasted money in Spain and had diluted Spanish culture. More time, approximately 48%, was given to the Pro-EU contributors, against 36% for those who wanted out.
  • A report by Simon Jack (2/3) about a warning from BMW that exit from the EU would hit badly the prospects of British subsidiary Rolls-Royce carried comment that Vote Leave had dismissed the claims. In that sense it was even-handed, but the choice of a ‘scaremongering’ story as the subject of a correspondent interview elevated the story in importance, and there was no balancing interview about fears of the impact of remaining. It thus added to the overall skewing against the ‘leave’ case.
  • On 7/3, there was a survey of opinion about EU fisheries policy from Peterhead. The commentary emphasised that there was much discontent over quotas, and reporter Paul Moss found two fishermen who outlined the reasons for their discontent. He also included opinion from Business for Britain (their local spokesman Mev Brown) who explained that he would use the plight of fishermen to illustrate the Brexit case.  Moss found two local political figures who favoured staying in the EU to improve the fisheries policy, and also felt the EU was a vital market for the fish. On balance, slightly more time was given to the Brexit/anti-EU side.  It was the only feature that did favour marginally the ‘leave’
  • The next special survey of ex-pat attitudes to the referendum was in Berlin on 16/3. It was clear from the overall tone and comments that the four selected and named interviewees – who it was said had got together because of concern about their status in the event of a ‘leave’ vote – that they were both pro-EU and considered themselves ‘Europeans’. The questioning was about what they had done to ensure that they could stay living in Germany if the UK decided to leave the EU. Two of the figures were classed as ‘neutral’, because they were speaking purely about their own experiences, but it is likely from the context that they were pro-remain.

 

  • Finally, on 17/3 came the special feature from the twinned towns of Freiburg and Guildford. Three of the named figures selected for comment – Wolfgang Ott, from the AFD, Gordon Bridger, a former mayor of Guildford, and Michael Gorman from the Guildford branch of the Town Twinning Association made clearly anti-EU points. Mr Ott said there should be a referendum on leaving in all the EU countries, Mr Bridger that UK exports to the EU would not be affected by exit, and Mr Gorman that he thought the deal secured by David Cameron was very poor to the point where the UK should reconsider membership. In the final sequence, Hans-Olaf Henkel, of the German Eurosceptic party Alliance for Renewal, attacked the euro, and increasing Brussels centralisation, but he was not asked specifically what alternatives they could be. He contended that the rise of populist movements in Europe was because the EU had not handled the immigration issue properly. It was impossible to discern the extent which Her Henkel was actually anti-EU (if at all – in the same way that David Cameron now strongly supports the EU but regards himself as eurosceptic) but for the purposes of this analysis he has been classed as such.  So in total, there were four voices who clearly had reservations about the EU. Against that were a sprinkling of voices in the Anglo German club in Freiburg who were clearly pro EU and thought that the UK leaving would be a negative step; Marcus Adler who ran the Freiburg refugee camp, who put across that the German approach to immigration was working and had the full support of the local community;  Malcolm Parry, manager of the Surrey Research Park, who said that not one of the 1,800 local businesses in his orbit wanted to leave the EU; two named members of Guildford choirs, who between them claimed that it was vital to belong to ‘Europe’ and that the EU had scored important successes in human and working rights; Ian Stewart from the Twinning Association who said Britain should concentrate in staying in; and finally Ralph Brinkhuas from the ruling Christian Democrats in Germany and Almut Moller the pro-EU Council on Foreign Relations, who argued against Herr Henkel that the EU was doing a very important job in terms of security, the economy, foreign relations and immigration, and that it would be damaging if the UK left.

There was thus a very significant imbalance in this very lengthy (40 minute) item. The pro-EU, anti-UK- exit said was given greater prominence. In basic terms, there were only four significant clearly ‘exit’ contributors against eight who were strongly pro-EU and wanted to remain. The ‘remain side’, as exemplified by the triple-hander at the end, had significantly more space to put their case.  The choice of such strikingly affluent towns could have had a role in that.

It can easily be seen that the ‘remain’ side supporters heavily outnumbered Brexit supporters in many features, the only exceptions being those from Peterhead and Spain

The full list of guests was:

Pro-EU/remain: Dick Roche, Edith Cresson, Jack Rostowski (all 22/2);  Rheinhold Lopatka  (25/2); Christine Rowlands (29/2), Christian Allard(7/3), Charles Buchan (7/3), Alan Johnson (11/3), P.J. Crowley (former Obama advisor) (14/3); Jane Gordon (lawyer) (16/3); Amanda Deal (16/3), Vatrod Fleismann (17/3), Marcus Adler (17/3), Malcolm Parry (17/3); James Garrow (17/3); Leslie Scordelis (17/3); Ian Stewart  (17/3); Ralph Brinkhaus, a Christian Democrat MP  (17/3); Almut Moller of the European Council on Foreign Relations

Against: Richard Tilsley (29/2), Mev Brown (7/3), Jimmy Buchan (7/3); Wolfgang Ott (17/3), Gordon Bridger (17/3); Michael Gorman (17/3); Hans-Olaf Henkel (17/3)

A handful of very short vox pops from Freiburg and Germany (17/3) on both sides of the debate were not included in the analysis because they were too short to include reasons.

Neutral: Damian Lyons Lowe, of Survation (25/2), John Curtice of Strathclyde university (25/2); Paul May (16/3), Martin Gordon (16/3); Ronald Ash 917Gillian Cameron (17/3); Mark Edwards (17/3); Harry Schindler (18/3).  Jacob Rees Mogg (18/3) argued that Ian Duncan Smith’s resignation was nothing to do with the EU; his contribution was therefore also neutral.

Andrew Gimson and Isabel Oakeshott (26/2) have also been classed neutral commentators. Both, however, were strongly critical of the tactics of the ‘leave’ side.  They agreed that the ‘leave’ side was also all over the place and Isabel Oakshott suggested that Number 10 believed the economic arguments were on its side. Andrew Gimson noted that eurosceptics could not agree where the last ditch was over sovereignty so had disagreements among themselves.

 

 

 

 

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BBC Environment programme flouts BBC impartiality rules

BBC Environment programme flouts BBC impartiality rules

Costing the Earth; The Environment after Exit (BBC Radio 4 March 15 and 16)

h/t Craig Byers of Is the BBC Biased?

The programme, presented by Tom Heap, investigated the current impact on the UK of EU-related policies affecting conservation, fisheries, farming and renewable energy, and explored what might happen in the event of Brexit. The main fulcrum was whether, in the light of the evidence presented, the United Kingdom was likely to start afresh policy debates in each area, or whether it would be safer and more effective to stay in the EU.

Detailed analysis of the programme transcript shows it was heavily biased to the ‘remain side’ and was not impartial in the handling of the people and topics it covered. The impression conveyed was that Brexit would risk undermining the current conservation regime, would lead to a severe reduction in farming subsidies, would put small farms at risk, that the fast-expanding renewable energy business on farms would be threatened, and that the UK’s efforts to combat climate change and atmospheric pollution would be diminished. The programme did acknowledge that at least one farmer believed the Common Agricultural Policy did not work and that the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy was very unpopular. Three figures who opposed it were included – but the main sign-off, contribution on that topic was from a senior industry figure who favoured remaining in the EU.

In summary, the programme presented significantly more evidence that it was better to remain in the European Union. Speakers supporting ‘remain’ were given more time and space, largely uninterrupted, to advance their arguments, and their credentials were prominently mentioned. All of the eight were acknowledged experts working for national organisations or involved in campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU at a national level. Their expertise covered the entire terrain of the programme.

By contrast, none of the speakers supporting Brexit was a national ‘expert’ – they were a farmer, a fisherman, a harbourmaster, a snack bar owner and the press officer of a small charity/pressure group fighting windfarms in Scotland. It was thus a programme with contributions of unequal weight.

The handling of the two sides of the debate was also uneven in that more adversarial questions were asked by the BBC figures in the programme (Tom Heap plus two other correspondents) to those who supported Brexit. The ‘remain’ contributors had more uninterrupted time to explain their respective positions. for example, one of almost two minutes from Stanley Johnson, the main ‘remain contributor. By contrast, the contributions from advocates of Brexit were generally much shorter and fragmented by challenges from the presenters. None was able to present a long-form, detailed response.

This imbalance was not offset by the contributions of the presenters. They put only a couple of adversarial questions to the ‘remain’ contributors. More were posed to the Brexit side and they were more challenging, especially in the sequences covering fishing and windfarms.

A further problem was that the exact status and allegiances relevant to the programme of some of the remain guests was not explained to the audience. Matt Shardlow, who spoke about conservation, was correctly introduced as chief executive of Buglife.  It was not mentioned – directly relevant to his likely outlook to the EU – was that his charity receives significant project funding from the EU. Andrew Blenkiron was introduced only as the estate manager of the Euston Estate. But he is also a prominent regional official on the NFU, and has written strongly pro-EU articles in that capacity for Farmers’ Weekly. Tom Clothier was introduced as the ‘renewable energy manager at Wyke farms’.  The farm’s owner, Richard Clothier, was a signatory to a recent pro-remain letter to the national press by ‘leading figures from the farming industry’ – as was Andrew Blenkiron.  Finally, Andrew Whitehead was said only to be an ‘energy analyst’ from the lawyers Shakespeare Martineau. The clear impression was that he was thus independent. But he is also a leading official of a pan-EU energy organisation and has written articles for the Birmingham Post warning about the downsides of Brexit as regards Britain’s energy needs.  These connections all illustrate that figures introduced as ‘experts’ were not likely to be independent in their outlook, and, indeed, were each strongly pro-EU. This was seriously misleading to listeners.

The problems in imbalance are further illustrated by word count analysis. The total contribution of spokesmen on the ‘remain’ side was 1,847 words, whereas the combined figure for supporters of ‘leave’ was 1,040, a ratio of roughly two thirds to one third. The longest single contribution on the pro-EU side was 290 words (Stanley Johnson), compared with only 117 words for Linda Holt. Length of contribution as a measure on its own is not a definite indicator of bias, but in this programme, where the ‘remain’ side was in other respects heavily favoured, it underlines and confirms the problem.

In more detail, the key issues relating to the failure to achieve impartiality were as follows.

 

Guest inequality

The programme featured several figures who were introduced as ‘authorities’ on EU legislation. All their contributions, with only minor reservations, supported ‘remain’ and that the EU had a strongly positive influence in

  • supporting wildlife habitats:
  • in ensuring that farming was highly prioritised in the national agenda and highly subsidised for the benefit of both farmers and food production;
  • and in the transition to renewable energy.

In this category were  eight contributors: Stanley Johnson, who had worked at both the European Commission and in the European Parliament in framing the EU Habitats Directive; Matt Shardlow, the chief executive of Buglife, Andrew Blenkiron, from the Euston Estate in Suffolk; Bertie Armstong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (speaking in a personal capacity); Brian Gardner, a policy adviser for Agro-Europe, which provides intelligence to farmers about EU legislation; Richard Clothier, a farm owner who was using an anaerobic digester to provide energy; Andrew Whitehouse, an energy analyst with the lawyers Shakespeare Martineau; and Juliet Davenport, chief executive of ‘green’ power company Good Energy.  Some of these, as is noted in the introduction, had declared in writing that they were strong supporters of the ‘remain’ side.

Ranged against them on the anti-EU side were five figures:  fisherman Andy Giles; harbourmaster Keith Bromley, Pam of Pam’s snacks (all in the fisheries section and opposed to the CFP); farmer Colin Tyler; and Linda Holt of the Scotland Against Spin anti-windfarm group.

This was a significant and unfair imbalance. All the arguments made by the pro-EU side were articulated by authority figures and experts who were identified and projected as such. By contrast, the anti-EU side was expressed by individuals, who, though clearly articulate and able, did not have the same ranking in their respective areas of activity as the pro-EU figures. The only minor exception was Linda Holt, who is press officer for the pressure group Scotland Against Spin. But it is a small charity surviving entirely on charitable donations – unlike Buglife (the nearest comparison on the Pro-EU side), which is an international organisation and receives significant grant aid from the European Union – a factor which was not mentioned on the programme.

Analysis of the contributions by the pro-EU experts also shows that all were allowed significant time to put and explain their respective cases, a total of 1,847 words; all their contributions were edited so that they included supportive facts and figures; and also so that their pro-EU points were the longest in the programme.

Tom Heap/ BBC presenter roles:

Examination of the role of the presenters, Tom Heap, assisted by Robin Marks (who interviewed the guests in the fishing section), and Nancy Nicholson (who interviewed anti-windfarm campaigner Linda Holt) raises further issues of concern.

In a 30-minute programme, they asked relatively few questions and presented very little analysis – their main role was to provide a framework for the contributors to express their views. In this process, they were not sufficiently rigorous, and not even-handed.

Only one mildly adversarial question about EU policies was put to any of the ‘remain’ contributors. Andrew Blenkiron was asked the cost of saving each great-crested newt in a conservation scheme he had manged; he replied that it had been £6,500.

By contrast, the Brexit contributors, Cornish fisherman Andrew Giles, farmer Colin Tyler, and windfarm opponent Linda Holt, were each directly challenged about their views. It was suggested to Mr Giles by Robin Marks that his opposition to the CFP would result in the environment not being protected and was based on self-interest; to Mr Tyler by Tom Heap that he could advocate less EU (or government) subsidy because he was closer to the markets of the south-east; and to Linda Holt by Nancy Nicholson that her resistance against more windfarms would cause more global warming and pollution.

The questioning of the respective sides of the debate was thus biased against the Brexit side.

As was established in the previous section, the ‘remain’ figures had most time to advocate their case. To rectify that, it would be expected that there would be balancing material and comment from the presenters. There was some, but it was very limited.  Tom Heap said that the Common Fisheries Policy was unpopular and thought by scientists to be a failure, and that elements of energy policy did not sufficiently encourage insulation.

Mr Heap, however, also made pro-EU comments in his linking material. On fisheries, he noted that the Marine Conservation Society credited EU legislation for the clean-up of beaches and the creation of marine protected areas. He then noted that the CAP, in contrast to the CFP, ‘really matters’ because farming spent 40% of the EU budget’.

At the end, Mr Heap, in his conclusion, suggested that leaving the EU would involve starting each debate afresh, with issues such as ‘where should we get our low-carbon energy’ at the centre of the debate.

 

Programme summary:

Costing the Earth set out to investigate how ‘Europe’ has its fingers and ‘tendrils’ in ‘an awful lot of issues in our countryside’, and chose farming, fisheries, energy and wildlife conservation as examples to investigate.

Tom Heap pointed initially to that the ‘bedrock of European conservation law’ was the Habitats Directive

Within its framework, several experts spoke positively about this involvement.

Wildlife conservation

Stanley Johnson, introduced as the ‘father of Boris’ with the explanation that ‘they don’t agree on the European Union’, said that the Directive was now a ‘huge oak tree’ that protected 18 per cent of the land area of the 28 countries in the EU.   He said it was ‘an extra layer of protection’ to this precious landscape ‘provided by Brussels’. It meant that even if the British government wanted to frack in the national parks, there would be ‘a lot more hoops to go through’. He suggested that people wanted this, ‘they do care’.

Matt Shardlow was introduced as ‘chief executive of the organisation Buglife. Tom Heap asked him what has ‘Europe’ done for the Roman snail., a species which Mr Shardlow said had been in the UK for hundreds of years. He said the creature had been brought here by the Romans and was thus part of our heritage. He explained when the European Union Habitats Directive was introduced  in 1992, it was a protected species, and it meant  that the member states had to keep it in good condition. He was asked ‘how confident are you that ‘Europe’ was needed to deliver that’. And ‘it couldn’t be delivered by national governments?’

Mr Shardlow replied that it could have been done by national government but was not, and for the past 20 years conservationists had relied upon the European Court of Justice – ‘the bigger scope of the Habitats Directive…to make sure that wildlife here is ultimately protected’. He added he did not have enough faith in the government (UK) ‘in suddenly stepping up and gaining…this moral sense of responsibility, this great urge and vitality about looking after wildlife…’

Tom Heap observed that the Habitats Directive had proved itself as ‘powerful tool’ in influencing development in this country.  He spoke to Andrew Blenkiron (introduced as the manager of the Euston Estates in Suffolk – it was not mentioned that he was also regional chairman of the strongly pro-EU NFU and signatory of a recent anti- Brexit letter in the Financial Times) He said that as a  result of the Habitats Directive, it had cost £65,000 to establish great crested newt habitats as part of a reservoir development.    Tom Heap observed that he and other land owners were ‘irritated’ by such cost and delays for protecting a creature that was ‘actually quite common in England and Wales’ but rare in most of the rest of Europe.  He said that Mr Shardlow of Buglife sympathised but ‘blames national government interpretation of the of the law rather than the EU’.  He blamed the UK government for not monitoring the status (degree of threat) to species…if they did that properly ‘you don’t have to introduce Draconian laws’.

Fisheries

Tom Heap opened by saying that the Marine Conservation Society credits EU legislation with cleaning our beaches and creating marine protected areas.  He added that said there was no avoiding the link between the EU and the pictures of fishermen throwing perfectly good fish, dead, back into the sea. He said British fishermen were no fans of the Common Fisheries Policy, and main scientists thought they had done a poor job of conserving stocks.  A report followed containing fishermen’s reaction to the CFP. One said it prevented haddock fishing when there was plenty of stocks, the monthly quota was ‘ludicrous’. He asserted that ‘if we came out of Europe, maybe it would change’.  The fisherman also noted that the haddock quota did not apply to the French – but if he went into their waters, they would be ‘blown up.’   Pete Bromley, the harbourmaster at Sutton in Plymouth, said the CFP rules were flawed ‘even after four attempts at reform’ and put a lot of pressure on British fishermen.  Pam, of Pam’s Snacks, also said the UK should pull out of Europe because the rules and regulations were ‘killing the fishing industry’. The BBC reporter put it to the first fisherman that the CFP rules were there to protect the environment and ensure there was enough fish to go round.   The first fisherman disagreed and said discards were still happening. The reporter said that was being phased out. The fisherman replied that instead, fishermen were being forced to stop fishing. The BBC reporter (Robin Markwell) said there weren’t many people who would defend the CFP. But he said that Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation had a personal view that exit from the EU would make matters worse. He asserted:

‘Common sense suggests that collective action is better than a load of individuals competing, and in the fishing industry that’s largely true.  Collaborative action so that no one individually over-fishes, or you don’t have what could be referred to as the tragedy of the commons of everybody trying to fish a little more than their neighbour.  The negotiations, to have a sensible place outside the tent would be very complicated and full of hazard, particularly full of hazard for us, and this is highly significant, in that fishing – it’s very important to me, you would expect that, it’s very important in the areas where it happens, but, overall it’s less than half a percent of GDP.  And so when a state is negotiating they will have pressure points, and fishing is unlikely to be a pressure point for the negotiating people who are trying to look after the UK’s relationship with Europe.’

Farming

Tom Heap said the feeling among farmers to the Common Agricultural Policy was ambivalent. He asserted that it had been at the heart of the ‘European project’ for 50 years and ‘in environmental and financial terms, it really matters. Farming spends 40% of the EU budget.’ Brian Gardner, a policy adviser with Agra Europe, a provider of intelligence about the EU to farmers, explained that farmers received a subsidy worth £100 an acre, and there was not guarantee that would be maintained post-exit. In addition, they received stewardship and other subsidies designed to encourage environmentally-friendly farming.  That would be cut from £3bn to £1bn a year.  Colin Tyler, a farmer from near Heathrow, said it was time for farming to kick away its subsidy crutch and leave the EU. Tom Heap asked him how many farmers shared his view at the recent NFU conference. Mr Tyler said he was the only one. Mr Heap suggested it was easier for him to support exit because he was in the South-east and relatively close to markets. He agreed, but warned that if the UK stayed in the EU, the amount of subsidy would get lower over the next 10 years and the amount of regulation would increase, and hill farmers might not be allowed to graze sheep on mountains because it threatened the environment. Brian Gardner said that if subsidies reduced, it would force out smaller farmers, especially dairy farmers, and larger farms without government intervention would be bad for the environment. Heap said that Brian Gardener believed that out of the EU, the UK might be more free to plant genetically modified crops, but did not expect changes in the chemicals that farmers would be allowed to use. He expected that the UK government would continue subsidising hill farms ‘so don’t expect sheep to disappear from the Welsh hills, the Yorkshire dales or the Scottish Highlands’.

Heap then said that one recent money-spinner for farmers had been renewable energy: solar panels, wind turbines and bio-energy plants.  There was a actuality from Wyke Farms. Tom Clothier, in charge of the farms’ renewable energy business (and a signatory of the same FT letter as Andrew Blenkiron, mentioned above) explained they had an anaerobic digester unit which converted waste from dairy production into gas, one third of which went into electrical production and a third to the grid.  Tom Heap said this anaerobic digester was ‘part of an extraordinarily swift energy revolution led from Brussels’. Andrew Whitehead, introduced as an ‘energy analyst’ with lawyers Shakespeare Martineau (and a strong opponent of Brexit) as well as being a member of the Association of European Energy Consultants), said the UK’s target under the climate change act was an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. He said the UK had to meet the ‘binding European target’ for renewables. Mr Whitehead claimed that the UK had been quite influential in making sure the EU’s 2030 target for renewables was not so prescriptive.  Juliet Davenport, introduced as CEO of Good Energy, said that anaerobic digester technology had improved and that meant it could produce economically gas and electricity. She said the legislation part had been ‘really strong’. The European Renewables Directive set an outlying target for renewable energy in each country, and that was supplemented by the UK Renewables Electricity Act, which brought in a 15% target across transport, electricity and heat in the UK.

The next section was based on an interchange between Nancy Nicholson, a BBC reporter, and Linda Holt, who said she was opposed to windfarms.  Tom Heap said that in Fife, Linda Holt agreed that the EU had encouraged renewable energy ‘such as the windfarms that provide Good Energy with half its electricity’ but was not keen on the consequences and was a member of the campaign group Scotland Against Spin. Ms Holt explained that the EU Renewable Energy Directive of 2009 stipulated that Europe as a whole should produce 20% of its energy needs from renewables by 2020, with the UK target set at 15%. She said that Alex Salmond had ‘gold-plated’ this for Scotland and set a target of 100%. Nancy Nicholson put it to her that they were looking at a very industrial landscape in a hill near Mossmorran (a power station) ’we can see big chimneys, and I don’t know whether it’s steam or smoke that’s coming up from there. The point is really that if we did not have renewables, we would have more of these – coal fired power stations- and that would mean more climate change and worse air quality’.  Ms Holt disagreed about the coal-fired power stations and suggested alternatives could be gas or nuclear power, as well as more research into other renewables ‘that are better than wind’.   Ms Nicholson asked if she would like to see Britain out of the EU…do you think Britain would not support windfarms?’ Ms Holt replied that the UK had stopped supporting onshore windfarms, and the days of those offshore were perhaps also numbered.

Mr Heap concluded:

‘That, perhaps, is the nub of the debate over Britain’s exit from the European Union. The future of the environment would depend upon the UK governments that follow exit. Each of these enormous issues will need to be reassessed and weighed in the list of national priorities. Exit would just be the start of a debate on what’s best for our environment. Should landowners be subsidised to manage the landscape? How do we protect our fish stocks? Where should we get our low-carbon energy? They are all question we have, to some degree, allowed politicians and officials in Brussels to take the lead on. Are we happy to start each debate afresh?’

 

 

Programme transcript:

Transcript of BBC Radio 4 ‘Costing the Earth’ 15th March 2016, 3.30pm

TOM HEAP:          I’m standing in front of a small pond, probably 10 metres across, there’s a willow part-tumbled into it on one side, a bank of brambles and some open ploughed feels around the rest.  It doesn’t, in many ways feel particularly, if the locals will forgive me, beautiful, and yet, within it is something that’s become iconic within European environment circles, lauded by some, a bit of a pain in the neck to others – I’m talking about the great crested newt.  Protected by the Habitats Directive. Today on Costing the Earth, we’re going to be looking at how Europe has its fingers, its tendrils, in an awful lot of issues in our countryside.  Farming, fishing, energy and through wildlife conservation.  And that’s particularly why I’m here.  And I’m with Andrew Blenkiron, of Euston Estates, who look after the land in this area.  Andrew, tell me what issues you have with the inhabitants of this pond.

ANDREW BLENKIRON:       Well, Tom . . . actually, when we came down to it there were no great crested newts in this pond, there may have been, and that’s why we were refused our permission to apply for planning application to put our solar panels on the two fields adjacent to this site.

STANLEY JOHNSON:           So what we’re doing now it’s driving . . . following the river really towards Exford, and Exford, you know, is the heart of Exmoor, and this farm has been in our family since 1951.

TH:         The bedrock of European conservation law, responsible for protection given to great crested newts and a wide range of rare threatened and unique species is known as the Habitats Directive.  One of its architects, when he was a European Commission official, was Stanley Johnson, father of Boris.  They don’t agree on the European Union.

SJ:          The funny thing for me is that so many aspects of my life seem to be coming together at the moment.  I spent 20 years in the EU, you know, first in the Commission doing environmental policy, then in the European Parliament.  And now these two items, Europe on the one hand and environment on the other are coming together for me in a quite remarkable way in the context of this referendum.  And the third element of course is Exmoor, a huge chunk of Exmoor is a protected area under the Habitats, directive, and for me it’s completely wonderful, because little did I know, that way back in Brussels in the late 80s that this tiny acorn . . . the Habitats Directive would grow into such a huge oak tree.  Taking the 28 countries of the EU as a whole, something like 18% of the land area of those 28 countries is now protected under the Habitats Directive Why is that important?  In practical terms, it means there is an extra layer of protection to this precious landscape, provided by Brussels.  Yes, I’m afraid to say, it is provided by Brussels, it means that even if the government said, ‘Yes you can frack in national parks’ – if that’s part of the national park was also protected under the Habitats Directive there would be a lot more hoops to go through.  Now, there may be people who shout ‘boo, boo, that’s not what we want’, but my view is that taking the population as a whole, they do care.

TH:         I’m with Matt Shardlow who’s chief executive of Buglife, and, Matt, we’re on our hands and knees here, (laughs) very close to the ground, looking at a certain lifeform, what is that?

MATT SHARDLOW:            Well, this is a fantastic beast, this is our biggest terrestrial snail, it’s called the Roman Snail, it’s about the size of a golf ball, pale, almost white, but with a sort of pale, fawny brown patterning on the shell.  This one’s actually hibernating, and it’s got a huge great big door over the front, that protecting the snail and keeping it moist and safe inside its shell.

TH:         So this little thing, about the size of a big thumbnail over the opening is actually what’s keeping it alive at this time of year is it?

SH:         Yeah, I mean, it’s amazing that they’re actually out here, even in the winter, they’re out, actually exposed on the surface, they haven’t burrowed down, and by sealing themselves in with this, you know, it looks very calcified and white shell over the front of the snail, they’ve sealed themselves in and it’s a, it’s a very successful hibernation strategy.  They’ve been here for hundreds of years.

TH:         Now what has Europe done for the Roman Snail?

MS:        Well, I mean if you go back far enough to Roman Snail is called the Roman Snail because it was brought here by the Romans.  So this is part of our cultural heritage, as well as our natural heritage.  It’s a European species, brought here for people to eat.  So, in 1992 the Habitats Directive came in, and this is one of the species that was put down as . . . the member states need to keep it in good condition, they need to make sure it’s not disappearing from those member states, and if it is, they need to take whatever action they need to to make sure that it survives and it’s looked after. In the UK that meant, in the early 2000’s, when cases came about of people collecting bag loads of these things and selling them to the restaurant trade, er, that meant that we stepped in and asked the government to bring in some protection and they did, they put it on the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and since then there have been reduced number of incidents.

TH:         And how confident are you that needed kind of Europe to deliver that? It couldn’t be delivered by national governments?

MS:        Well, it potentially could have been done by national governments but it hadn’t been done by the national governments.  We’ve spent the last 20 years relying on the bigger scope of the European Court of Justice, and the bigger scope of the Habitats Directive and other pieces of legislation to make sure that the wildlife here is ultimately protected. You don’t then have much face (sic, means ‘faith’?) in, in the government, in suddenly stepping up and gaining, you know, this moral sense of responsibility, this great urge and vitality about looking after wildlife when the last 20 years has been like trying to force a limpet off a rock frankly. (laughs)

TH:         The Habitats Directive has certainly proved itself to be a powerful tool in influencing development in this country.  Often you hear about it in terms of where do houses go all roads go, but I’m back on the Euston estate with Andrew Blenkiron and we are standing in front of a reservoir.

AB:         75 million gallons of water capacity here which gives us the ability to irrigate approximately 700 acres of root crops on an annual basis.  And it’s a significant part of our business.

TH:         So take me through the process, you wanted to build this reservoir, and what hurdles did you come across?

AB:         There’s about eight ponds within 300 metres of this development site.  So what we had to do, at the right time of the year, which is sort of end of February through to May, we had to establish the great crested newt population at all of those locations.  The next thing that we had to do once we done that is wait till the following year after gaining a licence from Natural England to catch and relocate the newts that would be on the development site.

TH:         And so that took a couple of years, and added how much did you say to the cost?

AB:         £65,000.

TH:         And how many newts did you find?

AB:         We found ten great, great crested newts.

TH:         so that £6500 per newt.

AB:         Yeah, and I actually think that’s er, we, we got off quite light, because I hear people have spent £20,000 per newt.

TH:         Andrew Blenkiron is absolutely nothing against the great crested, or any other kind of newt.  In fact, he’s rather proud of the newt habitat he’s constructed in recompense for the damage caused by building the reservoir.  But he’s one of many land owners and developers irritated by delays caused by an animal that actually quite common in in England and Wales.  It’s protected because it’s rare in most of the rest of Europe.  Matt Shardlow of BugLife sympathises, but blames national government interpretation of the law rather than the EU.

MS:        As long as that species is in favourable conservation status, then it’s possible for governments to be more flexible about how it’s conserved.  What happened at the moment is we don’t know what its statuses.  If you can set your monitoring up so that you know how well it’s doing, so that you can address the problems it’s facing, then you don’t have to introduce Draconian laws that protect every single newt wherever every newt is.

TH:         European Union rules don’t just affect the land, the EU also rules the waves, or at least the natural life beneath. The Marine Conservation Society credits EU legislation with cleaning our beaches and creating marine protected areas. However, there’s no avoiding the association between the EU and those pictures we’ve seen so often of fishermen throwing perfectly good fish, dead, back in the sea from which they’ve just been caught.  British fishermen are no fans of the laws that strictly control their business – the Common Fisheries Policy.  Many scientists think it’s done a pretty poor job of conserving stocks. Robin Markwell has been to one of England’s biggest fish markets in Plymouth to gather opinion.

ROBIN MARKWELL:            Well, it may be five in the morning, pitch dark and raining, most of Plymouth is still asleep, but here in the harbour the fishing boats are preparing for a day’s fishing.

ANDY GILES:        I’m Andy Giles, I’m a fisherman from Looe, but the boat is in Plymouth, so we fish from here every day on a . . . 15 metre Twin rigged trawler.

RM:        How long have you been fishing for?

AG:        Been fishing since I was 16 and I’m now 44 so, what’s . . . 28 years.  Fishing mainly for erm, lemon soles, whiting, squid.

RM:        Tell me about the Common Fisheries Policy, what does it mean for you as a fisherman?

AG:        I’m not sure the Common Fisheries Policy is working, there’s lots of plentiful stocks of haddock which . . . they’re saying that there isn’t any, which we are seeing on the ground is different, it’s full up with haddock.  We can catch our monthly allocation of quota in . . . probably one haul – 250 kilos.  To us, it’s not fair as we’ve got Frenchmen on our doorstep which are catching 2000 kilo a day, which to us is just ludicrous, they’re 6 mile from our coast so it’s not really much good for us at the moment, but . . . who knows, if we came out of Europe, maybe it would change.

RM:        The French have a higher quota than you then?

AG:        Yes, and they’re fishing into our 6 mile limit.  They have some sort of historic rights of some description.

RM:        Can you get that close to French waters then, more than six miles?

AG:        No we can’t.  If you went in six mile in France, I think you’d probably be blown out the water.

PETE BROMLEY:   I’m Pete Bromley, and the harbourmaster at Sutton Harbour in Plymouth, and I’m also the fisheries manager responsible for the infrastructure of the fish market.

RM:        And there are crates upon crates upon crates upon crates of glorious fresh fish stacked up, going out to merchants at the moment, conger eels, lemon sole, you name it, you’ve got it here, Pete.

PB:         Yes, this is the through the night and early morning sort of business, and the fish is being sold now to be transported away, in all parts of the country and eventually a lot of it will go on to Europe. Anything that a fisherman does is governed by the Common Fisheries Policy – the amount of fish they can catch, the sort of gear they can use, their entire lives are ruled by the Common Fisheries Policy.  And quite rightly so, because it’s a pretty flawed policy, even after four attempts of reforming it, it’s still not really doing what it was set out to do.  And it’s certainly putting a lot of pressure on the British fishermen.

RM:        Well, this is Pam’s Snacks, which is where I think fishermen who’ve had a night on the trawler can come to get some breakfast.  Pam, we’re looking at the issue of Europe and how it affects fishing, what are you hearing?

PAM:      Well, to be honest, I think we should pull out of Europe, there’s a lot of rules and regulations that are coming in now, that Europe are, are doing, that’s killing the fishing industry. And there’s a lad that came in last week, and he said, ‘I had to throw about three boxes of haddock, beautiful haddock, and chuck it back in the sea.’ – Why, why, it’s crazy, it’s ludicrous.

UNKNOWN MALE:             I’m voting for Pam when she goes in to the next election.  Very well put Pam, very eloquent (laughter)

RM:        You’ve been in the business 40 years, and is in the truth of the matter things are much better now, it’s been through this series of reforms, that it was when, when the Common Fisheries Policy first came in.

AG:        No, not really.  The fishermen have made huge efforts in gear technology, reducing the amount of undersized fish they catch, and the sacrifices that have been made that have led to the improvements of the fish stocks, we’ve had no payback for it.

RM:        But the quotas are there for a reason, and they, they’re there to protect the environment, to make sure there’s enough fish to go round for everyone.

AG:        That’s the theory behind it, but (exhales) if a fisherman is only allowed to catch a certain amount of fish – his quota – and he catches any more, then it gets thrown back, dead into the sea.  So you tell me how that conserving?

RM:        But the discards policy that you mentioned there, that is being phased out, isn’t it, under the latest reform?

AG:        Yeah, okay, so now instead of the fish being thrown back into the sea, the fishermen has to stop fishing.

RM:        You won’t find many people willing to defend the Common Fisheries Policy.  It’s largely failed to protect the fishermen and the fish.  But Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation says that in his personal opinion, and he stresses this isn’t the view of his organisation, exit from the EU could actually make things worse.

BERTIE ARMSTRONG:        Common sense suggests that collective action is better than a load of individuals competing, and in the fishing industry that’s largely true.  Collaborative action so that no one individually over-fishes, or you don’t have what could be referred to as the tragedy of the commons of everybody trying to fish a little more than their neighbour.  The negotiations, to have a sensible place outside the tent would be very complicated and full of hazard, particularly full of hazard for us, and this is highly significant, in that fishing – it’s very important to me, you would expect that, it’s very important in the areas where it happens, but, overall it’s less than half a percent of GDP.  And so when a state is negotiating they will have pressure points, and fishing is unlikely to be a pressure point for the negotiating people who are trying to look after the UK’s relationship with Europe.

TH:         This is Costing the Earth  on BBC Radio 4.  Today we’re examining the potential impact of exit from the European Union beyond the city walls.  We’re looking at wildlife, fishing, farming and energy.  If many fishermen actively dislike the Common Fisheries Policy, the feeling amongst farmers about the Common Agricultural Policy is ambivalent.  It’s been at the heart of the European project for 50 years and in environmental and financial terms it really matters.  Farming spends 40% of the EU budget.  Brian Gardner is a policy analyst who’s just written a report for Agro-Europe, on the impact of Brexit on UK farmers.

BRIAN GARDNER:              It’s quite complicated, but essentially they get a direct income subsidy which is worth something in the region of about £100 an acre, whether or not they grow any crop on it or not.  In addition, they get stewardship and other subsidies which are designed to encourage an environmentally kindly approach to farming.  And there’s no guarantee, of course, that a Brexit government, and ex— EU membership government would maintain support at that sort of level.  In fact, I’m quite sure they would not.  At the moment, the total expenditure on subsidies for the British farmer is about £3 billion a year – it’s quite clear that they would cut that to about £1 billion a year, in that order, I mean it’s a rough estimate.

COLIN TYLER:       Their family came here in the 17th century, we’re looking over some parkland, we’re only a mile from Heathrow South runway, we’re looking over some old parkland where the Milton the poet’s family lived, and we’ve got some sheep who are grazing our parkland, and we have some highland cattle.  And they’ve all just done a runner.

TH:         Colin Tyler farms dozens of fields scattered to the west of Heathrow airport.  He doesn’t deny the British farmer’s dependency on money from Europe, but he thinks it’s time for his industry to kick away its own subsidy crutch.  So you would favour voting to leave the European Union.

CT:         Yes.

TH:         You went to the National Farmers Union conference recently.  How many people shared your view?

CT:         Erm, I arrived on the Monday night and our hotel was with my friends from the Welsh contingency and the Berkshire contingency and after about midnight, when all of us had one or two drinks we decided to talk about Euro (sic) and the exit.  And I was shocked to find that, of a hundred people, farmers in that bar, I was the only one for exit. And . . .

TH:         And what did that tell you?

CT:         That either I’m wrong and they’re right . . . but my view is, is that they’re still saying they can’t farm without subsidies, they won’t have access to the markets, their business will end.  I don’t think it’s that black and white.  We have this one opportunity in our life to say, ‘We’ve had enough, it’s time for us to leave, time for UK farmers to stand on their own two feet.’  We produce the best milk in the world, the best beef, the best sheep.  And thousands of other products, I think we can export to elsewhere.

TH:         Have confidence in that ability?

CT:         Have confidence in that ability and be brave enough.

TH:         Maybe that’s easier for you to say here in the South East, relatively close to markets, a few opportunities for making money outside conventional farming. If you were a hill farmer a long way away you really need those subsidies. They make up a big proportion of your income.

CT:         I would have to agree with that. It’s easier for me to make the decision, but let’s look . . .  We’re in Europe, ten years time. Have we made any changes? The subsidy will be lower, the regulations will be higher. Would they allow us still to graze sheep on mountains, because they say we are destroying the environment?

TH:         Of course, what’s bad for farmer’s income isn’t necessarily bad for the environment. Would lower subsides affect the landscape?

BG:         Well, the problem is, from a social, from an environmental point of view, is that it would tend to push out the small family farm, which is essential really to the maintenance of the current structure of the rural areas, particularly the dairy farmers, of course, because they are suffering most at the moment, and if they lost that 30 to 40% of their income, if that subsidy was scaled down, then of course they would be forced to give up or become much larger, so there would be a tendency towards larger farms, fewer farmers – a move towards the countryside being dominated by large farms would tend, without government intervention, would tend to be not good for the environment in my view.

TH:         Agricultural analyst, Brian Gardener sees an increase in intensification of agriculture in the lowlands.  Out of the European Union we might be more free to plant genetically modified crops, but he doesn’t foresee any major in the chemicals that farmers are allowed to use.  He also expects any UK government to continue subsidising upland farms, so don’t expect sheep to disappear from the Welsh Hills, the Yorkshire Dales or the Scottish Highlands.

TOM CLOTHIER:   I’m Tom Clothier, I’m in charge of our renewable energy business here at Wyke Farms, and we’re on our anaerobic digestions site, where we generate most of our energy for our cheesemaking operation.

TH:         One recent money-spinner for farmers has been renewable energy.  Solar panels, wind turbines and bio-energy plants have popped up across the country.

UNKNOWN MALE:             So we’ve got a tank here for holding strong waste, which is pumped down from our cheese dairy.

UNKNOWN FEMALE:         So is it producing gas constantly, 24 hours . . .

UM: 24 hours  day, yes, we’re, we’re producing gas.  Erm . . . a third of the gas goes into electrical generation, and then the rest of the gas gets upgraded and goes into the grid.

UF:         Yeah.

TH:         This anaerobic digester here at the Wyke Farms cheese factory is part of an extraordinarily swift energy revolution led from Brussels.

ANDREW WHITEHEAD:     Renewables’ share of the power generation mix in the UK rose from around 7% in 2010 to 22-23% at the moment.

TH:         Andrew Whitehead is an energy analyst with the lawyers Shakespeare Martineau in Birmingham.

AW:       We’ve got, in the Climate Change Act 2008, our own self-imposed carbon reduction target, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, so that’s a really ambitious target.  At the same time, in Europe, there is a binding renewable energy target which says that all member states must contribute towards helping the EU increase its share of renewables across the energy sector, and the UK is a share of that is 15%.  And that’s binding.  And that applies not just to power generation, but also to heat and transport.

TH:         And how powerful has that target been up until now in delivering?

AW:       Well, it’s been very influential, we’ve seen the problem has been that it’s quite prescriptive.  So, in trying to meet carbon reduction targets the UK government is, to some extent, constrained, because it has to meet that binding European target for renewables while there are obviously other ways in which carbon reduction targets can be met, for example, energy efficiency, nuclear and more gas for example.

TH:         Some people think it actually rather handcuffed policy, this renewable energy target and, for instance, made, you know, building a biomass boiler on a school more attractive than insulating it properly which some people think is a bit mad?

AW:       I think that’s probably a fair comment, but I think the UK government has been quite influential in making sure that the EU’s new 2030 targets for renewables are not so prescriptive.

TH:         Those European Union targets have been great for those subsidised to produce renewables and for an electricity company like Good Energy that buys that power and sells it on to consumers.

JULIET DAVENPORT:          My name’s Juliet Davenport, I’m the founder and CEO of Good Energy, a green energy company.  So we are here at Wyke farm in Somerset, which is a cheese manufacturers, but actually we are on their 100% renewable energy site, which is an anaerobic digester which generates electricity from gas, that is anaerobically digested from the waste of the cheese plant, and we are involved in buying some of the power from that site.  There’s been a lot of technological development, not just in the UK, but worldwide, we’ve seen the Chinese come very strongly into the solar market, we’ve seen the Germans and the Danish move very strongly on the wind market, and then we’ve seen things like technologically, anaerobic digestion reduce in size so we can actually produce, economically gas and electricity from sites like this.  So, I think you’ve seen the technological part, through, but obviously legislation part has been really strong so we saw a lot of the renewables directive, the European Renewables Directive that then set an outlying target for renewable energy in each country and we have the Renewables Electricity Act in the UK which brought in the 15% target across transport, electricity and heat in the UK.  So it’s very much been driven by legislation, as well as by technological change.

LINDA HOLT:          Looking at (placename unclear) we can see nine 125 metre turbines, but behind as there’s another four or five.  If you were to sort of look up and jump in that direction, you’d see another windfarm with 125 metre turbines, I don’t know, there’s 12 or 13, so there’s quite, this is quite heavily saturated in terms of development, and quite a lot more have been consented that haven’t been built yet.

NANCY NICHOLSON: And they’re quite visible, actually, from the main road that leads down to the Forth Bridge and into Edinburgh.

UF:         That’s the right, the A92, yes.  Nobody can fail to see the turbines in Fife when they drive into Fife from Edinburgh.

TH:         In Fife, Linda Holt agrees that the EU has encouraged renewable energy, such as the wind turbines that provide Good Energy with half its electricity, but she’s not keen on the consequences.  Linda belongs to the campaign group Scotland Against Spin.  She met our reporter, Nancy Nicolson, on a snowy hillside overlooking the Firth of Forth.

LINDA HOLT:        It all comes back to the EU energy, Renewable Energy Directive of 2009 which stipulated that Europe should produce 20% of its total energy needs from renewables by 2020, and then the EU gave each country a percentage that they had to produce from renewables by 2020 and the UK was given 15%.  Alex Salmond decided to gold plate this and declared the most ambitious renewable energy targets in the world by saying that Scotland should have 100% renewable, or the equivalent of renewables by 2020.

NANCY NICHOLSON:          But this is a very industrial landscape. Yes, we’re looking at windmills, but we’re also looking just over the hill at Mossmorran. We can see the big chimneys, and I don’t know if it’s steam or smoke that’s coming up from there. The point is really that if we didn’t have renewables we would have more of these – more coal-fired power stations – and that would mean more climate change and worse air quality.

LH:         Well, I don’t think we would have more coal-fired power stations, actually, what we would have is combined gas, and we’d have more nuclear.  And perhaps we have had more research and development in other forms of renewables that are better than than wind.

NN:        So, you would like to see Britain out of the EU?  Do you think that Britain wouldn’t continue to support windfarms?

LH:         Well, it’s not continuing to support wind— . . . certainly, onshore wind farms, the UK government has stopped all new subsidy for onshore wind, it’s still supporting offshore wind, but I think the days for offshore wind for new offshore wind farms are numbered.

TH:         That, perhaps, is the nub of the debate over Britain’s exit from the European Union. The future of the environment would depend upon the UK governments that follow exit. Each of these enormous issues will need to be reassessed and weighed in the list of national priorities. Exit would just be the start of a debate on what’s best for our environment. Should landowners be subsidised to manage the landscape? How do we protect our fish stocks? Where should we get our low-carbon energy? They are all question we have, to some degree, allowed politicians and officials in Brussels to take the lead on. Are we happy to start each debate afresh?

Photo by vauvau

Analysis of Newsnight reveals strong imbalance against Brexit case

Analysis of Newsnight reveals strong imbalance against Brexit case

News-watch has completed preliminary research on 40 editions of Newsnight between January 13 and March 11   based on the full transcription and analysis of the relevant parts of each programme.

Daily news and current affairs programmes such as Newsnight  are not required to be balanced within each edition, but it would be expected that over a two-month period, the handling of the remain and leave sides of the Brexit case would be even-handed, especially as the period covered David Cameron’s Brussels negotiations and the formal suspension of cabinet collective responsibility on the topic.

A major concern is that the analysis of the guests who appeared on the programme speaking on referendum themes on a none-to-one basis showed a strong imbalance towards the remain side. There were 12 occasions (covering 14 guests, because one of the interviews featured three ‘remain’ figures) when guests clearly favouring staying in the European Union appeared in one-to-one interviews. There were only six featuring Brexit supporters.

The ‘remain’ figures involved were: Alan Johnson  (13/1), former Swedish prime minister and Eurocrat Carl Bildt  (27/1), David Liddington , (2/2), Rob Wainwright, from Europol   (8/2), Jose Manuel Barosso  (9/2), Ross McEwan , chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland (12/2) , Peter Mandelson    (18/2),  Kenneth Clarke (22/2),   Sylvie Bermann,, the French ambassador to the UK  (23/2),  Damian Green  (24/2), Anne Applebaum, Timothy Garton Ash and Tom Snyder (all commentators explaining why the EU was a vital bulwark against the likely excesses and failures of Donald Trump)   (4/3), and  Inga Beale, chief executive of Lloyds of London ) (7/3).

On the exit side, the guests who appeared in equivalent one-to-one exchanges were: the Conservative MP Maria Caulfield  (2/2),  Steve Baker MP  (3/2), Kate HoeyMP   (5/2);  Nigel Farage MEP )  (18/2), Iain Duncan Smith (22/2),  Richard Tice, one of the founders of the Leave.eu organisation  (8/3),

Analysis of the transcripts of these exchanges shows that each guest was given a clear opportunity to state arguments from their respective perspectives. For example, Inga Beale spelled out in detail why she believed that Brexit would damage her company. There was thus a significant imbalance on one very important level between the two sides.

Looking at EU referendum items as a whole, including the interviews above plus those where ‘leave and ‘remain’ guests were interviewed simultaneously, there were a further 11 guests who were clearly in favour of staying in the EU,  and a further eight who were supporters of Brexit. Thus the overall imbalance between the two sides was 25-14.

The additional remain figures were Lucy Thomas (twice) of the British Stronger in Europe group ( 29/1 and 16/2), the journalist Anne McElvoy (26/2). Charles Powell  (8/2, ) Emma Reynolds MP  (15/2);  Lord Finkelstein)  (18/2): Chuka Umunna (19/2) ; Ken Livingstone and Caroline Lucas MP   (29/2); Heidi Alexander MP (8/3); associate professor Khuloud Al-Jamal (10/2)   and Will Self (who was arguing against the ‘project fear’ allegedly generated by a Brexit supporter  (11/3.)

The remaining Brexit camp figures were:

Daniel Hannan  (29/1);  Anunziata Rees-Mogg ( (8/2) Nigel /Mills, fromn the Vote Leave group   (15/2);  Simon Jenkins (18/2): Tom Pursglove  (19/2) ; Toby Young (26/2);   the cleric and socialist Giles Fraser  (29/2); Gisela Stewart MP (8/3); Professor Angus Dalgleish)(10/2)   Munira Mirza, member of the London Assembly (11/3).

Again, this was a very significant imbalance. Several of the packages that featured both sides  provided impartial and absorbing interview sequences. News-watch’s investigation also found that although the BBC have been warned over many years that their coverage of EU affairs focuses too much on the Westminster bubble, there has been little attempt to go outside it. Only four Newsnight guests were not politicians, journalists, or attached to the political campaigns.

Three striking examples of bias include:

  • On February 5, the Labour MP Kate Hoey appeared – a very rare appearance on the BBC of a Labour figure supporting EU exit.  The main thrust of the interview by James O’Brien was not her reasons for wanting to leave, but rather the extent to which the exit movement was split, and what was happening next. Other interviews of exit supporters focused disproportionately on allegations of discord in the leave campaign.
  • EU figures, the former president of the EU Commission, Jose Manuel Barosso, and  the former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, have had the clear opportunity in main interviews to explain why leaving the EU would not be in the UK’s interest. There has been no balancing opinion from similarly weighty figures who support exit.   In associated correspondent reports, other EU figures such as the former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, has also been able to express pro-EU and anti-Brexit views.
  • In a feature linked to the continued success of Donald Trump, three commentators on EU affairs – journalist Anne Applebaum, the historian Tom Snyder and  Oxford don Timothy Garton Ash – were given space to collectively explain why it was vital that the UK stayed in the EU, and for the EU to unify even further against the threat of Russia, China and if Donald Trump was elected, the United States.

Another issue with the coverage was that some supporting background packages intended to reflect a range of views, were pro-EU. For example, a feature about the passengers on the Polish bus between Cracow and London, contained only views from those who were coming to the UK to work, and supported the opportunity to do so. Reporter Katy Razzell visited Peterborough but the views in her package emphasised most heavily support for immigration and the EU.

Full analysis of this large sample will be completed as soon as possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Photo by Chatham House, London

Bridgen putdown underlines rot at heart of BBC complaints process

Bridgen putdown underlines rot at heart of BBC complaints process

As the crucial referendum vote looms, how DO you complain about the BBC?

The reality is that the Corporation is its own judge and jury in dealing with complaints and has neatly-honed putdowns for almost every eventuality.

The odds are particularly stacked in the EU debate, as the News-watch submission to the DCMS consultation on BBC Charter renewal outlines. In the nine years since they were formed, the BBC Trustees have never upheld a complaint about EU coverage – even though senior BBC figures have admitted at various times that this aspect of their output has been biased.

Tough cookie MP Andrew Bridgen explained in the Daily Telegraph that he is the latest to try registering a complaint – only to be swatted aside like a tiresome bluebottle.

He very reasonably noticed that in the kick-off to the referendum campaign, the Corporation, as usual, is favouring the ‘remain’ side by, for example, allowing them to dominate the guest list on Newsnight; that coverage is representing David Cameron’s agreement as legally binding when it is not; and that business news on Today is regularly inviting pro-EU commentators to say what a vital and wonderful institution it is. All of which has been evidenced elsewhere.

Surprise, surprise, BBC Director of News James Harding disagrees. On what basis? Well primarily, it seems that because what poor, naïve Bridgen has observed is only the early days of the campaign and it will all even out in the ‘ebb and flow’ of events. Well silly him for not realising.

Of course balance is not a precise daily calculation and James Harding is right that there are days when almost inevitably, one side will receive more exposure than the other.

But the problem here is that – as Ryan Bourne of the IEA pointed out on the TCW – the BBC has got form in this respect, lots of it. For example, over 11 years of Today’s output, in monitoring by News-watch that covered almost half the programmes transmitted, only three Labour or other left-leaning guests favouring Brexit appeared. Was that down to the ‘ebb and flow’ of events? – or was another factor, such as outright BBC bias, in play? More examples abound on the News-watch website.

What Harding’s letter also underlines is that the BBC has got a neatly worked out answer to almost every situation. Another favourite is that both sides have complained, so the offending item must be balanced. Today editor Jamie Angus recently used this on Radio 4’s Feedback programme (which is supposed to represent listeners, but is mainly a conduit through which BBC executives rubbish them). He stated:

‘It’s a bit glib in a way to say if both sides are complaining volubly then we’re just about in the right place but I do sometimes fall back on that…..Genuinely, my perception is that I’m getting a pretty balanced mailbag.’ 

Any academic researcher would tell you the pitfalls of such crass generalisations.

Another is the ‘find the lady’ approach. When News-watch complained about Newsnight’s coverage of the David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech back in 2013 because the programme that evening contained 19 pro-EU guests ranged against only one definite withdrawalist (Nigel Farage, of course), the response was that we had missed that the previous December, there had been an edition which had debated the exit option and both sides had been evenly balanced.

This was bunk – in reality, the programme did not give the out camp a fair shout – but it was a classic BBC response which is wheeled out regularly: the complainant is wrong because somewhere in the thousands of hours of BBC output is something that miraculously balances the offending item.

James Harding has recently deployed yet another of his classic arguments. Here, the complainant alleged that on Today, Sir John Major had not been challenged firmly enough by James Naughtie (on December 16 last year) when he claimed that Brussels would become hostile to the UK, if God forbid, the electorate decided they wanted to leave the EU.

Harding’s response? He stated:

‘The ebb and flow of political discourse cannot, I think, be reduced to a check list of rebuttals’.

Clearly, ‘ebb and flow’ is a favourite phrase – but in other respects, too, this was a perennial favourite defence: it boils down to that in the BBC’s book, and especially on EU issues, presenters can do whatever they want, even when a pro-EU guest is getting away with blue murder.

What has now emerged through the response to Andrew Bridgen is that Harding and the high command at the BBC are likely to persist in this stonewall denial against Brexit complainants throughout the referendum campaign. He, Tony Hall, the Director General, and David Jordan, the Director of Editorial Standards, told the European Scrutiny Committee last year that this would not be the case.

Pigs, it seems, might fly.