Craig Byers: BBC comedy, the EU and BBC bias

Craig Byers: BBC comedy, the EU and BBC bias

This week’s Feedback featured a clip from the first episode of the 47th series of Radio 4’s eternally somewhat-less-than-side-splitting Now Show – a comedic ‘team rant’ in favour of the EU and against critics of the EU.

Unlike the recent ‘rants’ from Andrew Neil and Emily Maitlis, this particular rant was absolutely nothing new.

And I’m not just talking about the 46 previous series of the Now Show either. I’ve heard many a pro-EU rant on BBC Radio 4 comedy shows over the years – or, more accurately, many a rant against critics of the EU – especially UKIP supporters and right-wing Conservatives.

Left-wing bias on BBC comedy programmes is, of course, hardly news. Even Nick Cohen’s recent robust defence of the BBC, which saw very little evil in the corporation, contained this brief aside:

And, yes, thank you for raising it, I know, there is BBC bias. I accept that Radio 4 will give us left- and extreme left-wing comedians but never their right- or far-right equivalents.

But, still, on it goes.

What is the BBC going to do about it, especially as the EU referendum approaches? Cue Roger Bolton and the BBC’s chief political advisor Ric Bailey – whose conversation I will now transcribe. I can’t say that Ric Bailey’s tone overly impressed me, and he seemed quite evasive to me at times as well. (And all credit to Roger Bolton for pressing him somewhat here).You might also note yet another statement from a senior BBC boss of the BBC’s outright refusal to carry out statistical studies – even very simple, routine ones – in order to help monitor and regulate its bias.

Quite why it’s so obvious to Ric Bailey that doing such studies, or even doing a basic count, is absurd isn’t explained. He simply caricatures the whole idea, making it into a straw man (or several straw men) and repeatedly sneering at it (as you’ll see).

Frankly, if someone were to listen to all episodes of The Now Show over each series from now until the referendum – as people at the BBC will inevitably do, including the show’s producers – it’s hardly either time-consuming or rocket science to make a quick note of whether there are pro-EU-biased sections or anti-EU-biased sections in each episode, and then keep a tally. If there are, say, 17 pro-EU-biased sections (of the kind we heard last week) across six series between now and the referendum and 0 anti-EU-biased sections, then there’s bias! And simple, cost-free counting will have proved it, won’t it?

Anyhow, here’s the transcription:

Roger Bolton: Ric Bailey, will The Now Show be told to make anti-EU jokes in future?

Ric Bailey: Look, comedy and satire are absolutely part of what the BBC has to do when it’s covering politics and, of course, when it’s covering this referendum. The idea that you do that by numbers and that you count the jokes and then have a sort of grading system for how funny they are…you only have to say it to think how ridiculous that is.

Roger Bolton: But will it require some form of balance? You don’t say it’s got be 5 for, 5 against, but does there need to be some sort of balance?

Ric Bailey: So, the BBC…every genre has to be impartial. And the word that everybody always forgets when you talk about impartiality is the word “due”. And that means thinking about the context in which you are doing the programme. So, a referendum clearly is a very particular context. Now, that’s why we have guidelines to spell out what those particular circumstances are, what the context is. But also, different genres give you a different context for how you achieve impartiality.

Roger Bolton: So in comedy is there any requirement for balance over a period over a controversial subject?

Ric Bailey: Well, like most programmes, there’s a long way to go before the referendum. It’s a topical satire programme, so its job is to take the mickey out of politicians. take the mickey out of what they say and so on. But the idea that you have to do it in one single programme in a beautifully perfectly mathematically-balanced way would be ridiculous. And the word that gets used in the guidelines for the actual referendum period itself is “broad balance”.

Roger Bolton: But over a period there should be jokes about all sides, not just one side?

Ric Bailey: I always take the view, particularly in comedy, the more the merrier. So, the more you are looking at the whole range of politicians, a whole range of views, and subjecting them to your biting wit the better. Of course, if week in week out any comedy show only took lumps out of one side of an argument or only took lumps out of one particular political party that would not be impartial. But those are the judgements that all programmes make, including comedy, day in, day out, and this is no different.

Roger Bolton: Well, let’s suppose it’s 10 or 16 weeks, Before the period starts, when we know the date of the referendum but the so-called campaign period hasn’t started, nothing will change? No extra requirements on people to be fair, balanced, to be duly impartial?

Ric Bailey: Roger, my view is: the BBC has to be duly impartial about this referendum. It has to be duly impartial about it today. It has to be duly impartial about it the day before the referendum. There is no difference. Part of the idea of the guidelines is not only to be clear about what impartiality means during that referendum period but it’s also to set our the parameters so that programme makers, on behalf of the listeners and viewers, can scrutinise the arguments properly. Sometimes often people think, oh, the guidelines are there to stop broadcasters doing things during these periods. Actually it’s the opposite. They’re there to set out a broad territory in which broadcasters have the freedom and the editorial judgement. That’s the first principle. Editorial judgement must dictate how you approach it.

Roger Bolton: How well qualified do you think BBC journalists are to cover this issue? Because it seems that James Harding, the director of news, thinks they need some mandatory training. He’s going to introduce that. Do you think that’s a reflection on the fact that, in the past, the journalists have not been particularly well qualified?

Ric Bailey: Absolutely not. No, I mean…

Roger Bolton: So why might there be training?

Ric Bailey: Before every election I, as part of the guidelines, talk to journalists right across the board about the particular circumstances of any election or referendum. This is a very important referendum and, whereas most of the time there will be a specialist number of journalists who are likely to cover Europe, this is something that’s going to….you’ve already pointed out, it’s already in The Now Show. So lots of people who may not normally be covering this sort of story…It will be part and parcel of their journalism for up to two years. Now, it’s really important in those circumstances that we know that everybody understands the issues, the arguments and the very particular context of this referendum.

This guest post from Craig Byers originally appeared on Is the BBC Biased.

News-watch has transcribed the Now Show sequence on the EU. This is what they said:

HUGH DENNIS:       There are lots of people here who hanker after being the country we once were.  And it’s because of those people that we’re having to have a referendum on whether to leave the 21st Century . . . the, the European Union (laughter).

STEVE PUNT:          The European Union, er, is what you meant there, Hugh.  Er, David Cameron, the elected leader of a majority government has been forced by the unelected leader of a party with one seat, and a rabble of his own troublemakers into what could be the greatest leap in the dark since once of Russia’s long-jumpers took so many drugs his run-up lasted all night. (laughter)

HUGH DENNIS:       Although, to be fair, we still don’t really know what Jeremy Corbyn thinks about leaving the EU.

STEVE PUNT:          No, that is true.  I mean, are you in favour of leaving the EU, Jeremy?  Just nod your head for yes.  Is he nodding his head (laughter) I can’t tell if he’s nodding his head or not (laughter) and neither can anyone else.  Er . . . anyway, no one has any idea what’s going to happen, and Cameron is planning for two scenarios, he gains party support for reform, or he fails and he’s driven out of office.  This strategy often referred to as:

HUGH DENNIS:       Back or sack.

STEVE PUNT:          And then there’s a third option (laughter) the third option is that his backbenchers drive Cameron to a breakdown, the so-called:

HUGH DENNIS:       Back, sack and crack. (laughter)

STEVE PUNT:          Now, this week . . .

HUGH DENNIS:       It took nearly a week to write that. (laughter)

STEVE PUNT:          Now this week, he and his team announced that they had four European goals, something that Cameron is about as likely to achieve as Jose Mourinho.  The goals were suitably vague and non-specific and the suspicion is that any new measures will have to pass a series of rather easy tests.  First:

HUGH DENNIS:       An Italian probity test.

STEVE PUNT:          Second:

HUGH DENNIS:       A Greek financial test.

STEVE PUNT:          Third, and easiest of all.

HUGH DENNIS:       A German emissions test. (laughter)  How will these renegotiations actually happen? Well Cameron sent his goals to the head of the European Council in a letter.

STEVE PUNT:          In a letter.  Only politicians ever send letters anymore.  It’s so quaintly old-fashioned.  But of course Cameron knows that since Theresa May now reads all our emails, he didn’t really have any choice (laughter)  Now, it’s not just UKIP who want out of the EU, of course lots of Tory backbenchers do as well, you know, those are the people who keep saying . . .

MARGARET THATCHER IMPRESSIONIST:     These people have power, but are completely unelected.

STEVE PUNT:          . . . and then tell you how much they support the royal family (laughter) the royal family, of course, absolute proof that European immigrants can fully integrate into British society (laughter)  Now these types are already saying that Cameron has softened his initial demands such as that EU migrants wait four years before being able to claim benefits.  Er, Jacob Rees-Mogg said . . .

JACOB REES-MOGG IMPRESSIONIST:            This is pretty thin gruel. (laughter)

STEVE PUNT:          Coincidentally also what he proposes migrants should live on during those four years (laughter) but can we actually leave?

HUGH DENNIS:       Well, yes we can, er, because Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon provides for just such an eventuality.  It says:

ANNOUNCER:         If you’re not entirely happy with your membership of the European Community, just return it to Brussels with two years’ notice and we’ll cancel it with no questions asked.

HUGH DENNIS:       Now, we’ve paraphrased that slightly (laughter)

STEVE PUNT:          But that is basically what it says.  Two years’ notice and you’re out.  However, is it really that simple? I mean, it’s hard enough to cancel a Sky subscription, (laughter) or an ISP contract.  Surely getting out of half a century’s worth of legal treaties and trade deals is going to be at least as hard.

HUGH DENNIS:       Okay. And click ‘cancel.’ Ah, you can’t cancel online, you have to phone this number. (sound of phone being dialled)

ANNOUNCER:         Thank you for calling the EU unsubscription line.  You are held in a queue and will be shortly transferred to a pre-recorded announcement to try and talk you out of unsubscribing.  Do you really want to unsubscribe?

HUGH DENNIS:       Yes.

ANNOUNCER:         Did you say ‘No’? (laughter)

HUGH DENNIS:       No.

ANNOUNCER:         You said, ‘No.’ (laughter)

HUGH DENNIS:       Aargh!

ANNOUNCER:         Thank you for choosing back, sack and crack. (laughter)

STEVE PUNT:          Now, what’s fairly obvious is that David Cameron really doesn’t want to have to leave Europe, because the economic risk of doing so is so massive.

HUGH DENNIS:       But the case for reform is different.  The EU has many faults, however voting to leave could have all sorts of consequences, for a start, it could immediately trigger a second referendum in Scotland, and maybe even Wales, which receives a lot of EU money.

STEVE PUNT:          So, by 2020 it’s not unrealistic that England could be a truncated half-an-island, kept afloat by its remaining industries, banking, armaments, and Burberry raincoats (laughter).  Now, a lot of it really will boil down to the exact wording of the question.  Now, in the Scottish referendum the wording was . . .

ANNOUNCER:         Should Scotland be an independent country?

STEVE PUNT:          And that replaced the SNP’s original wording which was

ANNOUNCER:         Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?

STEVE PUNT:          And that, in turn, replaced Alex Salmond’s original first draft.

ANNOUNCER:         Scotland should be an independent country. (laughter) Are you going to argue, pal? (laughter)

STEVE PUNT:          So, er . . . what should the . . . what should the wording of the European referendum be?

ANNOUNCER:         Do you agree that unpicking every piece of legislation and trade agreement for the last half a century and then renegotiating separate deals with every other nation on earth, whilst simultaneously restructuring the entire financial and legal framework of the country can all be done in two years?

STEVE:          Hmm, well, what do you think Mr Putin?

VLADIMIR PUTIN IMPRESSIONIST:       Well, I think you must be taking some banned substances (laughter and applause)

Photo by Matt From London

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