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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.