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Referendum Blog: April 24

Referendum Blog: April 24

MORE NEWSNIGHT BIAS: Newsnight continued their series EU Referendum Road on Friday night with a visit by reporter Katie Razzall to the Shetland Isles, the UK’s most northerly outpost.  The full transcript is below.  As with her previous report, it heavily favoured the ‘remain’ side – although not so obviously. The ‘in’ case was articulated by two figures: the managing director of a local green energy company, and a woman, who it was said had been passionately ‘out’ at the 1975 EU referendum – to the extent that she had been involved in noisy protests and arrested – but was now firmly ‘in’. Razzall buttressed their pro-EU remarks with an observation at the end that all 15 of the regulars of a local pub were in favour of staying in.  Ranged against that were two ‘out’ figures – one a former ‘Viking chief’ who now ran a local real ale brewery, and who looked to Norway as a model that the Shetlands might follow because the place was ‘absolutely pristine’; and a farmer who said the local economy needed to adopt a more global outlook. He claimed that ‘little Europe’ was ‘not for us’. On the face of it, therefore, there was a form of balance, two ‘ins’ against two definitely ‘outs’.

The bias stemmed from other factors., One was that Razzall said that in the 1975 EU referendum, the islands had been one of only two electoral areas of the UK that had voted ‘out’. She then set out to show that this had been based on that the economy back then had been primarily linked to fishing – and spoke immediately to the green energy manufacturer who said strongly that he supported ‘in’.  She asserted:

‘But how changeable are Shetlanders’ attitudes to the EU four decades on? New industries have grown up since the fishermen swung the vote, Shetland is pioneering tidal power, and Fred Gibson’s firm, which has received some EU funding, is making the fibreglass blades.

FRED GIBSON Shetland Composites The first one is up and running at the moment. As we speak it is actually producing electricity which is going on to the local grid.

KR:        So you will be voting to stay in?

FG:        Oh, absolutely. I think it is going to be very interesting, what’s going to happen here, this time. I can see exactly why they voted no last time. And that was purely down to the fishing industry.

KR:        That’s still important in Shetland, but it employs far fewer people these days.

FG:        When I was at school, there would be at least three or four other pupils in my class whose fathers were going out probably every day to go fishing. It’s funny because I asked that same question to my children quite recently, and they said that they didn’t actually know anyone, and then one of them said, oh, he thought that somebody’s father was a fisherman in his year group. So that has completely changed.’

Thus Razzall’s editing and selection of comment suggested that although the fishing industry remained ‘important’ it was at a far lesser level to the point that fishermen were rare. Checks on Google, however, soon reveal that, in fact, fishing, remains the islands’ main source of income, accounting for 28% of all economic activity. This is what the Shetland Economy website says:

‘The fishing industry – which includes the catching, farming and processing of fish and shellfish – is Shetland’s biggest sector by some way. It has always been at the absolute heart of Shetland’s economy and community. The seafood industry is worth £300m a year to the local economy.’

She deliberately projected a misleading impression to viewers. The reality is that more fish is landed annually in Lerwick than the whole of Wales, England and Northern Ireland combined; the only fishing port bigger than Lerwick in the entire UK is Peterhead; the value of the catch is £76m annually (plus there is a very substantial salmon farming industry); and very substantial numbers of local people are employed in fish processing and related activities.

In ignoring the fishermen, Razzall glossed over a vital strand of local opinion. The local fishermen’s association, as is revealed by their website, is clearly unhappy with the Common Fisheries Policy.

Further analysis: a brief but important ‘remain’ contribution was overlooked.  After the remarks supporting ‘remain’ by the green energy manufacturer Fred Gibson, Shetlands postmistress Valerie Johnson was asked if islanders would vote in the same way as 1975.  She responded that she could not see that happening, and when challenged by Razall why, she stated:

I think the unknown is if you are not in it, of what would happen.

KR:     It’s the unknown. Project Fear is working.

VJ:       Yeah, yeah.

This tipped the overall balance of contributions to three in favour of ‘remain’ against two for ‘exit’. At a very basic level, therefore – on top of the observations above –  Katie Razzall edited her feature so that it was against the ‘exit’ case.

Photo by Reading Tom

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.


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 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.

Photo by octal

Referendum Blog: April 12

Referendum Blog: April 12

BIASED PROFESSOR?: World at One started a series yesterday which presenter Martha Kearney said would explain how the EU ‘actually works’. The impression given was that these would be objective guides.  The first item was by Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London. Was it actually impartial? You can decide, the transcript is below. But it most definitely did not seem so.  First off, he said that although people complained that the EU was ‘too complicated’, it was not the case – or rather, it was no more complicated ‘than any other political system’.    Well the US Constitution is around 1,300 words – the Lisbon treaty almost 13,000. And maybe the EU’s important Passerelle clauses and the functions and powers of COREPER (a shadowy but hugely influential body that dictates the framework of European Council business) are not so easily understood as US democracy? The reality is that the EU is an unusually complex construct and even many MPs do not understand how it functions.

Next, Menon states that the European Commission is made up of a Commissioner from each member state, under which are civil servants. These, he asserts, are the ‘unelected bureaucrats’ so beloved by the tabloids – ‘but let’s face it which civil service isn’t unelected?’  Menon thus seriously underplays concerns by Eurosceptics about the powers of the Commission.  They argue that one commissioners is appointed for each country, but once appointed their allegiance is to the EU, not their country of origin, so any link of accountability is severed. Second, civil servants in the UK are under the control of the UK Ministers and are appointed on the basis of rigorous competitive standards first framed in the 1870s. Those in Brussels are accountable only to the undemocratic complexities of the EU. The Commission, supported by the Luxembourg Court, is the sole executive of all EU law. It mismanages the EU’s budget and arranges foreign trade deals badly, hiwhc Menon did not mention.

Menon  then described the European parliament, it was, he claimed:

‘directly elected by all of us, and which is charged with providing democratic oversight’.

The point here made by Eurosceptics is that the parliament does not operate at all like those in nation states. It does not form a government; it cannot originate legislation and though it can propose amendments and reject decisions by the Council of Ministers, the main tasks in the framing of laws are performed by the unelected Commission working with COREPER.  Menon further suggests that democracy then has ‘two bites of the cherry because measures proposed by the Commission ‘for the good of Europe’ go through ‘our representatives’ on both the Council of Ministers and in the European Parliament.  He again sidesteps and glosses over the main concerns of Eurosceptics – that the EU is being driven by bureaucrats whose main interest is that of ‘Europe’ as they see it, with ‘ever closer union’ at the core. Our ministers and MEPs are regularly outvoted, and our Parliament (Lords and Commons) is powerless to change any of it. Summing up, there is more that is problematical in his script, but it’s more of the same. This was a highly sympathetic and at best disingenuous (at worst seriously misleading) analysis of the operations of the EU.

So how ‘independent’ is Professor Menon? One warning bell is that King’s College is so enmeshed with EU funding that it appears to have established a permanent EU office. Part of the way the EU operates is by influencing academic work.  A second warning sign (h/t Craig Byers Is the BBC Biased?) is that back in 1999, when most of the Commission was embroiled in a massive corruption scandal that led to most of them being ‘removed’, is that he wrote a robust defence of both their function and their conduct for the London Review of Books. Most of it is pay-walled, but what is available suggests that Professor Menon thinks the Commission is a remarkably beneficial institution.  And finally, Menon is Director of a glossy initiative called Britain in a Changing Europe, set up by King’s College in association with the Economic and Social Research Council. It claims to be independent, but even cursory reading of its reports suggests strongly otherwise. Take its approach, for example, to the ‘Norway Option’. It is headed ‘Norway Option for the UK: Oh Really?’. To put it mildly, it is scathing about both ‘Brexiteers’ and their analysis.


Transcript of BBC Radio 4, The World at One, 11th April 2016, How the European Union Works, 1.37pm

MARTHA KEARNEY:        Do you know your ECJ from your EU Council? The difference between the Commission and the European Parliament? Well, of course most WATO listeners are extraordinarily well-informed, but audience research shows that a lot of people are pretty hazy when it comes to how the European Union actually works. So, in the run-up to the referendum on June 23 is a first of a series to make it all clearer – we hope. Today Anand Menon, professor of European Politics at King’s College, London, explains the institutions.


ANAND MENON:             People often complain that the European Union is just too complicated and too confusing, but actually it’s probably no more confusing than any other political system. The problem is it’s a unique system and so it’s harder for us to compare it with things we’re familiar with. There are four main institutions. Firstly, the European Commission, which is made up of a commissioner from each member state, under which are the civil servants – the ‘unelected bureaucrats’ so beloved of tabloids, but let’s face it, what civil servant isn’t unelected? There’s the Court in Luxembourg that adjudicates on matters of EU law. There’s the European Parliament, directly elected by all of us, and which is charged with providing democratic oversight. And, finally, there’s the Council of Ministers, where member state representatives, including ministers, meet to make decisions. So how does this system work? Let’s think about how laws are made. The European Commission is meant to represent the interests of Europe and so it gets to propose legislation. Then it’s the turn of the Council of Ministers where our national ministers vote on the proposals from the European Commission. At around the same time so too does the European Parliament, so in a sense our representatives get two bites of the cherry: in the European Parliament where people we elect vote and in the Council of Ministers where the ministers of our government also vote. So what this whole process is about is trying to blend what is good for Europe (the Commission) with what its member states want. And once laws are passed the Commission and the Court then have the job of overseeing what happens – making sure that member states obey the laws they’ve signed up to. It would be a pretty senseless system if it generated regulations that people were free to ignore. And the ultimate backstop here is the European Council – the meetings of heads of state where David Cameron meets his peers and where the ultimate direction of the European Union is set. Now, this isn’t a perfect system but it’s quite hard to find a political system that is perfect. In some ways it’s slightly remote and the lack of a sense of European identity means that not everyone has faith in EU-level democracy, even if we do elect the European Parliament. And, secondly, the system can be very slow, but it’s slow for a reason. It’s slow precisely because there are so many checks and balances to make sure things aren’t imposed on member states against their will.

MARTHA KEARNEY:        Well, tomorrow Professor Anand Menon takes a closer look at the European Union budget.

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