‘ABOMINABLE BIAS’: Andrew Marr interviewed John Major and Boris Johnson on his show yesterday (5 June). The BBC has characterised in other commentary the battle now as a ‘blue on blue’ fight, and with only two Sunday shows to go before the referendum, these were ‘big beast’ interviews where there would be expected to be scrupulously balance. There emphatically was not.
One set of indicators were that Sir John Major was interrupted 1.4 times per minute, compared to Boris Johnson 3.4 times. Overall John Major was interrupted 22 times, and Boris Johnson was interrupted 60 times. The Major interview was slightly shorter, at 15 min 55 seconds compared to 17 min 34 seconds, but the difference in words – approx. 3,000 in the Major sequence, 3,600 with Boris – was the result of different rates of delivery, for example John Major speaking more slowly and more emphatically. The Major interview was also not as confrontational, which also meant the word count was lower.
Of course words alone and rates of interruption are not measures of bias. But in this case they were important pointers because – as will be shown in the analysis below – Marr’s approach to Major was mainly to ask him his views and then to let him speak, with only a few challenging or adversarial questions. With Johnson, the approach was mainly confrontational, including allegations that the campaign in which he (Johnson) was a lead figure, was telling on occasions a ‘flat lie’ to voters.
Marr’s approach to Major – as already noted – was mainly to let him outline his case that Vote Leave was advancing ‘squalid’ arguments in their cause. His first questions, in effect, gave Major a platform to confirm his views that Leave was guilty of deceit. The only points put to him that were slightly adversarial were that Leave was reflecting genuine concerns about immigration, that concern about Turkey joining the EU was genuine, too, because the effects of the referendum vote would apply for 30 or 50 years in the future, and that the direction of travel of the EU was towards a super-state. Nothing was taxing, Marr gave Major plenty of space to put his answers (the longest response was 372 words), and he had a platform to attack attacked the Leave side with finger-pointing, anger-filled vitriol. Marr did little to get in the way of this onslaught.
The approach of Marr to Johnson, as has already been partly established by the much higher rate of interruptions, was very different: much more adversarial and challenging. The longest answer or explanation given by Johnson was around 220 words, and most responses were shorter than 100 words. He had less time for detailed explanation.
Further, Marr used several of the points put by Major as means of attack. He had been provided with ammo which Marr used without compunction. His questioning was focused onthe credibility of the Leave campaign in line with what Sir John Major had alleged. He put it to him that Leave’s claim that EU membership cost £350m a week was ‘squalid’ (adding that the money that came back helped farmers and universities); suggested that the economic performance of the single market was getting better, and even though VL wanted to leave it Johnson had accepted it could cause business uncertainty; that Johnson was saying that David Cameron was untrustworthy, thus personalising the campaign that the VL claim that Turkey would join the EU imminently was wrong; that Johnson had been wrong to mention Hitler in connection with the EU because the EU had been created to ensure European peace; that he had changed his mind about wanting Turkey to join the EU; that his campaign’s claims about Turkey were a flat lie and ‘hogwash’; that in the Turkey and the £350m claims, he and the leave side were engaging in ‘untruth politics’, that because of what was happening the Conservative party was falling apart; and that Major had said that he was pursuing ‘out’ only for personal ambition, he was following ‘the best route to Downing Street’.
In addition to this, in the interview of Johnson was a central hugely controversial point made by Andrew Marr that undermined both his credibility and suggested that in his views of the EU, he is not impartial. He put it categorically to Johnson that the he had been wrong to raise Hitler in connection with the EU because it had created to ensure peace, whereas Hitler had been bent on pitching nation states against each other. He stated:
‘In terms of the big picture, isn’t it pretty abominable to compare what the EU as it is today with Hitler and don’t you regret that? Hitler believed in strong nation states fighting each other which has been a long European tradition going right back to Gustavus Adophus and all the rest of it. It’s what the Europeans did and we were drawn in again and again and again. And the EU was set up to stop that happening and we have both lived through a period of peace which the EU has to be given some credit for’.
The reality is that the EU was not set up to establish peace. Peace after the Second World War and into the Cold War was created in ‘Europe’ long before the EU was established by NATO. The EU itself did not exist in its present form until 1992, and before that, its successor body, the EEC had no major role in foreign policy, it was primarily a customs union. The EU’s alleged role as the creator of peace on the European continent is therefore a myth perpetuated primarily by the EU itself and parroted by Europhiles as a reason for not limiting its powers. The real ideological reason that the EU was set up was that Jean Monnet, the prime mover in steps towards what became the EU from the 1920s onwards, wanted to hobble the sovereignty of Europe by creating a technocratic ruling body that would take their place. His vision of a EU driving force loyal to only the EU itself is now embodied in the European Commission.
For many reasons, therefore, this was seriously unbalanced journalism. Marr gave Johnson a far tougher time, and isolated out that the Leave side was conducting a campaign that included a central ‘flat lie’, ‘abominable’ references to Hitler, and general political untruths. No similar claims were put to Sir John Major about controversy (for example) linked to ‘remain’ predictions about the dire economic and social consequences that would follow exit. Marr himself showed his own political bias in the erroneous claims about the origin of the EU, and also ignorance. He compounded that by making this the basis for his claim that Johnson’s conduct had been ‘abominable’.