NON-BIAS BIAS? With the BBC, the devil is often in the detail. And even when figures from the Corporation set out to be ‘unbiased’, they fail dismally. On Saturday, the Radio 4 Today programme lined up four of its most senior editors to analyse claims being made by the main two sides in the referendum debate. Broadly, this is what they did and said:
Economics editor Kamal Ahmad analysed the claims of Vote Leave that EU membership costs the UK £350 million a week. His conclusion was the figure is much less; Vote Leave was not taking into account the UK’s rebate or the amount that the EU spends on the UK.
Home editor Mark Easton investigated similarly sweeping claims from Chancellor George Osborne that households would be £4,300 a week worse off by 2030 if the UK exited the EU. Easton decided the Chancellor was wrong because he was basing the forecast on an over-simplistic division of GDP, rather than actual incomes. He also pointed out that the Treasury forecasts also assumed that most Britons would actually be significantly richer by 2030.
‘Europe’ editor Katya Adler examined whether Michael Gove’s warning that EU expansion would lead to an extra 88m people who are much poorer than those in the UK being able to settle here. Adler said that this was extremely unlikely to happen, not least because it was not certain that Turkey – with 75 million – would be able to join
Business editor Simon Jack checked David Cameron’s claim that 3m UK jobs were ‘linked to the European union’. Jack said that not all jobs would be at risk if the UK left the EU because they were dependent on trade with EU countries rather than EU membership.
Two claims each by the Leave and remain sides were thus debunked. That looks balanced. But closer inspection of the transcripts yields other problems. First Katya Adler. The claim by Michael Gove, contained in article he wrote for the Daily Mail, was that the EU was considering applications to join from Albania, Turkey, Macedonia. Montenegro and Serbia, countries with a combined population of 88m, most of whom had significantly lower living standards and incomes than those in the UK. He said if the applications were approved, which seemed increasingly likely, these people would have the right to use UK facilities, including the NHS. His argument about the dangers to the UK from these countries was also framed in parallel with observations that the influx from countries which had recently joined the EU had been significantly higher than predicted. Overall, his warning was that the EU was on a course which could add substantially to the UK’s existing infrastructure and security problems, and if the UK remained a member of the EU, it could little or nothing to stop this. The bias point here is that Adler, in framing her response, chose to put the emphasis completely elsewhere. She said first of all that the barriers to entry to the EU by the five countries were unlikely to be resolved until at least 2020 and even then, agreement to their accession had to be unanimous among the 28 existing members. She also asserted that for Michael Gove to be right every man, woman and child – all 88 million of them – would ‘have to move to the UK’. Gove’s arguments in the Daily Mail feature, however, were not hinged on either point. He was rather arguing that joining was on the cards (it is) and that potentially significant numbers of their citizens were likely to come, as had happened when other poorer countries had joined the EU. Overall, of course, no one knows when or if or on what terms Turkey and the other countries will join the EU. But the purpose of Gove’s feature was to point out that this issue is live, that other similar accessions had already taken place, and that potentially, a further 88m would have access because of EU rules to the UK. Nothing of what Adler said disproved that, and especially her bald assertion that:
so, for Michael Gove to be right this would mean that all the citizens of these countries, every man woman and child would have to move to the UK.
Simon Jack’s ‘debunking’ of David Cameron’s claims about 3m jobs being dependent on the EU was also not what it seemed. The problem was that he looked at trade only through a very narrow prism. Brexit campaigners argue that EU membership forces the UK to rely too much on trade with EU countries; if there was an exit, trading possibilities and patterns would change and would result new business opportunities with countries throughout the world. The whole point of exit is thus to end reliance on the shrinking (in global terms) economies of EU members. Jack, however, did not even consider that, he looked only at what would happen within the current EU trading framework. Yes, he pointed out that these jobs are dependent on trade with the EU, rather than membership of the EU, but the narrow prism he used meant that exiting the EU could have a negative impact, and pointed out that countries outside the EU but within Europe suffered from not being members.
Overall, Adler and Jack – far from definitively affirming or debunking anything – showed only that senior BBC reporters consider EU-related issues through skewed lenses of their own choosing.
Here is the transcript:
Transcript of BBC Radio 4, ‘Today’, 14th May 2016, EU Referendum, Four Correspondents, 8.37am
JOHN HUMPHRYS: The referendum campaign’s about as close as these things get – if there’s one thing we can say with certainty it is that there is a huge amount of uncertainty, and if there’s one refrain you here over and over again from the voters, it is this: why aren’t we being told the facts? Which raises the obvious questions: whose facts? You’ll hear an ‘in’ campaigner asserting one thing, and an ‘out’ campaigner asserting quite the opposite. Here’s a flavour.
GEORGE OSBORNE: Britain would be permanently poorer if we left the European Union, to the tune of £4300 for every household.
UNKNOWN: We would be better off out, we would be richer and more successful.
DAVID CAMERON: Indeed, three million people’s jobs in our country are already linked . . .
MICHAEL GOVE: What is a fact is that give more than £350 million to the European Union . . .
ANDREW MARR (?) Well, hang on.
JOHN MAJOR: The fact that we are the access point to 500 million people market produces a great deal of investment in this country.
MG: . . . you don’t have tariffs then both sides can accept but there’s no need to erect them . . .
GO: And that would be catastrophic people’s jobs and their incomes and their livelihoods.
IAIN DUNCAN SMITH: All forecasts (word or words unclear) are wrong, you should take them all with a pinch of salt whether they come from the Governor of the Bank of England, the IMF or any other organisation.
JH: So, how are the poor old voters expected to make up their minds if the campaign leaders can’t agree on even the most basic facts? Well, that’s where we come in. We’ve rounded up four of our own editors to put you straight, well, to try to put you straight on for of the most contentious areas. They, the editors that is, Kamal Ahmed, Mark Easton, Katya Adler and Simon Jack, and the facts, Kamal – Kamal Ahmed that is, our economics editor, your fact: ‘We send the EU £350 million a week’ that is what the Leave campaign says? Is that true?
KAMAL AHMED: Right, well I do love the whiff of a statistical chart in the morning, so I have been digging through figures behind this to save our dear listeners from having to do such a painful thing. Table 9.9 of the Office of National Statistics Pink Book, 2015 . . .
JH: (speaking over) Know it well.
KA: That is going to be my start point for this. The big point to make, I think, the beginning is the UK pays more . . . sorry, the UK pays more into the EU than it receives, that is the big first point. Is it £350 million a week? Let’s see. So, £350 million a week is our gross contribution to the European Union, that’s just over £19 billion, but we get a rebate from the EU (words unclear due to speaking over)
JH: (speaking over) The (word unclear, ‘famous’?) Thatcher rebate?
KA: Yes, rebate is a bit of . . . a bit of a misnomer here, actually, because we never pay the money in and get the rebate, we actually get the rebate first, and then pay the money in. That rebate is worth £4.4 billion a year, so that makes our actual contribution to the European Union £14.7 billion, which is actually £285 million a week. But hang on . . .
JH: (speaking over) It’s still a lot of money.
KA: . . . this is Europe, this is Europe John, got to be complicated, got to keep those Brussels officials in work obviously. We also get erm . . . money from the EU to support the UK economy, farming, we get regional funds, there’s some money for science research, that amounts to about £4.8 billion a year, so that makes a net contribution that the UK gives to the European Union of £9.9 billion, or about £190 million a week. That is from the ONS statistics.
JH: Right, so when they say on the side of their battlebus and in every other interview that you do with them, ‘We pay in 350 million quid a week’ that is not true.
KA: That is the gross contribution, which does not take into account the rebate we receive from the EU and the money we receive from the EU by way of grants and support for research and science.
JH: Right. Thank you for that Kamal. Er, let’s turn to Mark Easton, our home editor, and your question, well it isn’t a question, your statement if you like, Mark, families would be £4,300 worse off by 2030 – that is George Osborne who made that claim, the Remain camp, of course. True or false?
MARK EASTON: Right (laughs) Okay. Erm, I haven’t got any charts for you this morning John, but I can tell you the Treasury claim is based on GDP per household. What they’ve done is they forecast what they think GDP would be in 2030 . . .
JH: (speaking over) Gross Domestic Product.
ME: Gross domestic . . . all the stuff that we produce, what GDP would be in 2030, so they’re throwing quite a long way ahead, and they’ve done it for both staying in the EU, and leaving the EU and then calculated the difference. But GDP per household, it’s not the same thing as household income (laughter in voice) as most people would tell you – if you simply divide current GDP by the number of British households, you get a figure of around £68,000 per household, well, we know average household income, what we would regard as, you know, what money we’re getting in, as about £44-45,000 so the, the idea of a cost to UK families of £4300, it’s not cost in the way that most people would think of it.
JH: So, we won’t actually be worse off by £4300? I mean, that’s the bald fact?
ME: No, exactly, the, the Treasury model doesn’t suggest UK families are going to be poorer than they are now, in fact, the modelling suggests families will be richer in 2030 if we leave the EU, what they’re saying is their models suggest we wouldn’t be quite as rich as if we stay in the EU, and that’s a difference of £4300 per household. The last point I think, to be made is that financial modelling, as we heard in the introduction there, is obviously only as good as the information and the forecasts that you put into it . . .
ME: . . . and often they have been proved quite wrong. One aspect of the modelling that’s raised eyebrows is that it uses the number of households now, today, to divide estimated GDP for 2030, taking no account of population growth or the effects of . . .
JH: (interrupting) Ah.
ME: . . . changes to net immigration for instance . . .
JH: (speaking over) And, and you lead us nicely into our next thought then, er . . . contentious area, if you like, and that is up to 88 million people from nations much poorer than our own will have the right to live and work here, that’s what Michael Gove said in the Daily Mail just the other day, the Leave campaign of course, Katya Adler is our Europe editor – right or wrong Katya?
KATYA ADLER: Well, Kamal likes to start the morning on a Saturday with statistical charts, I’m . . . quite fond of crystal ball gazing on a Saturday morning myself, so if we look into our crystal ball, Michael Gove is right, there are five countries that have started talks with the EU about becoming a member one day, that’s Turkey, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia. The population of all those countries roughly adds up to 88 million, so, for Michael Gove to be right this would mean that all the citizens of these countries, every man woman and child would have to move to the UK, and it would also mean that (sic) the countries actually getting into the EU, which is not impossible, but it’s difficult. The European Commission . . .
JH: (speaking over) Especially with Turkey.
KA: Especially with Turkey, but . . . for any of them, er, the European Commission has said there’ll be no new members in the EU until at least 2020, even then, erm, their membership would have to be approved by every single EU leader, by the European Parliament and by national parliaments. Every mem— every new member has to apply all EU current rules before they can join, that’s in 35 different policy areas, and you mentioned there Turkey, of course Turkey is the most controversial of the five, and the biggest, out of the 88 million, it’s 75 million. And Turkey started its talks to join the EU ten years ago, in those 10 years it’s only managed to adopt EU rules on one area, that’s science and research. Difficulty . . . well, we can look at human rights, we can look at limits on freedom of expression, the state of public administration and very key for the EU, Turkey has to recognise fellow EU member Cyprus, which it doesn’t. And then . . .
JH: (speaking over) Alright . . .
KA: . . . if we look at the politics of the EU these days, John, as well, we’ve got populist parties doing very well in many countries across the EU, fears of migration dominating politics, so no one really is trumpeting the case for Turkey’s membership at the moment.
JH: Right, Katya, thank you for that. And our final question: 3 million jobs are linked to the European Union – this is according to David Cameron. Simon Jack, our business editor, is that right?
SIMON JACK: Yes. But does that mean that 3 million jobs would go if we were to leave the European Union, er, absolutely not. There are two pieces of work done on this, one was by the South Bank Institute, back in 2003, which said just over 3 million, there’s a new piece of work out last year by the Centre for Economic and Business Research, which puts it at over 4 million. Now, obviously, those jobs are linked with the trade, no one assumes that the trade would disappear and go up in smoke the day we left, which then puts us into this rather vexed position of looking at what our trade would look like, and you may have heard of the Swiss model, the Norway model, the WTO, even the Albanian model. But, the rule of thumb basically, is that the more independent the UK gets, the less access you get to some of the things that you actually want, that is the trade-off, so in the Swiss model, for example, banks are allowed to sell, you know, Swiss Banks stationed here can sell throughout the rest of Europe, they can’t sell from Switzerland, it’s a system called passporting. So we would see, potentially, some jobs go in The City. In a chat with the boss of Barclays the other day, he said, ‘Would this threaten London’s place as the pre-eminent financial centre – no. Would it make life a bit more difficult – yes.’ So basically, 3 to 4 million jobs are associated with trade, not with our membership of the European Union, how m— . . . how many jobs would go depends on how much access you get and what model you think, er, which model would erode some of that trade, and that, of course a judgment where there aren’t any settled facts, and even the Albanian model that Michael Gove wanted, the Albanian Prime Minister thought, he thought it was a bit weird that the UK wanted that, so erm . . . I’m afraid the er . . . that was his very words, so I’m afraid the chat about the different models will continue when it comes to how many jobs are at risk.
JH: And so will this debate, Simon, Katya, Mark and Kamal, thank you all very much, I think we can conclude that none, not one of those four claims have been stood up by our editors. Kamal’s nodding at that so I’ll take that as approval. Thank you all very much indeed, we may very well return to this over the weeks to come.