BREAKFAST BIAS: BBC1’s Breakfast programme examined, with glitzy but highly misleading graphics, the UK’s contribution to the EU budget. The peg for the analysis is a claim by Brexit campaigners that membership of the EU cost the UK £350 million a week. Emphatically wrong! said presenter Charlie Stayt. That figure is the headline UK contribution figure but is actually substantially less because a) there is a rebate of £85 million (negotiated by Margaret Thatcher); and b) the EU spends a further £88 million in the UK. Stayt said:
…it’s divided up into five main areas. £50 million of that is spent on farming and fisheries. Most of it goes direct to farmers to keep them in business. Another £11 million goes to rural development to help them improve and maintain life in the countryside. Every week, £20 million is spent on developing less prosperous parts of the country, it’s spent on things like transport infrastructure and helping businesses to grow. £5 million goes to social development, tackling things like poverty and unemployment, and the money goes to education and training. And that last piece £2 goes to other EU projects here in the UK, we’re talking about things like medical research or low carbon energy funds. So if we subtract what the UK Treasury gets back, we end up with a weekly contribution of £188 million. But the UK private sector also gets money from the EU in three main areas. In scientific research, in university funding, and in engineering projects. Add that up, and it is £27 million a week. That means, when you take away the rebate, the EU money is sent to the Treasury, and the private sector funding £161 million a week is going to the EU.
The bias point here is entirely presentational. The phrasing made it sound as though the EU has a strongly and wholly benevolent role in the UK, and indeed plays a key role in public spending. Who would want to stop the EU’s assistance to farmers, to poorer communities, to helping small business start-ups, to improving transport infrastructure, universities, unemployment and scientific research?
What Stayt entirely omitted from his analysis is the eurosceptic perspective, that the money is taken out of the UK’s public coffers (tax receipts) and that EU bureaucrats in the European Commission – an entirely unelected body – decide how it will be spent. Once the money goes to Brussels, control over it through the UK taxpayer is entirely lost and, in the UK, those seeking to be ‘assisted’ by the EU have to bid for money. In that sense, say eurosceptics, the role of local and central government in providing help for deprived areas has been completely usurped by faceless EU bureaucrats.
Also missing was reference to that the remaining £161 million a week that – irrespective of the amount of money coming back to the UK – makes the UK a ‘net contributor’ (EU jargon) to the EU’s budget. All he said on this topic (in sharp contrast to the detailed weight on the positive side of EU ‘contributions’ to the UK) was this:
So how does that stack up? Well, every week the UK spends £821 million on defence. It spends £1.4 billion on education. On the NHS, £2.6 billion. And on top of that, it spends £3.6 billion on pensions. So the price of EU membership, £161 million a week. Is it worth it?
The effort here was clearly and deliberately to make the £161 million a week insignificant – and in light of the detailed, positive list he had outlined of what the EU provided – very good value for money. A key factor here is how this money is spent. The answer, it seems, is that no-one actually knows. The Full Facts independent charity says:
We can be pretty sure about how much cash we put in, but it’s far harder to be sure about how much, if anything, comes back in economic benefits.
“There is no definitive study of the economic impact of the UK’s EU membership or the costs and benefits of withdrawal”, as the House of Commons Library says.
What IS certain is that the money goes into the EU’s vast bureaucracy. Does it help to pay for roads in Latvia? The salaries of the 10,000+ European Commission employees who earn more than the British prime minister? In paying for propaganda films about how disastrous leaving the EU would be for the UK?
Of course, that’s a eurosceptic perspective, but the point here is that Stayt did not mention it. He could have but did not; his emphasis was biased. That skew in presentation was further emphasised by the feature that followed. It was a location report on how EU money was spent. The reporter, Ben Thompson, said:
…But of course a century later, things aren’t looking quite so rosy for many former industrial towns up and down the country. And many of them now rely on funding from the European Union to, well, help rebalance the economy, to train staff to create jobs, to move away from heavy manufacturing and get us into those high added-value jobs that bring value to the economy. And they need money from Europe, there’s a big question about if we vote to leave the European Union, what would replace that money? Where would the funding come from, and what would it mean for former industrial towns like Manchester and the North West, but also places in Wales and Scotland that we’re told would be hardest hit.
Exactly as in the Stayt analysis above, this put detailed weight on what the UK’s EU money is spent on. Who could quarrel with the need to inject new life into declining Northern towns? The report presented the facts in the best possible light – this amounted to a detailed exposition of that the EU is s a vital force in the UK’s economic revival.
What of the eurosceptic perspective? The reporter said:
Now those vote . . . er, that are campaigning for us to leave the EU, say well we spend so much money sending it to Europe that actually that money would be better spent ourselves here in the UK. So it is a big debate.
There was clearly no effort at this point to introduce any balancing comment about how the EU spent money, only a vague contention that this was a ‘big debate’.
Ten minutes later, Breakfast continued with this theme. Ben Thompson was still at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. He repeated that parts of the UK that had led the industrial revolution and were important manufacturing centres were now in decline, then said:
They have struggled in the wake of a decline in manufacturing. And many are reliant on money that we get from Europe to try and retrain people to create new jobs and to rebalance the economy, over six years we’ll get about £7.5 billion from Europe and it will be used to do just that, to train people in new industries and try to create more jobs.
The message of the importance of the EU and the effectiveness of its investment projects was rammed home to the audience yet again. There was then comment from a spokesman from the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institution, who explained that EU funding had to be matched by the UK government, and suggested that the EU component might continue to be provided in the event of Brexit. But he finished with a question:
But it’s that uncertainty, will it . . . will the same kinds of projects be funded? What will the impact be over the longer term?
Ben then spoke to Christian Spence from the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce. He asked if he could give examples of how the EU money was used. Spence replied:
The big remit around things like the ERDF (European Regional Development Fund) funding is exactly as the name suggests,, it’s about regional development, it’s about helping all aspects of the EU to contribute more successfully to the economy.
Ben wanted to know what this meant on a day to day basis, and that it was not just about ‘creating nice visitor attractions’, but about ‘reskilling, creating jobs and things like that’. Spence was happy to oblige. He stressed that it was particularly about ‘business and skills development’. He added:
So how do we support new advances within our universities and research in the material science? How do we look to up skill our new generation, through new courses, new workforce skills providers, but also about how do we do innovation, how do we improve productivity, how do we help more businesses to start up? It’s ultimately about creating a more successful economy.
Ben asked what the danger was if the UK left the EU. Spence replied that the funding picture for regional development was changing in in any case, and was up for debate regardless of the EU referendum. If Brexit happened his organisation would look for cash from alternative Westminster channels.
As the final part of the sequence, Ben spoke to Nigel and Ian Baxter, brothers who each ran their own freight business, but who had different views on EU membership. Nigel said he wanted the UK to take back control of borders, immigration and long term economic policy; Ian worried that supporters of Brexit could not explain what ‘out’ would look like, that it would not be beneficial, and further exit from the EU would upset trading agreements. Their contributions were reasonably balanced, but overall, the two sequences definitely put the EU and its contribution to the UK in a highly favourable light. Stayt and reporter Ben Thompson – each in his own way – structured the presentations so that it appeared that EU investment in the UK was vital to economic revival and focused on highly important and desirable projects. By contrast, they made virtually no effort to explore the eurosceptic perspective, and it was almost airbrushed out of the equation. An alternative approach would have been to investigate how effectively EU money is actually spent – the blanket assumption instead was that the British contribution is money well-spent, and contributors were found who reinforced this message.