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BBC referendum coverage flunks early impartiality test

BBC referendum coverage flunks early impartiality test

At the heart of David Cameron’s renegotiation claim is something deeply contentious and what many believe to be a bare-faced lie: that he has secured for Britain an unqualified opt-out from the ‘ever closure union’ ratchet clause in the treaties that underpins and drives the EU project.

The BBC – as the UK’s main public service broadcaster – ought to be subjecting the claim to thumb-screw scrutiny, as it does when anyone has the temerity to suggest that immigration might have disadvantages. Early signs are that this is not going to happen – and at least one pivotal feature on the BBC website suggests that it is tamely going to repeat the claim and trumpet it as a ‘Cameron victory’.

The PM’s pitch on this subject sounds highly attractive, if not irresistible; one of the main fears among British voters about the EU has seemingly been legally banished forever, leaving the UK to get on with ploughing its own furrow separate from the federalists across the water.

But there is mounting evidence that this is blatantly untrue. A leading authority on EU affairs says the decisions taken by the EU heads of state last week were not at the level of binding treaty change because it is a fundamental principle of international law – especially so in EU treaties – that governments cannot define what future treaties will be, or commit future governments to decisions at this level. If you doubt this, here is a quote from the arch-federalist lawyer and former Liberal Democrat MEP, Andrew Duff:

‘But there is another argument as to why a formal promise of the European Council to change the treaty in the future – even if put into a Council decision and tabled at the UN – can never be ‘legally-binding and irreversible’. This is because the Lisbon treaty, now in force for six years, has changed the constitutive procedures of the EU by adding in the wild card of the Convention (Article 48(3) TEU). The Convention is made up of the European Council, the Commission, the European Parliament and national parliaments. Its job is to propose amendments of the treaties to an intergovernmental conference. So while the member states can still lay claim to being the ultimate ‘masters of the treaties’, their prerogative is not unqualified: they cannot change the treaty, or even promise to change the treaty, left to their own devices. And it’s the European Parliament, not the European Council which gets to decide on whether to call a Convention.’

David Cameron and his pro-EU lackeys must be aware of arguments like this (they have been circulating the web for months) and so it suggests they may be deliberately projecting an untruth; they are dressing up the low-level, aspirational agreements reached so theatrically on Friday as a cast-iron triumph in the hope that, dashing for a quick-as-possible vote, they can hoodwink voters.

There’s an irony here: the EU is intrinsically fiendishly complex in its rules and its intent, and for those reasons, is fundamentally undemocratic. Cameron – who promised to reform that in his Bloomberg 2013 speech – is now relying on that complexity to ram through his so-called ‘deal’.

Why is the BBC complicit in this?

Exhibit A is a feature on the BBC website which, with the headline ‘What Cameron wanted and what he got’, purports to give a balanced overview of what is now on offer. It states:

‘This has to go down as a win for Mr Cameron, with the commitment to exempt Britain from “ever closer union” to be written into the treaties.’

So, in other words, accepted at face value in this key article, and without subsequent qualification, is that Cameron has secured an opt-out from the notorious clause, and that future treaties can be manipulated in this way.  There’s not a peep that others, including leading jurists, and experts on EU procedures, beg to differ.

Exhibit B was Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show. He raised the subject with David Cameron, and suggested that there were those disagreed that the opt-out was binding without actual treaty change. But Cameron flatly contradicted him and there was no further response from Marr.

The BBC has a special duty because of its public service remit and its massive taxpayer-funding to present impartial news, and to get at the truth. Here, at the start of the dash to the referendum, is clear evidence that it is failing in its mission. The newsroom has at least 5,000 journalists and 3,000 further staff in support roles. With those numbers comes massive capacity to investigate, and yet it is seemingly conveying basic untruths that are government spin.

Back in 2004, when the prospect of an EU referendum was looming over the Lisbon Treaty, the then BBC Governors commissioned former Cabinet Secretary Lord Wilson of Dinton to undertake a survey of the Corporation’s EU-related output. In retrospect, it stands as the only genuinely independent survey of the BBC output ever undertaken, and it was only commissioned because former Conservative Minister Lord Ryder of Wensum was appointed stop-gap chairman following the ignominious resignation of Gavyn Davies in the wake of the Hutton inquiry. Lord Ryder persuaded Davies’ permanent successor Lord Grade (also a Eurosceptic) that such an inquiry was essential.

Lord Wilson, when he submitted his report at the beginning of 2005, was coruscating about aspects of the poor quality of the BBC’s EU output, its inherent bias, and especially about the overall lack of level of knowledge at all levels of the Corporation of EU affairs. The report observed (section iv para 16):

‘Journalists are unlikely to be able to explain the issues (of the EU and a possible referendum) clearly unless they understand them themselves. There is much evidence that the public do not get the clear and accurate explanations they need because there is a lack of knowledge of the EU at every stage of the process from the selection of an item to the conduct of the interview.’

The BBC promised in response to devise special training courses to remedy this major defect, but the evidence of dozens of subsequent News-watch reports, in revealing serial and consistent bias in the coverage of EU affairs suggests that this was a totally ineffective exercise.

James Harding, the current Director of News, acknowledged this, in effect, when he appeared before the Commons European Scrutiny Committee last December. Committee members – worried about referendum coverage – had strong reservations that there remained an all-pervading Corporation ignorance about EU matters. In response, Harding promised that before the referendum all newsroom staff would get a further half day’s training.

Has this happened? The BBC has not said. But it appears not to have done, if the reporting of the Cameron deal is anything to go by.

 

Photo by Brett Jordan

Commons media select committee misses the elephant in the room

Commons media select committee misses the elephant in the room

The Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee has spent six months considering reform of the BBC in connection with the imminent renewal of its Royal Charter.

Its report – published last week with little fanfare – contains some half-decent proposals, such as abolishing the current Trustees and replacing them with a regulatory Board with real teeth, including checks on the currently unfettered powers of the Director General.

That said, the strength of such a body would depend on the appointment of members with genuine independence and a real desire to make sure the Corporation is properly impartial and provides distinctive programmes that justify the £3.7 billion public funding.

And the reality of British public life now is that taxpayer-funded bodies are staffed and run by individuals who are to a man and woman followers of liberal-left, right-on ideology. Nothing the Conservatives have done over the past six years has changed this one iota; if anything David Cameron has made things worse.

What is being recommended, therefore, is likely to lead to more of the same: an expensive and fruitless exercise in re-arranging the deck-chairs.

In one fundamental respect, too, the culture select committee might never have bothered with their inquiry. They have totally botched their approach to complaints handling. What they propose in this vital arena will make matters worse, not better.

The rot at the heart of the Corporation is that every aspect of its output is locked in liberal-left thinking. The staff are virtually all so like-minded that they incapable of seeing it. As a result, the BBC is on an unrelenting, no-holds-barred crusade to ram down our throats the importance of the EU, multi-culturalism, feminism and a whole lot more.

This is massively obvious to anyone who listens or watches. But the BBC, from the Trustees downwards, deny it, and they justify their stance using bizarre rules of ‘due impartiality’ which allow Corporation executives and editors to interpret balance entirely on their own terms.

The current complaints-handling system is a department of the BBC. The vast majority of what they receive is rejected. It defies belief that the culture committee have recommended this continues in its present form.

The only proposal for change is in dealing with complex complaints that are currently pushed upstairs to a unit of the Trustees, the Editorial Standards Committee. This is chaired by trustee Richard Ayre, who worked at the BBC for 30 years. A key lieutenant is Mark Damazer, a former controller of Radio 4 who made it the temple of right-on orthodoxy that it has become.

The culture committee has accepted the blindingly obvious, that this is the equivalent of having foxes in charge of the hen house, but their solution defies belief. They propose that responsibility is passed over to the content board of Ofcom, the body which regulates commercial broadcasting.

How can this improve things? – if anything, it will make matters worse. For starters, the Board is chaired by European Union fanatic Bill Emmott, who is so determined to prevent Brexit that he makes propaganda films showing the nasty outcomes that he believes will inevitably occur if the British electorate has the temerity to disagree with him. Ofcom itself is so worried about his fanaticism that they can’t trust him; they have stated that he will take no part in discussions about anything to do with the EU.

Scratch the surface, and it also emerges that almost every member of the Ofcom content board has worked in some way for the BBC. This TCW item observed:

‘What makes Emmott’s appointment so utterly damaging is that the rest of the Ofcom content board – in step with Quango Land generally, are like minds and like spirits; right-on ‘liberals’ to the core. The full list of 10 is here. What leaps out from their CVs is that all but two have worked for significant parts of their careers at the BBC. They write papers about how wonderful and important the BBC is. Many are closely linked to a BBC-favoured propaganda organisation called the (Reuters) Oxford Institute of the Media – which last November held a seminar about ensuring ‘fair’ coverage of the EU. Guess who chaired it? Bill Emmott!

One of the two content board members who has not worked at the BBC is Dr Zahera Harb, who began her career in journalism in the Lebanon, and is now a board member of the worthy-sounding Ethical Journalism Network. Don’t be deceived by such Orwellian double-speak. Its main concerns include attacking the ‘hate speech’ of Donald Trump and ensuring that the Palestinian Authority – along with immigration generally – gets better coverage in the media.’

And there we have it. The culture select committee’s proposal can only be described as bonkers. It is also a dereliction of duty. Their report only mentions ‘complaints’ 13 times, contains no discussion about the shortcomings of the current system, and no suggestion that they looked at alternatives.

What they propose won’t make a whit of difference to the BBC’s output – if anything, it will reinforce the already blatant bias because in future, editors and senior management will claim they are ‘independently’ monitored.

What’s doubly concerning is that no-one in the media has seen the need to comment on this. Charter renewal is a once in a decade opportunity to reform the BBC. It’s now clear that MPs aren’t prepared to tackle – or worse, don’t understand – what is required to halt the unrelenting stream of propaganda that is poisoning our culture, our civic life and our politics.

 

Photo by Mike Knell

Evan Davis: helping to spread the pro-EU message?

Evan Davis: helping to spread the pro-EU message?

(This article was first published by Is the BBC biased?)

If you were wondering where the BBC’s Evan Davis was on Saturday (and why wouldn’t you be?), well he was in Paris at a conference for UK school children (sixth formers) called Your Future in Europe.

(I stumbled across this by accident, so, no, I’m not stalking Evan!)

I was especially struck by the list of speakers for the conference.

Along with Evan, there’s also ex-boss of Liberty Shami Chakrabarti, Alan Johnson MP and Dominic Grieve MP.

They all have something in common: Mr Johnson is leading Labour’s pro-EU campaign, Mr Grieve is among the most pro-EU of Conservative MPs and Shami Chakrabarti turns out to be pro-EU too (surprise, surprise!)

I was curious about that ‘And more to be confirmed’ though, as it suggested there might be some balancing pro-Leave politicians too…

…but here’s a photo (recently tweeted) showing the full panel for the conference’s Question Time:

Yes, alongside Shami, Alan and Dominic is pro-EU Lib Dem Kate Parminter

…and the SNP’s Angela Constance, whose views I don’t know but can guess, given that the SNP is presently fiercely pro-EU, so she’ll doubtless be too.

So that’s an entirely pro-EU panel then.

Now, what take on the EU referendum might the near-voting-age British school kids get from this entirely pro-EU panel? I think we can guess that too.

Of course, this isn’t a BBC event, so it’s not a case of BBC bias, but…

…it’s interesting, isn’t it, that Evan Davis is there, chairing the interestingly-titled – Your Future in Europe – as he apparently does every year?

From what I can gather on Twitter, he also gives the opening talk and answers questions about the EU from the children. Wonder what he tells them?

Returning to official BBC matters in the light of all this: How many episodes of the BBC’s own Question Time will have an overwhelmingly (or entirely) pro-EU panel over the next few months?

I bet someone will be counting.

David Kieghley writes:  Another major BBC figure appears to be deep in a pro-EU propaganda exercise. Former deputy director of BBC News, Fran Unsworth, who now heads all the BBC World Service  output, lists on her BBC declaration of interests that she is a director the EU’s Erasmus Mundus programme for students. Among its goals are spreading the EU’s policies relating to climate change and international development, which are saturated with socialist dogma.

Photo by Policy Exchange

BBC anti-Brexit rhetoric continues with alleged lies over ‘Norway option’

BBC anti-Brexit rhetoric continues with alleged lies over ‘Norway option’

Anti-Brexit group Britain Stronger in Europe has started its propaganda push with a £1.5m leaflet drop. It focuses – with hackneyed predictability – on threats that outside the Single Market, three million UK jobs will be at risk.

News-watch research shows that for years, BBC presenters and reporters have been allowing Europhiles to get away with these totally unfounded claims – devastatingly debunked by the Institute of Economic Affairs in March – virtually without challenge.

It is now becoming increasingly clear that nothing is going to change in BBC coverage in the run-up to the EU referendum.

Why? In effect, a Radio 4 programme broadcast on Thursday was a clear declaration, that the Corporation will be actively campaigning to amplify such messages – especially those about the Single Market.

Perhaps there is no surprise in this – after all an ex-BBC strategy chief, Carolyn Fairbairn, is now director-general of the fanatically Europhile Confederation of British Industry and has been declaring her referendum plans to the Guardian; and Sir Roger Carr, a former president of the CBI, is now deputy chairman of the BBC Trustees. The Corporation is so steeped in the importance of Brussels that it cannot see or think outside that bubble.

At what point, however, does biased BBC reporting tip over into being deliberately untrue?

According to many EU experts, that divide was crossed by the programme in question, an edition of the In Business slot which, in essence, on the basis of what can loosely be called unchallenged misinformation, purported to show what it claimed was the hugely negative impact on Norway of daring not to be a member of the Brussels club.

Hot on the heels of a similarly massively anti-Brexit programme by Carolyn Quinn – described here on The Conservative Woman – reporter Jonty Bloom conveyed to listeners without qualification or counter opinion a central untruth: that even though Norway was not in the EU, it was forced to follow EU directives, with potentially disastrous consequences. He suggested that being on the outside entailed vast expense for the Norwegian economy and meant it had no input into policy-making.

To illustrate this, he put centre stage in the programme an interview with a spokesman from an Oslo boiler manufacturer (called Oso, no doubt also chosen partly for its ardently ‘green’ agenda) which, it was alleged, had faced near disaster. Bloom said that the company had been doing very well until an EU directive covering tough changes in the regime around safety and ecological requirements of water-heating equipment suddenly appeared on the horizon.

He contended that the company had only been saved from ruinous new costs of up to £10m by last minute intervention by France, which had used its offices to secure an opt-out for Norway from the new regulations.

He larded the tale with dark warnings about other costs and pitfalls of being outside the Single Market – exactly in tune with the Britain Stronger in Europe leaflet and the direst warnings of the CBI. The full transcript of the programme is below.

Bloom’s programme opened with almost-reasonable interviews with Norwegian fishermen and farmers. He explained that opposition to the EU was rooted in these core economic areas.

But then the rot set in. According to website Leave HQ, what followed about the boiler-maker and Norway’s involvement with EU rules and the Single Market was ‘a pack of lies’, essentially because it most certainly does have influence, through its participation in the European Economic Area (EEA) and membership of EFTA (the European Free Trade Association).

The EU Referendum website explains:

‘In fact…right from the very start, the heating world exploded in outrage (against the proposed regulations). Not only did Norway object, but the issue was taken up by the Nordic Council of Ministers….It took until August 2013, more than three years after the draft regulations had been published, for the highly revised regulations, during which period the Norwegians were fully consulted.

‘To allow a claim that it was simply “blind luck” that prevented the original, more draconian proposals coming into force is a travesty. It simply isn’t true.’

There is not the space here to go into everything that Bloom got wrong – or about subsequent alleged highly dubious tampering with copy on the BBC website – but at its heart was the parading of a blatant untruth: that Europhiles from David Cameron downwards want us to believe: for countries outside the EU, and especially Norway, there is only darkness and despair.

There are dozens of different sources that Bloom could have approached to obtain a different and more realistic picture why up to 85% of Norwegians do not want to join the EU and why it is, in consequence, one of the richest countries in the world. One is Katherine Kleveland, leader of the Nei til EU campaign , who explains admirably here the advantages for her country of being outside the EU. To her, it is emphatically not a second best, involves no loss of national sovereignty or control, and allows Norwegians at every level a better and fuller say in trade negotiations because they are not funnelled through the EU.

This underscores that with EU affairs, nothing that the Corporation broadcasts can be trusted; everything is crafted with one end – to show that life outside the EU is, for the UK, and every other European country that is not yet a member, an unsustainable impossibility.

 

 

Transcript of BBC Radio 4, In Business, 21st January 2015, 8.30pm

ANNOUNCER: Norway’s relationship with the European Union is often held up as a potential model for the UK if we vote to leave the EU in the referendum that’s expected later this year. But what exactly is that model? Our business correspondent, Jonty Bloom, has been to Norway to find out.

JONTY BLOOM:     Deep in the Arctic Circle where at this time of year the sun barely rises, this is the regional capital of the North of Norway. It’s a good two hour’s flight from Oslo, over hundreds and hundreds of miles of snow-covered mountains, icy islands, and long fjords reaching far inland. Tromso is right on the edge of Europe, closer to Moscow than Brussels and far further north than Iceland. It’s bitterly cold. I’ve come here because Tromso is at the heart of the Norwegian fishing industry. From here, trawlers venture deep into the stormy and freezing cold Barents Sea in search of cod, haddock, mackerel and prawns. During the 1994 referendum campaign on whether Norway should join the European Union, Tromso harbour filled with fishing boats all flying flags saying ‘Nei til EU’ – ‘No to the EU’ and since then, little has changed. So, did you used to take the boat out all did you er . . .

JAN ROGER LERBUKT: Yeah, I’ve been doing fisheries for many years.

JB:           Jan Roger Lerbukt was almost born with webbed feet. I notice his massive hands bear the scars of many years at sea in rough dangerous conditions. He owns and runs one trawler, The Hermes – that spends up to five weeks at sea at a time, in fishing grounds that Norway owns and controls. Norway regards the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy with disdain. It has managed its fishing stocks successfully for years, and as a result, the fishing industry has been one of the bulwarks against entry to the EU. You used to go out with your father, did you?

JRL:         Yeah, I started out, actually I was 10 years old, first time, but that was just for one week or something like that.

JB:           And the most important man on board is the chef, I take it, is he?

JRL:         Of course.

JB:           Yes (laughs)

JRL:         (laughs)

JB:           I assume you had a vote in the ’94 referendum? Which way did you vote then?

JRL:         I voted ‘no’.

JB:           And why was that?

JRL:         Based on the agreement and the deal we got with the EU at that time, and, and . . . and the whole question, I voted ‘no’. I think that was the best for . . . for the industry and Norway as a whole. Er, the situation for the stocks in the Barent Sea are very good now, and that comes, in my opinion, to the fact that we have been able, in Norway, to, have legislations and regulations which has been able to build the stocks up, and that’s vital to us, of course, because this is . . . this is for the future, it’s not a business for today. It’s, it’s for the future to, to keep the stocks in a, in a good condition, to be able to harvest of them (sic) for, for many, many years to come. For my children, for their children, for the future – it’s food.

JB:           And what is it that you would fear about being in the EU?

JRL:         Loss of control. Loss of control of the fisheries, of the stocks of the . . . the regulations, depleting the resources. That’s what I would fear. If that should be the result, I will always vote ‘no’.

(mournful music)

JB:           Although Tromso is remote, it’s still the regional capital. In fact, once called the Paris of the North, it’s home to the Arctic Philharmonic but I wanted to get out of town to visit one of the many fish farms that use the pure icy water of the local fjords to rear millions of salmon. To get there takes another three hours . . . by ferry and then by car. Across the island of Senja, on snow-covered roads through deep mountain valleys, until you finally reach the coast. And then it’s another half an hour by boat to the fish farm itself. I’m on the deck of a support vessel about two or 3 miles down Bergsfjord in North Norway. It’s permanent night at this time of the year round here, so there’s just enough twilight to see the huge mountains which surround us on nearly every side. Absolutely covered in snow and ice. And the reason we’re here is just in front of us, huge pens of an enormous salmon farm, there’s something like a million and a half salmon right in front of me, they love this environment, I can’t say I do, I’ve got about four layers on, including a complete emergent suit, but it is something like minus 13 or minus 15 out here at the moment, and I’ve found myself suddenly . . . willing to pay considerably more for a salmon steak at my local supermarket than I was previously. This is a, a vital Norwegian industry which is deeply affected by the country’s relationship with the European Union. Fredd Wilsgaard owns and runs this fish farm.

FREDD WILSGAARD:            It’s freezing and they are working, it’s okay it’s part of the game, it’s okay.

JB:           With a dry sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye, Fredd has a remarkable resemblance to George Clooney. He even joked about it, but on the subject of the EU, he’s deadly serious. Did you vote in the ’94 referendum?

FW:         Yes I did.

JB:           Can I ask you how you voted then?

FW:         Yes you can. I voted, ‘no’. As a salmon farmer, I voted ‘no’. And if you look around, you can see . . . there are some sites, there are some farmers living here, and we have a little industry, mining here in (word unclear) the fisheries, you can see (fragments of words, or words unclear) you can see three fish boats, fishing herrings, and this community cannot survive, if you don’t pull it all together – fisheries, industry, farming. And the reason why I, I voted ‘no’ in ’94 was . . . that I was afraid of the consequences for the fisheries. And without the fisheries we can’t do this society alone, as farmers, but I’m not sure today that I would vote ‘no’ again.

JB:           To understand why Fredd is thinking again about how he would vote, I visited the factory he owns a few miles down the road.

FW:         This is (word or words unclear) gallery, and you can see the fish . . .

JB:           (words unclear) coming down, in towards the holding tank, I think.

FW:         Yes it is.

JB:           And they’re immediately, four at a time, they’re stunned and . . . and then killed.

FW:         Stunned and slaughtered, yes.

JB:           Every knock you hear, which sounds rather like a squash ball being whacked against a wall, is a salmon being stunned and killed. 14,000 a day are sucked out of the holding pens and within two minutes gutted, inspected and packed in ice. Now, the thing that strikes me about this is, I mean, it’s an amazingly automated process, and you’ve got lots of people in here checking and everything, but all you’re doing is killing and cutting the fish, and then putting them into a box whole.

FW:         Yes.

JB:           What would you like to do with them?

FW:         A small amount of the fish that we are processing in this plant is taken over to the next plant to make fillets but I would like to do a lot more, more fillets and, and I would like to smoke some salmon, and I would like to . . . do more, make it finish so that you could go to the store and . . . pick it up and go home and eat it.

JB:           So you could do ready meals and prepared fish with sauce, and all sorts of stuff.

FW:         Yes, or we could do ready meals.

JB:           And why don’t you do more of that?

FW:         A part of it is the taxes that we’ve got on the product, the more finished we do it, so er . . . that’s the price for being outside the Union.

JB:           Norway doesn’t process is much of the fish it ships to the EU as it would like. The tariffs are too high. Just 2% on gutted fish, but up to 13% unprocessed. As a result, its ships its fish to Denmark and Poland where they are turned into ready meals. Norway is losing their jobs that involves, and the higher profits it would bring.

(mournful music)

JB:           That helps explained why Fredd voted to stay out of the EU in 1994, but now he’s part of a small minority who would probably vote to join. Quite a shift for quite a traditional industry. But that’s not going to happen. Another referendum is not on the agenda and even if it were, a large majority of Norwegians, around 70% would vote against it again, according to the polls. One reason for that can be found in a cowshed, more than a thousand miles south of Fredd’s salmon farm on the outskirts of Oslo. The agricultural lobby in Norway is big and powerful.

TRON RAYOSTAR: See, think now it’s time for milking, so you go inside here, and then, er, the computer now, now it’s ready, time for milking or just feeding and then, open the door (words unclear) for feeding (words unclear) for milking.

JB:           And how does the computer know that?

TR:          Er . . . she has this number here . . .

JB:           Ah, she has a computer chip on her neck.

TR:          Yes, yes.

JB:           Tron Rayostar (phonetic) is a farmer, he says he knows every one of his 40 dairy cows, but Tron has another important job – he’s President of the TINE Cooperative, made up of 15,000 farmers which dominates the dairy industry in Norway. How is the dairy industry at the moment, how are . . . things for you?

TR:          ’15 will be a very good year for the farmers, yeah. For the milking production in Norway, it’s nice time now. So that’s the big difference from Europe.

JB:           Yes it is, isn’t it?

TR:          Yes, and that’s the Norwegian politics, to make that possible.

JB:           Because in the rest of Europe prices are falling, but . . .

TR:          Yes.

JB:           . . . here they’re still pretty good aren’t they?

TR:          Yes. They are stable or rising a little bit.

JB:           Norway looks after its farmers. There will be many a British dairy farmer who would like a price rise, and yet milk in Norway is already far more expensive than it is in the UK. Across the farmyard there’s a beautiful house, resting on the edge of snow-covered fields with wood-burning stoves, underfloor heating and effortless Scandinavian style. It’s a picture postcard pretty. In the farmhouse, we warmed up and tried some of Tron’s wife’s home-made biscuits. We talked to him in a mix of English and Norwegian with his TINE colleague, Bjorn Strom (phonetic) translating and chipping in. Just as Norway’s fishing industry wants nothing to do with the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, its farmers want nothing to do with its Common Agricultural Policy. That still accounts for 40% of the EU’s budget and has often been criticised for subsidising farmers and protecting them from international competition, while forcing up food prices. But what, I wanted to know . . . was it about the Common Agricultural Policy which would not work for Norwegian farmers?

BJORN STROM:     He says that in Norway we have very high costs, and there are also climatic conditions that is very difficult. We are, for most of the country, nearer to the North Pole than to Rome, and that means that we need a differential agricultural policy.

JB:           And how is Norwegian agriculture protected against imports.

BS:          We have tariffs, which are protecting the rich agricultural producers. And . . . there was also a quota system for import on some basic Norwegian products, which can be imported.

JB:           So, I think the famous example is cheese, is it, foreign cheeses get quite high tariff when they come into Norway? How high is that, do you know?

BS:          Some cheeses are in fact, er, free for imports inside the quota, some cheeses have a lower tariff than others, and so we have a few cheeses with very high tariffs, about 270%.

JB:           Yes, there are tariffs as high as 270% on some cheeses imported into Norway. The country doesn’t like the Common Agricultural Policy, because it’s nowhere near as generous to the EU’s farmers as Norway’s government is to Norwegian ones. No wonder the national anthem is titled, ‘Yes, We Love this Country.’

(Norwegian national anthem)

JB:           In the main square in the centre of Oslo, the iceskating rink is busy. It’s in a prime spot, between the Parliament and the Royal Palace. There’s snow on the ground and lights in the trees, and everywhere you look there are expensive international stores. This is an outward-looking, very successful and prosperous country. And for many people it illustrates what is possible for a European country if it’s outside the European Union. A short walk from the ice rink, and an office on the quite square, I discovered that although fishing and farming are totally outside the EU, the rest of the economy is surprisingly well-integrated. So chart 14.8 is . . .

ULF SVERDRUP:    Basically showing the economic integration, between different European countries and the internal market.

JB:           Ulf Sverdrup, director of the think-tank, the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, was showing me a chart I think he knew would surprise me. It shows how much trade certain countries do with the European Union.

US:          And if you include Norway in that . . . listing of countries, you find that Norway is among the . . . economies who are most integrated and dealing the most with the European market.

JB:           So actually, you’re about, Norway on its own is about the fourth most integrated country, if you look at imports and exports.

US:          Yes.

JB:           Of all the countries of (fragment of word, unclear) of Europe. And the UK is the least.

US:          Yeah.

JB:           And yet, you’re not a member and we are.

US:          Yeah.

JB:           (laughs)

US:          (laughs)

JB:           In part, that huge trade with the EU is because Norway has something that the countries of the European Union desperately need: huge supplies of oil and gas from a safe, reliable and friendly neighbour. But that also means that Norway is closely tied to the EU. Ulf should know – the chart comes from a huge report on Norway’s relationship with the European Union he helped to write, called ‘Outside and Inside’

US:          Formally speaking, Norway is outside, it’s not a member of the EU, but if you look into the details, look into the agreements, we find that Norway is much more inside than outside. It’s more fair to say that we are three quarters inside, rather than an outsider.

JB:           Norway may not be in the EU, but it has signed up for an awful lot of EU projects, and it’s part of the Schengen zone, which currently means there’s free movement into and out of Norway for most EU citizens, and it cooperates and justice, crime and defence. The fisheries and farming sectors are outside of the EU, but the rest of the economy is pretty much part of the single market, just as Germany, France and the UK are. So why has Norway voted ‘no’ to EU membership, but become so closely tied?

US:          Some Norwegian voters wanted to preserve sovereignty, and national democracy. At the same time they also wanted to . . . protect economic interests, so you have to find a balance between these different things and . . . from 1994, when we had the referendum, on every occasion politicians faced with a choice have opted for more European integration rather than less.

JB:           But why then have the politicians and the business leaders failed to convince voters, the majority of Norwegians, that you may as well join?

US:          Formal membership is often seen as a kind of . . . making big leaps, kind of changing from one state to another basically, whereas these small, incremental adjustments has not been so hard to sell.

JB:           So what is it exactly that has persuaded the Norwegians to stay close to the European Union? The answer, it seems, is access to the single market. That’s worth a small fortune to Norway. As a country of under 5 million people, it gives Norway access to a population of potential customers a hundred times larger. But that access doesn’t come cheap. Norway pays hundreds of millions of euros a year to the EU.

US:          The EU is quite a tough negotiator (short laugh) yeah, so we pay more or less . . . I think if you rank it, it’s sixth or seventh, the biggest net contributor, if you were to compare. Pay more per capita than the Finns and the Danes.

JB:           It’s not much of a saving then? If you’re, if you’re not in then is it?

US:          No, but you have to remember that Norway’s association with the EU is not a model carefully decided, it’s more of an accident, a series of accidents that happened.

JB:           The single market is more than just a free trade zone. It regulates and enforcers rules and standards that in theory guarantee the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. That means a company can sell its goods in any EU member state as easily as in its own country. But the rules that make that possible are written in Brussels and Strasbourg. It’s almost 9 o’clock in the morning now and it’s still pretty dark outside. Er, but it’s a lovely scene as you come out from Oslo’s Central Station, past all the hills covered with trees and snows, and the odd ski track. There’s warm looking lights on everywhere, but it’s minus 10 outside. I’m on my way to meet a company that’s having real problems with Norway’s relationship with the EU. Although there are lots of benefits in Norway not being in the European Union, there are of course costs. I was met off the train by Sigurd Braathen, the managing director of OSO hot water – a family-owned maker of central heating boilers for private and business properties. The factory is almost completely automated with dozens of robots.

SIGURD BRAATHEN:             So this is where we marry the parts, we marry the top and the bottom on the cylinder.

JB:           Many of the machines are brand-new. They’ve been installed at huge cost, for one simple reason. Sigurd woke up one morning a couple of years ago to find a new EU directive on energy efficiency and environmental standards was threatening half his product range.

SB:          Yeah, that’s about it, we woke up one day and after doing the calculations, and the different way of . . . of calculating the ratings for our products, and we suddenly saw that, you know our [word unclear ‘products’?] will be useless. And it just happened overnight, we felt trampled upon I would say , especially since we can’t affect the decision, it was a difficult period to find out what to do, but we just need to get on with it and . . . and find solutions to the legislation as it was back then.

JB:           The European Union had decided to introduce new rules, which massively favoured gas boilers over electric ones. But Norway’s electricity is almost totally green, it comes from hydroelectric power plants. Because Norway has little say in EU rules, the company was stymied, and thought it would have to invest £10 million in new plant to meet new standards. At the last moment, France and Finland had the directive watered down – they produce quite a lot of green electricity as well, and thought the rules would hurt their boilermakers. That lucky break saved OSO £5 million.

SB:          It’s probably just dumb luck that we ended up with legislation that allows us to maintain most of our product range.

JB:           If you had to get rid of half your product range, what would’ve happened to this factory?

SB:          Well, the factory would have er . . . been in desperate need of investment, as a family business we would have been forced to borrow a lot of money, I think, we don’t like that, we like to have a safe business, to try not to have too much in debt, if we are to adapt to the way it was originally, then I’m sure it would’ve meant another £5 million investment, and for us that’s huge, when our turnover is about €50 million.

JB:           As it was, they still had to find £5 million to spend on new equipment – money SIgurd would’ve liked to have spent on entering new markets. What really surprised me about this story was that if OSO hadn’t changed its products to suit the new EU directive, it wouldn’t just have been banned from selling its hot water tanks in the EU, it wouldn’t have been able to sell them in Norway either, because EU single market rules apply in Norway as much as in Germany, France or Great Britain. Now, Norway is different from the UK, it’s a much smaller economy and the UK might be able to negotiate a better deal than Norway gets if it leads the EU. But Norway is small fry in EU terms and it accepts what is sometimes called ‘rule by fax’ – the story, probably apocryphal, is that somewhere in a Norwegian government office there’s a fax machine, every day, Norwegian civil servants are supposed to sit around it waiting for the latest pages of EU rules from Brussels to spew out, so they can quickly be passed into Norwegian law.

LARS HEIM:           Yes, hello, welcome.

JB:           Hello, I’m Jonty Bloom.

LH:          Lars Heim (phonetic)

JB:           Lars Heim is the undersecretary for industry. He’s in charge of that famous fax machine. Minister, so the first question is: where exactly is this fax machine when Norway receives all the . . . the new laws and . . .

LH:          (laughs)

JB:           . . . regulations from Brussels.

LH:          We don’t have a . . . a fax machine, but we get all our er . . . a lot of new legislation from EU and er, Norway being a part of the inner market, er, internal market we have to . . . apply and make them a part of Norwegian legislation as well.

JB:           In fact, experts I spoke to said it was not so much rule by fax machine, it’s more like the Norwegian government comes into work every day, turns on its computer and finds a new software update ready to load. So, has the government ever refused to implement a law, I asked. The previous government, the Minister said, had decided it would resist changes to the postal system, but when the new administration got in, they waved it through, believing it wasn’t worth the fight. There are other developments, however, they watch nervously.

LH:          Of course, if the EU and the United States reach a free trade agreement, that would impact Norway strongly, because we are part of the internal market but we will not be part of that agreement, and that of course will open up whole new situation that we have to decide what would serve Norway’s interests best in, in that kind of situation.

JB:           So what would the options be?

LH:          We don’t know yet. We keep our options open, but of course we had to consider should we try to . . . erm . . . be a part of the agreement, should we try to be a bilateral agreement with the United States? Should we try to find another kind of solution? But we follow it closely, we talk to both parties, both in the United States and the European Union, and we try to monitor the situation as closely as we can, not being a member, and we also try to evaluate what could the possible consequences be for Norwegian industries and businesses.

JB:           Could you just ask to have exactly the same terms and conditions with the United States?

LH:          Of course we can ask, but I don’t know if that’s feasible.

JB:           It does illustrate the kind of issue that . . . if you want to be outside the EU, but have complete access to . . .

LH:          Hmm.

JB:           . . . the EU, you have to accept the EU’s rules.

LH:          Hmm.

JB:           Of course, many in Norway’s business community would like to have a say on those rules, for obvious reasons.

KRISTIN LUND:      Mostly business just have to adapt, I mean, often there’s no other way around it.

JB:           Kristin Lund is the director general of the Norwegian Federation of Enterprise, the NHO – the main organisation for employers in Norway. I asked her why Norway doesn’t try to renegotiate the terms of its relationship with the EU.

KL:          Frankly, I don’t think we would have gotten those same terms today, and we also realise that, so we, we stick onto and hang onto that agreement.

JB:           So you think the terms now would be worse?

KL:          Yes.

JB:           And Norway pays a lot to maintain close ties with the EU. It is a rich country, it has immense benefits of huge amounts of North Sea oil and gas, which it can use to help an economy of under 5 million people. It’s cautioned by that oil and gas, and by the sovereign wealth fund it’s built up with the proceeds. That makes it pretty unique in European terms, but it knows those riches won’t last forever.

KL:          Let’s put it this way: that the fact that we’ve had such a successful oil and gas sector has made our economy grow and be very healthy and, and er . . . prosperous over the last two decades, and I think (inhales) . . . going into a new era now, where . . . where we can not rely to the same degree on that sector I think we will be faced with more of, let’s say, the economic realities that’s hit the rest of Europe. And I think . . . that’s going to make us more like the rest of Europe. You know we’ve been . . . in a bit of a different situation, and I think that has cautioned a lot different effects, economically, for Norway. And maybe this is not exactly raised some of these questions and issues to the degree it otherwise would have.

JB:           Still there is absolutely no evidence that Norway wants to join the EU. Over many years opinion polls have shown that there is consistently been a large majority against entry. And it’s not even on the political agenda. Certainly, all the Norwegians I spoke to were opposed.

VOX POP MALE:   In ’94 I vote ‘no’, I was very afraid that we will lose oil and the fishery to the European Union. It’s still ‘no’ for my sake, (word or words unclear) for sure.

VOX POP FEMALE:               I like that we have control over our money. Like, I want everything to be our decision, so I want us to make the decision, even if it’s the same one as we would have made in the EU, but I wanted to be completely our decision.

VOX POP MALE 2:                It cost a lot to stay outside the Union, but we think it’s worth it, because still we have the natural resources for ourself (sic) the oil and the fish.

JB:           [sombre sounding bell rings throughout next section] Norway is not a member of the European Union and it is a rich and successful country. The UK could be like that too. But Norway does have access to the single market and is very intricately tied to the EU. It is an arrangement that many in Norway seem perfectly happy with, but if the UK were to follow the Norwegian model that wouldn’t mean a totally clean break from the European Union.

 

Photo by Leshaines123

Are BBC procedures for measuring impartiality fit for purpose?

Are BBC procedures for measuring impartiality fit for purpose?

David Cameron is gearing up this week for another attempt at telling us that leaving the EU will be disastrous for the UK and to outline more of his ‘renegotiations’.

Meanwhile, under far less media scrutiny, the House of Lords has been debating much more crucial work: whether special steps should be taken to ensure that the BBC is impartial in its coverage of the EU referendum.

Here, there was a bit of a surprise. Baroness Anelay, the government spokeswoman, responding to the calls for tough new measures, was unexpectedly tough on the BBC.

She acknowledged that the Corporation’s EU-related coverage is a major cause for concern, and also that in the past there had been justification for worries about the BBC’s impartiality.

She added that on that basis Culture Secretary John Whittingdale had written to the BBC in June, and revealed that he had now received a reply outlining the BBC’s approach to coverage which promised tough vigilance.

But don’t hold your breath. Baroness Anelay did not reveal to their noble lords what the steps were, but it’s likely that they are on similar lines to the approach outlined by News Director James Harding when he appeared before the European Scrutiny Committee last month, as was reported on this site in a guest post by Craig Byers.

Basically, Harding risibly said that talking to audience councils, having a referendum hotline for campaigning groups, and a programme of half-day seminars for BBC journalists will do the trick. At the same time, he set his face against any kind of independent academic monitoring of BBC content. He and David Jordan, the Director of Editorial Standards, claimed that such methodology was ‘unhelpful’, expensive, confusing, and too much based on number-crunching for their liking.

How could something as sacred as BBC journalism be subjected to such unrefined analysis was their indignant tone.

Harding also went so far as to claim that the conducting of such research threatened editorial freedom and to hem editors in. He did not outline why. Did he mean that if editors knew that they were being watched, they would not be able to perform their duties?

If so, that’s astonishing. The whole point of the public service journalism broadcast and published by the BBC is that it is continually subject to scrutiny in terms of fairness and balance. If editors feel constricted by that, they should be doing something else.

Harding’s and Jordan’s snooty claims about monitoring, however, are, on further investigation, frankly bizarre – because they are sharply at odds with existing BBC practice.

Why? Well, for years, the BBC Trustees, and before them, the BBC Governors have been holding what they call ‘Impartiality Reviews’.

That’s actually a total misnomer, because the reality is that most – like the 2011 review of Science coverage, or the 2012 Prebble Report into the EU, or the 2014 equivalent into rural affairs – are actually conducted by BBC lackeys who confirm what the Trustees want to hear: that almost everything in the garden is rosy.

Putting that aside, however, considerable effort is made to making these exercises look genuine. It is here that where academic monitoring of output comes in. And in at least nine of the Reviews since 2004, such surveys, conducted usually by university media departments, have been an integral component of the review process.

Moving up to the present, a Trust review into the use of statistics in news coverage is currently underway, and in that connection, content analysis from Cardiff University has been commissioned.

The various surveys have been clearly used by the Trustees to convey to the outside world that the Reviews are conducted on an impartial and independent basis, and then to bolster the claims of overall impartiality. For example, in the most recently published Review, into rural affairs, the BBC Trust, after the official panel report had been received, declared:

Overall, the BBC’s coverage of rural areas in the UK is duly impartial. There is no evidence of party political bias, and a wide range of views is aired.

Analysis of the various review documents shows this claim can only be based on the academic survey work, in this instance conducted by Loughborough University.

That is why Harding and Jordan’s remarks about monitoring can truly be described as bizarre. The Trustees, who are the ultimate guardians of BBC impartiality, use such surveys as proof of editorial balance. But the News department think and do otherwise.

In fact, investigation of the archives reveals more contradictions. A key finding in the Lord Wilson of Dinton Impartiality Review (2004) was that rigorous monitoring of output was essential to achieve impartiality. The then news management (under Helen Boaden), responded that they agreed, said that internal monitoring systems were already in place, and pledged that they would be upgraded.

Similar promises about monitoring were made after three further reviews (covering business, Israel-Palestine and the four UK nations) between 2005 and 2008.

Jordan’s response to the European Scrutiny Committee confirmed that these promises have now been jettisoned by the news executive.

This was BBC business as usual. It boils down to that Harding and the rest of the BBC arrogantly believe that the only people who can measure news impartiality are those from the BBC itself through what they call ‘editorial judgment’.

John Whittingdale may have a letter from the BBC pledging impartiality in coverage of the EU referendum.

It’s not worth the paper it is written on.

 

News-watch calls for scrapping of ‘biased’ BBC complaints system

News-watch calls for scrapping of ‘biased’ BBC complaints system

News-watch has told culture minister John Whittingdale’s review of the BBC  that the current BBC complaints system is not fit for purpose.

The 10,000 word submission argues that it should be replaced by scrutiny through a completely independent body.

It provides comprehensive evidence – from News-watch’s own experience of submitting complaints – that the Trustees, who police BBC impartiality and have overall responsibility for complaints, are too much in the sway of BBC management and are not robustly independent.

The introduction to the submission states:

“News-watch  has unique experience over the past 16 years in dealing with the BBC about issues of impartiality relating especially to the coverage of the affairs of the European Union[1].  We have found that the current structure of BBC governance favours too much the interests of the BBC itself, is not properly independent, and, because of multiple operational inadequacies, is not fit for purpose. There is brick-wall negativity in dealing with complaints[2].

The Trustees have obdurately and unreasonably refused to accept extensive evidence that the EU-related output has continuing serious shortcomings of the type first highlighted in the Lord Wilson of Dinton report of 2005.

The findings of News-watch, based on the systematic monitoring of BBC output and analysis using rigorous academic methodology, include: under-representation and poor understanding of the eurosceptic perspective, a continual tendency to view the European Union through the prism of Conservative splits, a failure to discuss properly the case for withdrawal, and severe under-reporting of EU affairs, to the extent that it is ‘bias by omission’.”

Full report here.

 

[1] News-watch has been analysing BBC output on a structured basis, in accordance with academic practice of media monitoring, since 1999.

More than 6,000 hours of news and current affairs programmes have been systematically logged and analysed on a regular basis through longitudinal surveys. It is arguably the largest research project ever undertaken into BBC output.  An archive of this work is here: www.news-watch.co.uk/archive .
[2] In 2014, according to the Trustees’ complaints bulletin, only nine complaints out of 144 considered by the Editorial Standards Committee were upheld.

Photo by ell brown

Kathy Gyngell: How would the BBC cope if it didn’t have Hezza to fuel Tory Europe splits?

Kathy Gyngell: How would the BBC cope if it didn’t have Hezza to fuel Tory Europe splits?

The BBC’s approach to EU coverage is pretty much on the lines of a word association game.

EU – Conservative Party – split – europhiles – Michael Heseltine – Ken Clarke – reasonable – superior –  prime time. 

Eurosceptics – extreme – xenophobic – inferior – marginalise – diss – interrupt.

Labour  – unified – no story – splits –  never – Tony Benn – past – irrelevant.

That is how it was in 1999 when I started on a BBC/ EU coverage monitoring and transcribing project with David Keighley for Global Britain.  And that is how it still is today.

Yesterday, in fact, on Sunday morning, it was back to the future with Andrew Marr (about 20 minutes in to the programme for anyone who can be bothered to watch):

When it comes to the great Conservative Party debate over Europe,” Marr assured us, “there is nobody who knows the territory better than Lord Heseltine.”

For those of you too young to have been wearied by the tedious and pompous pontifications of this particular peer on the BBC over the years, Lord Heseltine was Deputy Prime Minister under John Major in the 1990s. He retired from his seat and has not been active in politics since 2001. Not that that has diluted his incestuous relationship with the BBC.

They love him because he is an unreconstructed Europhile.

Despite the old boy looking a shadow of his former self, Mr Andrew Deference Marr did his best to big him up:

“He confronted Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s; he stood at John Major’s side in the 1990s and he’s continued vigorously to make the case for Britain to be at the heart of the EU.”

This latter point was, of course, being entirely thanks to the BBC for the permanent platform they’ve offered him for the last 14 years – not mentioned I might add.

Marr then encouraged the old dinosaur to witter on for 6 minutes until he produced the line he was looking for – for the end of programme news headline:

‘Lord Heseltine told this programme that David Cameron was right to tackle the issue of immigration (Is he tackling it? Ed) but he had a warning for the Conservatives: “It is very complex … he (Mr Cameron) is more likely to be successful if the people he’s negotiating with feel he has he backing of the party that he leads.”

The only conceivable reason for having him on – since he is not active in politics any more – is when he can be used to highlight ‘Tory splits’.

One thing those canny BBC news producers can rely on is that he will diss whatever the Eurosceptics are currently doing.

No surprise then that nothing that former Cabinet Minister Owen Paterson – who appeared later in the programme – could say was going to make the headlines – however strong his critique of Britain’s current relationship with the EU. Not even his revelation that Britain, still a great global trading nation, is now represented in world trade councils via the EU by a female former psychiatric nurse from Sweden – no doubt a great expert on trade – demonstrating just how much power over our own affairs we have ceded.

It gets worse. Not content with digging Lord H out of the woodwork the BBC ignored Kate Hoey’s incendiary article in the Mail on Sunday – incendiary for the Labour Party that is – on her Brexit advocacy and on her searing critique of the Labour leadership candidates’ failure to understand why the party lost votes to Ukip.

Was she on Andrew Marr’s sofa? Of course not. Just an obscure SNP MP John Nicholson and Marr’s favourite liberal leftie, self-regarding Shami Chakrabarti.

But then, according to the BBC, the Labour Party is never split on Europe. How convenient since that means it cannot be newsworthy that Kate has criticised Labour for being so pro-EU that its sceptical members aren’t taken seriously.

Yet Kate is one of about 20-30 Labour MPs who want to exit the EU, along with prominent Labour donor John Mills. Yet another prominent Labour eurosceptic the BBC chose to ignore is Kelvin Hopkins, MP for Luton and former Nalgo official, who was on the EU Scrutiny Committee.

The BBC rarely, if ever, talks to Labour Eurosceptics – in the past or currently. News-watch, who have conducted consistent monitoring of the BBC’s Today output for the last 15 years, told the EU Scrutiny Committee recently that across all the programmes they had surveyed only one in 1,400 speakers on EU affairs was a Labour withdrawalist.

Over the May general election, the only speaker on Today representing  a leftist/socialist  withdrawal position was one Ken Capstick from the Socialist Labour Party (the rump of Arthur Scargill’s operation). The exchange with him lasted an entire 15 seconds

Of course the 20-30 Labour ‘dissenters’ does not compare with the 100+ in the Conservative party, but this does not justify the BBC treating the Labour Party as if it is in complete unison when it is not.

Kate Hoey’s article was significant by any standards because it’s the first time she has gone so prominently on the front foot. Nor will you get any enlightenment on this from BBC website.  On Sunday, there was (of course) a story on Labour going strongly pro-EU on the referendum, but nothing about Kate Hoey.

Plus ca change….

 

This article first appeared on The Conservative Woman

Photo by JULIAN MASON

BBC News chief defends General Election coverage against bias claims

BBC News chief defends General Election coverage against bias claims

James Harding, the director of BBC news, gave this speech in which he sought to defend the Corporation’s General Election coverage to the spring conference of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer on June 2.

News-watch is preparing a full response to the sweeping generalisations he made about lack of bias. It will be posted imminently, and will be evidence-based. In the meantime it is noted that – as is usual for BBC defences of its output – the claims are not supported by a scrap of evidence. The speech is based on generalities that add up to only to a bombastic statement that ‘We know we got it right’.

first reaction is here on the Biased BBC website.  This is an extract:

“… the speech could be a sign that he has given up the arduous task of thinking for himself and has merely resigned himself to the groupthink inherent in working for the BBC…..living in the Bubble in total denial about what the BBC does, completely divorced from reality, detached from the real world….for instance the small quote at the head of this post is one Harding thinks worthy of highlighting on the webpage….and yet it is totally at odds with how most people see the BBC and indeed the experience of anyone who has the temerity to actually complain to the BBC and receives a swift kick to the crown jewels.”

It is noted that the panel at the event was made up of broadcasting establishment figures, most with close BBC connections.

James Harding Speech at VLV Conference 2 June 2015

In a callow moment, about three months out from the election, I told David Jordan, the weathered head of Editorial Policy at the BBC, how much I was looking forward to it: “This is going to be fun,” I said. “Fun?” he replied. “It’s going to be hell on wheels.” It turned out to be both.

And I know that I said I’d talk today about the Future of News. Perhaps we can do that, if you’d like, in the questions and answers that follow. But how about some recent history first. A few weeks on from polling day, what can we say of the BBC’s coverage of the General Election of 2015?

Let’s start, not by patting ourselves on the back, but by taking a look at our election coverage with a critical eye.

A serious critique of the coverage must address the problem with the pollsters. Happily, John Curtice and the exit poll on the BBC proved to be right on the night and, from the first bong, it was clear we were into one of the most exciting nights of television and radio I can remember. Nor was it a failure in over-reporting the polls: the BBC’s guidelines suggest we should not lead a news bulletin or programme simply with the results of an opinion poll. And, of course, the polls were central to the politicians’ campaigns, too, so it would have been impossible to ignore them. But, surely, we and all other media organisations allowed the poll numbers to infect our thinking: there was too much ‘coalitionology’ as a result. The BBC did better than others on this, but, with the benefit of hindsight, we would all have been better off with less discussion of deals and allowed the dissection of policy - that we did from defence to social care, housing to education - to speak for itself.

Also, we have to ask ourselves whether we did enough to hold in check the political machines of each party. With each election, the political operations of all parties becomes more controlled, there is ever greater effort put into news management. This time, for example, there were no morning press conferences. There were embargoed stories, dropped just before the newspapers rolled off the presses and the 10 o’clock news went on air. Sometimes, the result wasn’t news, but messaging.

The debates over the TV debates were, to put it mildly, fraught. Personally, I think that the run of four TV leaders’ events that were brokered by Channel 4, Sky, ITV and the BBC gave voters a real opportunity to see the choice before them. The deal saved the TV debates from collapse and secured their place in the British political landscape; it safeguarded the impartiality of the broadcasters; and, from the TV debates to the live interviews to the Question Time special, the electorate got to see its leading politicians under intense scrutiny, live and just days from the poll. That said, we need to listen and draw some lessons from the process with a view to setting up debates in the future. The public will want to see debates ahead of the referendum on EU membership and will expect to see them in the run-up to the 2020 election. Well before, we should promptly agree a timetable for accepting the dates and formats of future debates.

Over the course of the election campaign, I got it in the ear from politicians and their spokespeople - from all political parties.

I was, I admit, quite astonished by the ferocity and frequency of complaints from all parties. More often than not, it was some version of a politician saying either I want “more me on the BBC” or “my side of the story is the story”. And this being my first election at the BBC, I was struck by how many politicians and spokespeople paid lip service to the idea of the BBC’s editorial independence, but, nonetheless, did think it was their place to say what should be leading the news, what questions should be asked and how, how they wanted audiences to be chosen for programmes.

To be clear, I’m not one of the people who subscribes to the view that if you’re getting criticised from all sides you must be getting it broadly right. In fact, part of my job is to listen and assess the merit of each complaint, each request, each argument. And the fact is that a fiercely fought election generated a lot of strong feelings: Labour was angry about the focus on the SNP, the Tories regularly questioned our running orders and editorial decisions, the Lib Dems felt they weren’t getting sufficient airtime, the Greens complained about being treated like a protest movement not a party, UKIP railed against what they saw as an establishment shut-out, the DUP felt Northern Ireland parties were being treated as second class citizens, the SNP questioned what they saw as metropolitan London bias at the BBC. And the list goes on.

One of the things I really like about the BBC is that it’s alive to its critics. It listens. And, as importantly, we are self-critical. We want to give more voice to private enterprise in particular we’re working to get more company news on the BBC. We feel we should keep on pushing out of London, holding a more devolved UK to account, going after the issues that matter to people in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England. And we need to change the look and sound of the organisation. For example, we think we need to do more to give opportunities to disabled journalists to work at the BBC - if, occasionally, we get mocked for going out of our way to make sure the BBC is in touch with the country it serves, then so be it.

But there’s criticism of the BBC’s newsrooms that is unfair and unfounded. Take, for example, the fabled left-wing bias. I find this increasingly hard to take seriously. In the light of the Conservative victory, what’s the argument? That the BBC’s subtle, sophisticated left-wing message was so very subtle, so very sophisticated that it simply passed the British people by? For some politicians have complained about this alleged bias, but not, in any meaningful numbers, the public. Or consider the criticism that BBC people are all in the grip of some public sector groupthink: how does that square with the fact that a Conservative Prime Minister, a Tory Chancellor, a proudly pro-enterprise Business Secretary and a London mayor who is a cheerleader for the City all recruited their spokesman from the serried ranks of pinkoes at the BBC. By the way, I find equally implausible the Labour critique that the BBC is too right-wing. Let me be clear: the BBC is scrupulously impartial. Of course, we make mistakes. I’m not saying we’re perfect; but we are impartial.

I’ve been asked whether politicians made the link between the BBC’s election coverage and the future funding of the BBC? Mostly, not. But, along the way, there were people from all parties who made the connection between their dissatisfaction with the election coverage and the fact that the next government will set the licence fee and the terms of the Royal Charter. Some did so explicitly. Nigel Farage, for example, said he was unhappy at UKIP’s treatment on the BBC and proposed cutting the licence fee by two thirds. Others left it hanging in the air.

BBC Charter Renewal coming hot on the heels of a General Election was an unhappy coincidence. Nothing matters more to BBC News than its independence. For people to have confidence in this country’s most important news organisation, they must know that its journalists will ask the difficult questions without fear or favour. The BBC, I’m proud to say, resisted any pressure, but how do we ensure the public remains confident that it is independent of politicians and the government. I don’t have any simple answers, but the experience has raised some questions. Given we are now in an age of fixed-term parliaments, do we need to try to put time between General Elections and Charter Renewal? Will the public continue to have confidence that journalists will, fearlessly, question politicians who, in effect, are setting their salaries and budgets? If not, how do politicians reassure the public that they are not going to play for political advantage or take out their personal grievances on the BBC?

In the week after the election, people let off steam. Already, the mood is different. The early morning calls, the angry texts, the lengthy letters have stopped. I hope – and, in fact, expect that – with the benefit of time and reflection, both the public and politicians will see that the BBC delivered successfully on its responsibilities as a public service broadcaster. In the months ahead and the political contests to come, politicians may not always like our news judgments. But we’re not here for them, we’re here for the public. And by that measure - the one that matters most - the BBC scored in 2015. So, allow me if you will, to toot the BBC’s horn for a minute.

First, the audience reaction was really encouraging. BBC election coverage reached 9 in 10 UK adults in the last week of the campaign: 89 percent of UK adults said they came to BBC News coverage of the election in the final week of the campaign; it was 88 per cent in 2010. And it was high - 84 percent - even amongst traditionally harder-to-reach 18-34 year-olds. The online - and, more to the point, mobile - numbers were extraordinary: on the 8 May, BBC News Online was used by a record 31.2m global browsers - in the UK it was 20.7m, beating the previous high by 7 million. And, take note, that between 6 and 7am on that Friday morning, 84 percent of browsers were on mobiles. More importantly still, a very high 66 percent chose BBC as the one best source of election results coverage and 60 percent chose the BBC as the best for election news across the whole campaign. BBC was rated ahead of ITV and Sky on all quality metrics - with a particularly strong lead on having great experts, challenging politicians and providing local coverage.

Second, there were real stars offstage. There were no significant errors, no social media snafus, no technology failures nor cybersecurity failures and no disruption from industrial action. A great many people, who were neither on camera nor on set, contributed to the success of the BBC’s election coverage. And, to my mind, the heroes of the election night were the people who built the systems and the stages that we worked on. The technology operation was the foundation for all that we did. It was sophisticated, ingenious and invaluable. The set at Elstree looked stunning; Jeremy Vine’s parallel universe made sense of the world with an exquisite eye for detail and exceptional flair; and the map on the piazza and the projections on Broadcasting House were a work of art that put democracy right in the middle of the BBC. Before the first bong, it was clear there was going to be only one election show worth watching.

And, third, I think we delivered against our own editorial ambitions. Forgive me, but I think we put on the television event of the campaign - arguably, the event of the campaign - namely the Question Time in Leeds. It was one of a series of events at the BBC, which, like no other news organisation, gave voice to the voter: from the My Election films on the 6 & 10 to 5Live’s 20 outside broadcasts, from Breakfast taking its red sofa on the road to Today’s tour of 100 constituencies, the debates across Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the English regions, from World at One in Dudley to Victoria Derbyshire’s debates, and the Generation 2015 first time voters who commented and participated all the way through, the BBC made a point of making sure we all heard from the people.

We made a point of trying to get away from the campaign to cover the choice: the 6 and 10 did a series on big issues, from airports to defence spending to social care, that weren’t getting much play in the campaign; Newsnight interrogated the future of the NHS; Andrew Neil’s series of Daily Politics debates analysed policy, department by department over two weeks; and, online, from Reality Check to constituency profiles, we scrutinised the detail. And, we broke stories, from David Cameron’s revelation in his kitchen that he would only serve two terms to Ed Miliband’s accidental revelation that he only had two kitchens.

Being involved in a general election at the BBC is one of the highlights of my professional life. I and many millions of people across the country and around the world will remember the night of May 7th 2015 for years to come. I feel grateful to have had the chance to be a part of it. And, it doesn’t stop. Already, we are looking ahead at a busy political roadmap: the Holyrood elections in 2016, the referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017. I expect it’s going to be fun., http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/speeches/2015/james-harding-speech-vlv-2-june-2015

 

Photo by Stuart Pinfold

Al Murray campaign in Thanet against Farage ‘backed by BBC’

Al Murray campaign in Thanet against Farage ‘backed by BBC’

Al Murray, the pub landlord, clearly wanted – to put it politely – to pour cold ale all over Nigel Farage’s South Thanet campaign when he decided back in January to stand against him.

His boast was that the country needed a leader who could wave a pint around and invent common sense solutions. Some of it was good old-fashioned humour. But there is no doubt that some of what he claimed in newspaper interviews was designed deliberately to mock Ukip immigration policies and the right-wing perspective. Why else would he choose an upside down £ sign as his party logo?

So what’s the problem? Well the company who made a television programme about his campaign that went out on election night was Avalon Entertainment.  They claimed they had made a fly-on-the-wall programme about his campaign.

Scratch the surface and problems begin to emerge. First is that on the official return for the real-life campaign that Murray waged, he is listed as ‘party leader’. But his campaign officer was Tris Cotterill, who is Avalon’s ‘head of digital’ and his ‘treasurer’ was Chris Scott – Avalon’s head of marketing.   Avalon are also Murray’s showbiz agents, so on this basis, this looks less like a real campaign and more like a programme-making stunt.

Unbelievably, perhaps, the Election Commission gave the party official recognition. Did they really know what they were doing?

It gets even murkier. The programme was actually commissioned by UKTV, which owns a clutch of television channels on Freeview.  It went out on their entertainment channel, the improbably named Dave. And guess who owns UKTV? Well the 50 per cent  shareholder – maybe you’ve guessed it – is the BBC, through its wholly-owned commercial subsidiary BBC Worldwide.

So put another way. The BBC commissioned a programme that centred on what was projected as a ‘real’ political campaign.  Except that it was not. It was arguably instead a publicity stunt dreamed up by Avalon.  And a main purpose was to undermine and heap odium on the Farage campaign in a highly-contested and deadly serious political process.

In the event, Murray attracted only 300 votes, far less than Farage’s margin of defeat. But there’s no way of telling how much damage this jolly jape inflicted on the real political process that was going on in Thanet and had central importance  in the General Election.

There is abundant evidence that Avalon worked flat out to court as much publicity as they could for their campaign wheeze in both the traditional and social network media.  Murray had enough clout (as the Avalon programme shows) to draw the full political press pack down to Thanet for at least two major photo-calls.  And company ‘reporters’ interviewed real people about their voting intentions. The point is that it was not clearly a spoof.

In reality, it blurred the lines of choice in a crucial election seat. And funding was from the bloated coffers of one of the country’s most successful independent production companies who, in turn, were financed by BBC cash.  This gave the campaign Murray considerable fire power beyond what normal candidates can afford. Some would argue this is precisely what electoral law is there to prevent.

It defies belief that any part of the the BBC (even if it was indirectly)  commissioned such a programme. Effectively, they gave Murray a PR platform to ridicule the Farage campaign. The results can be seen on the BBC website.

The main programme did not go out until after the polling booths had closed but the damage was done by the pre-programme publicity, which was clearly a major thrust of the Avalon team’s activities.

The BBC has been under fire for its anti-Ukip stance for many years. How could they sanction such a stunt? Did they make equivalent programmes about the SNP or Labour? Maybe not.

Kathy  Gyngell: In the BBC’s Alice in Wonderland world, criticism by MPs compromises its impartiality

Kathy Gyngell: In the BBC’s Alice in Wonderland world, criticism by MPs compromises its impartiality

Biased Today, biased yesterday and biased tomorrow,  the BBC  has much to answer for over its uncritical and inadequate EU coverage.

More than any other news outlet the BBC shapes and moulds public opinion. Over the years, it has inspired an unwarranted public confidence in the EU. It has been responsible for conveying a sense of the inevitability and necessity of British membership

Had it not so determinedly stuck to its view that the EU was ‘a good thing’,  a fact of life that anyone in their right mind should accept,  Britain might not be in the mess it’s in today.  We might not have uncontrolled immigration; we might be able to deport who we want when we want; and we might still have a vibrant fishing industry. That’s just three of the many areas over which we have lost national authority at great cost.

The  House of Commons all-party EU Scrutiny Committee’s report, published yesterday, which accuses  the BBC of ‘falling down severely’ in its obligation to provide impartial coverage of the EU, raises these questions.

Its findings confirm what many of us have been arguing for years – that BBC coverage of EU matters is deplorable, that it has a ‘concerning’ pro-EU bias, and that Eurosceptics have been given inadequate airtime.  Specifically the MPs criticise Lord Hall for failing in his role as the BBC’s editor-in chief .

All this rings a profound bell with me, just as does the arrogance of the BBC’s response.  The crux of it is that the BBC cannot be criticised because (in their perverse world) any criticism by MPs (however valid it may be) constitutes a breach of the Corporation’s independence. It can’t be seen to follow MPs criticism – no, not even if it is right.

I wonder which Propaganda (sorry Press) Officer there dreamed this excuse up as he pondered the embargoed document before publication? I know that nothing should surprise me but I am amazed that Lord Hall signed off such a response for release. Perhaps for this particular editor-in-chief,  intent and belief are adequate substitutes for whatever is actually broadcast.  During his appearance before the Committee, his claim that the desire for balanced output “ran deep” within the BBC and that he believed that this was being achieved now, sounded like weasel words.  It isn’t being achieved.

This is far from the first time that the BBC has stonewalled criticism about its EU coverage.  I have in my files copies of an ongoing correspondence with Helen Boaden, the then Controller of Radio Four, back in the early 2000s. Like today’s BBC spokesperson, her response that the Corporation provided extensive and impartial coverage of European and Parliamentary issues was (or should be, she thought) sufficient unto the day.

Boaden refused to consider the consistently logged, timed, comprehensive transcript evidence and analysis,  that we (Minotaur Media Tracking) sent her, as evidence.  In her thinking no external monitoring of BBC output could or would ever constitute evidence – however objective or impartial – because the BBC editorial process meant that the BBC was always impartial – and therefore above criticism. It’s surprising to find she has a degree in English literature;  the concept of tautology could not have featured in her studies.

Despite Lord Wilson’s subsequent critical report, despite the cumulative log of evidence of BBC bias by News-watch, despite the fact that this is far from the first time that the BBC has been called to account, the BBC never wavers in it pre-programmed ‘Boaden’-style response. It refuses to harbour any self doubt – not a smidgeon.

Lord Hall has taken a leaf out of Ms Boaden’s book. “As Lord Hall told the committee, we are and will be impartial in all matters concerning our coverage,” the BBC spokesman said.

James Harding, the BBC’s Director of News and `Current Affairs, was not backward in going on the offensive either. His ‘Aunt Sally’ was that if the public was going to trust the BBC to report on politicians impartially it had to be clear that BBC journalists weren’t “asked by politicians to come and account for what they do and in effect do the bidding of those politicians”.

True to form the Today programme thought there was nothing to defend either.

In its own inimitable way yesterday morning’s edition of Today devoted 8 minutes to a Mark Knopfler record plug but nothing to the EU Scutiny Committee’s report that just happened to criticise the BBC on a subject of fundamental importance to every British citizen!

This article first appeared on The Conservative Woman

Photo by John Christian Fjellestad