EU Referendum Blog

Referendum Blog: April 21

Referendum Blog: April 21

BUCK-PASSING? Nick Robinson’s second programme in his series Europe: Them or Us? highlighted numerous deep-rooted issues of BBC bias.  In summary, he said he was presenting a history of the UK’s relationship with ‘Europe’ but in reality, he started from within a narrow area of the Westminster bubble and did not progress outside. He assembled a one dimensional progression from Macmillan to Wilson, from Callaghan to Thatcher, and from Major to Blair; nearly everything within his picture was simplistically binary: Heath taking the UK in against old-fashioned resistance from Labour  party diehards; Wilson combining with Thatcher to stay in; Thatcher fighting for money back – and ultimately Geoffrey Howe – after she realised too late that the Single European Act had been a trap towards integration; Major fighting his own party ‘bastards’, and Blair getting it wrong about the euro.

More of this later, but first (h/t Craig Byers) the second programme contained one huge distortion comparable to Robinson’s claim in the first, that Winston Churchill was the ‘father of European unity’. It was a jaw-dropping piece of buck passing. He asserted that it was the Blair government, not the EU itself (through the free movement directive) that was responsible, for the influx of nearly 2m EU citizens to the UK after 2004. Of course there was limited space in the programme and it covered nearly 70 years of EU-related developments.  But that does not excuse such inaccuracy.

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Referendum Blog: April 20

Referendum Blog: April 20

OSBORNE BIAS?  News-watch has already noted that the marathon BBC coverage of George Osborne’s remain ‘Exocet‘ on Monday led the senior political reporting team  to make claims that the ‘leave’ side did not have satisfactory documents to produce in response, and also that the weight of establishment opinion was strongly against exit. Political editor Laura Kuenssberg and her deputy Norman Smith thus entered the controversial domain of offering strong opinions about key matters relating to the EU referendum. No doubt BBC more senior news executives would defend their comments on the ground that such correspondents are entitled to exercise, and indeed are paid to do so, their professional opinions in the area of their specific expertise. However, that raises further important issues.  If the claims of one side of the referendum debate are to be subjected to such examination, is the same happening with the other? Relevant is that it was reported as part of the Osborne ‘Exocet’ that the Conservative high command is still insisting that they can talk with confidence about how Britain will perform in a ‘reformed EU’, and predict the economic future on that basis.  But are the EU ‘reforms’ secured by David Cameron actually binding? The BBC has said from the beginning that they are, but there are numerous claims that they are not, most recently from the Vice-President of the European Parliament. It seems that there is a tougher level of scrutiny from Kuenssberg for the ‘out’ camp and another for ‘remain’.  Another point here is that the ‘in’ side are being judged to be the more credible – there has been no obvious effort to look at what is likely to happen to the EU, if, after UK exit, there is a scramble by other countries also to leave.

LABOUR ‘HANDS OFF THE BBC’:  What is it about so-called social ‘progressives’ that they think that any change in the BBC – as the debate continues about Charter renewal – is going to result in a slide into deteriorating standards and even collapse? Angela Eagle, the Labour party’s shadow secretary for culture, has made a keynote speech in which she has laid out in detail for the first time the Corbyn regime’s thinking about media policy. Her principal message to the government, despite the huge changes and challenges facing media companies is ‘lay off the BBC – any intervention is bullying’.  Her core points were:

  • Culture secretary John Whittingdale should not interfere at all in the BBC, especially over the EU referendum coverage or in matters of how programme budgets should be spent
  • no changes in the licence fee
  • no changes to the BBC’s commercial operations, including the possible sale of its stake in UKTV
  • No ‘top slicing’ of the BBC licence so that other broadcasters could benefit from a ‘public service fund’.
  • The BBC should remain at the heart of a complex state media patronage system in which it hands out cash to ‘independent’ producers
  • Only minor changes in BBC regulation, and strong doubt about the ability of Ofcom to become future regulator (as was proposed by the Clementi report). Further, he government should not be involved in any way in the appointment process of a future regulatory body or management board.

This was a facile, lazy speech which suggests that Labour’s only concern is to maintain the BBC’s dominance and the media status quo, along with the continuation of its funding by the licence fee, despite it being least affordable by the poor. The suspicion must be that Eagle and her colleagues do not want change because they know that editorially, the Corporation favours Labour values, and has been for years favouring its agenda – pro-EU, human rights (with all that loaded phrase entail in left-wing politics), multiculturalism, climate alarmism…and so on. Eagle’s only real reservation about the BBC’s current state of health is that it is not diverse enough. And she reserved her loudest cheer for Channel 4 (which she also says must not change) for its ‘360 degree diversity charter’ – a document that could serve as The Bible of the diversity industry.

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Referendum Blog: April 15

Referendum Blog: April 15

BBC1 MAIN BULLETIN BIAS?: Gavin Hewitt, another former BBC ’Europe’ editor (he succeeded Mark Mardell in the role),  popped up on the BBC1 News at Ten this week to look at the trade deal recently struck by Canada with the EU. This, of course, has been used by the ‘remain’ side as a warning of the problems of ‘exit’ because of the length of time it took to negotiate. Hewitt pointed out as a main point in his commentary that the new arrangements would eventually lead to an estimated £6 billion a year in saved tariff charges and increased trade. But he also said that ‘it was not the same as full access to the single market’;   that ‘no one pretends that this trade deal will give Canada the same kind of access to the European single market as an EU member state has.’; and that, ‘…The deal has been seven years in the making and it has still not been ratified.’  He thus outlined that such deals could be reached, but stressed they were both very slow to achieve and then were not  (not his words but implied) as good as membership of the EU.  The issue here is this was an isolated item and it stressed therefore disproportionately the problems that Brexit would entail.

In fact, there’s been surprisingly little about the referendum on BBC1’s flagship bulletin.  In the four weeks from March 14,  there were only three feature-length  sequences specifically about the referendum – one (24/3)  hinged on a claim by Vote Leave group that more than 250  business leaders supported exit, linked with a warning from health secretary Jeremy Hunt that Brexit would seriously damage the NHS;  the second (30/3), featured former cabinet secretary  Lord O’Donnell, who said that leaving the EU would take much longer than the two years that treaty provisions   indicated, and would be fraught with further difficulties;  and the third (6/4), focused on the decision by the government to spend £9m on a mail-out to 27 million households putting the government’s (negative) perspective about the impact of Brexit and in favour of continued membership of the EU.   Other shorter coverage of EU referendum-related issues has included splits within the Conservative party over the poll (14/3, 15/3, 16/3, 18/3 and 19/3); and a warning by the Bank of England that the referendum posed a major threat to financial stability. The EU was also mentioned in relation to the troubles facing Tata’s steel-making operations in the UK, and in the aftermath of the Brussels airport terrorist attack. A major theme of this was calls by the EU for greater powers to deal with terrorism. News-watch has found in its continuing research that bias by omission is recurring problem in BBC EU coverage because audiences are not kept properly informed.  This low level of coverage has thus emerged as an important issue. In addition the item by Gavin Hewitt, combined with the main items noted above suggests that difficulties of exit are tending to attract more coverage, and there is a continued significant focus on Conservative party splits.

This is the transcript of the Gavin Hewitt feature:

Transcript of BBC1 ‘News at Ten’ 14th April 2016, Canada and the EU, 10.20pm

HUW EDWARDS:             One of the main claims made by members of the Leave campaign, including Boris Johnson, is that Britain could negotiate its own trade agreement with the EU if there was a vote to Leave. The example frequently mentioned is the deal struck by the Canadians, so our chief correspondent Gavin Hewitt has been to Canada to see how it’s worked out.

GAVIN HEWITT:              The fast flowing Saint Lawrence Seaway, one of Canada’s trading arteries with Northern Europe. Some have cited Canada as a model for how the UK could continue to do business with the EU if it left the European Union. At the port of Montreal, a container ship turns, destination Europe. Canada has just negotiated a trade deal with Europe. For the EU, this is the largest trade agreement with a single country. Both Canada and the EU make big claims for it.

SERGE AUCLAIR:              In our case, we are looking at around roughly a 4% increase in tonnage in the next five years.

GH:        The deal is expected to remove 98% of tariffs from everything, from cars to minerals to shrimp. But move to the capital, Ottawa, for a sense of how difficult this has been. The deal has been seven years in the making and it has still not been ratified. For the Canadian government, it will eventually be worth £6 billion per year. But it’s not the same as full access to the European single market.

CHRYSTIA FREELAND Canadian Minister for International Trade: This is a really big deal. It is a really deep deal. It is a really high quality, gold-plated trade deal. When I look at what Canada will have in terms of its ability to trade with Europe, compared to being a member of the EU, the really big difference is regulatory harmonisation. What it means for Canadian businesses is they have to, quite rightly, meet European regulatory standards without having a say in how those standards are written.

GH:        No one pretends that this trade deal will give Canada the same kind of access to the European single market as an EU member state has. Even so, this deal is hugely important to Canada. But after over seven years of negotiations, and a document running to 1400 pages, there are still issues about regulation that will have to be tackled in the future. Take the car market. Yes, more vehicles will be traded, and gradually trade will become duty-free. But significant issues remain over regulations and technical standards.

MARK NANTIS Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers Association When you consider all market access, we are talking about not just automobiles but all sectors of our respective economies, and that is a long, complicated process.

GH:        Take farming, like this small farm in Paris, Ontario. Yes, around 60,000 tonnes of beef will now be able to be exported to Europe, duty-free. But much has yet to be agreed, including meat inspection rules. When all is eventually signed, Canada won’t have to contribute to the EU budget or sign up to freedom of movement and will be able to do trade deals wherever it wants. Yes, Canada now has a big deal with Europe, with many barriers lifted but in some key areas, including financial services, restrictions remain. Gavin Hewitt, BBC News, Toronto.




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Referendum Blog: April 14

Referendum Blog: April 14

LAW-BREAKING?: The third of World at One’s ‘details of how the European Union’s organised’ by Professor Anand Menon was broadcast on Wednesday, and focused on EU law, which he said was the ‘glue that holds the EU together’. Menon described how in 1964, the EU decided that its laws ‘had to be supreme’ because otherwise there would be chaos caused by different countries interpreting it differently. He claimed such law ‘had to be superior’ to that of individual nations – and suggested that this was not a problem because individuals and organisations could argue their cases at the European Courts of Justice, and countries could vote to leave the EU if they did not like the set-up. He concluded by observing that was strange that people did not understand the difference between the European Court of Justice (which administered EU law) and the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled on matters arising from the EU’s Convention on Human Rights. Menon said this was a ’separate document in the treaties’. Overall, this was yet another whitewash from a figure who – it has emerged during his three talks thus far – is totally uncritical about the EU or its operations. There is not even a flicker of acknowledgement to that Eurosceptics believe that the EU has subverted the law-making process to such an extent that it is undermining national sovereignty, and that the supremacy of EU law is a continual threat to the UK and its citizens. As the series unfolds, this is adding up to straightforward pro-EU bias – with Martha Kearney giving the daily impression that what is on offer is somehow objective. It blatantly is not. 

THEM OR US?: Nick Robinson’s two-part series  Europe: Them or Us, first broadcast on Tuesday night, started off on wrong and biased footings. A major part of the programme was archive footage from the BBC’s 1996 series on the EU The Poisoned Chalice. There was thus an impressive array of contributors, many long dead and clearly from a different age, such as Conservative Europhile (and imperialist) Julian Amery and former Labour minister and Eurosceptic Douglas Jay (both of whom died soon after the 1996 programme was made). The overall goal was to explain  how the UK first resisted, and then became desperate to join the fledgling framework that became the European Union at the Treaty of Maastricht.

A major problem with the first episode, however, was its start point. Nick Robinson took us first to the Second World War and the main thrust was that Winston Churchill and other European leaders began contemplating the concept of a ‘united Europe’  in reaction to the horrors of war order to prevent future wars; to tame the worst excesses of rampant nationalism. He thus pushed  strongly as a central pillar of the presentation, the claim by the EU itself and its supporters that the EU has kept the peace; without it, we would descend again into the pits of internecine strife. Many Eurosceptics, of course, take a very different view, and counter-claim that this is a carefully constructed pro-EU myth. Cabinet minister Chris Grayling, made points on those lines when he appeared in the Newsnight referendum special on Monday night. This blistering article on the Cambridge University ‘Research’ website by lecturer in politics Chris Bickerton explains why. He states:

‘It may seem crazy to suggest that the EU is not a peace project. This is, after all, its founding narrative. But history suggests otherwise for two reasons. One is that in the late 1940s and 1950s there were many more powerful forces leading to peace in Europe. The shift from warfare to welfare states, made possible by the class compromise put in place after World War II, was crucial. European cooperation was really just an extension of that deeper change in European societies.

‘Another reason is that the EU of today has little to do with European cooperation in the 1950s. Today’s EU has more recent roots. The Coal and Steel Community was a cartel intended to make European steel production more competitive and give the French access to West German coal. This initiative was quickly overcome by the economic success that raised demand for coal and steel. By 1957, it was quietly folded into the Treaty of Rome. The aim of the Treaty of Rome was to soften the effects of economic success. Growing economies push up wages and prices, which makes imports cheaper and leads to repeated balance of payments problems. Look at Britain’s Stop-Go economic experience of the 1950s and 1960s. A common external tariff, which raised the prices of imports, was Western Europe’s answer to this problem.

‘Today’s EU has its roots in economic crisis, not in economic success. Its history takes us back to the 1970s and the end of the post-war consensus. Governments sought many ways to exit this crisis and eventually settled on European market integration (the Single European Act) plus fiscal consolidation through more robust external rules (the Maastricht Treaty). This takes us to the EU and the euro of today.’

That’s a long extract,  but it explains exactly why Nick Robinson’s emphasis was so wrong and created, in effect, an immediate pro-EU narrative. Why would the UK not have wanted to be part of a new initiative which had a fundamental goal of keeping the peace?  The reality is that this was not in the equation in the 1940s at all, despite the impression  given. Robinson also did not mention at all that the drive towards the EU began in the 1920s and 1930s and was based on a combination of socialist-tinged Utopianism, federalism, and a concomitant drive to emasculate nation states. One of the main theoretical bases of this idealism was a paper written in 1931 by Arthur Salter, a British civil servant, called The United States of Europe . He envisaged – on the basis of how the League of Nations operated –  a ‘secretariat, a council of ministers, an assembly and a court’. Crucially, the secretariat would be an international body of civil servants to which nation states would be subservient – countries and national governments would be reduced to the role of municipal authorities. The route towards establishing this framework would be a common market,  based on how Germany had been united in the 19th century.  Salter thus laid down the blueprint for the EU and what has unfolded since then through the Treaty of Rome and beyond is in many respects a fulfilment of his core ideas.

Robinson chose to ignore  – or was he unware of? – this vital part of EU history and instead pushed the Europe Union equals peace EU propaganda message. As such, the series began on rotten foundations. Little that followed in part 1 redeemed this.  It amounted, in one sense at least,  to pro-EU bias.

Both Tuesday’s offering and the 1996 Poisoned Chalice series were produced by John Bridcut, who was also responsible for the 2007 BBC Trustees’ report on impartiality ‘From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel’. This became the basis for the BBC’s crazy  definition of ‘due impartiality’, under which BBC editors and producers can put their own stamp on any item in fields such as  the coverage  of the EU and climate change. It seems that Bridcut’s eyes, under such ‘due impartiality’, the part of EU ideology, history and conduct that Eurosceptics believe is fundamentally anti-democratic and centralist can be ignored.

BBC bias in this respect is particularly pernicious. The EU project is highly complex and its supporters have refined their defence of it over many years of PR effort. It is especially hard to quarrel with what it says is the reason for its foundation and its raison d’etre: keeping the peace. During the referendum campaign BBC journalism and programme-making should be fearless and ruthless  in subjecting such claims to the highest possible scrutiny.  They are not achieving this.

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Referendum Blog: April 13

Referendum Blog: April 13

SINGLE MARKET BENEFITS BIAS: The second of World at One’s reports about how the EU operates was on Tuesday and focused on the EU budget.  It was again presented by Professor Anand Menon, of King’s College, London, who, as pointed out yesterday, appears to be strongly pro-EU in his outlook. His approach was first to emphasise that,  at around €9.8 billion,  after rebates and income spent on the UK by the EU, the UK contribution was only a very small part of overall UK public spending of €800 billion a year. He then asserted that ‘you always need to remember’  that the economics of the EU ‘isn’t just about what we give it in terms of our contribution’ but should be viewed in terms of what the single market has brought to the UK.  He then added that ‘most economists’  believed that the gains made by being a member of the single market ‘dwarf’ the amounts paid into the budget. His primary analysis was thus that the UK paid relatively little for membership, and the cost was far outweighed by the benefits of the single market.  He conceded that ‘others’ thought the benefits of the single market were offset by the fact that ‘EU regulation costs us money’. But overall the thrust of his argument k was that any concern about the EU budget was largely misplaced; what counted were the incalculable benefits of the single market. Other analysts strongly disagree with Menon’s analysis. Michael Burrage, for example, in a paper for Civitas  published in January, states in a searing critique of the alleged benefits of the single market, stated (p4 executive summary):

‘Thus the UK’s exports have grown and benefited least during the Single Market, while those of non-member OECD countries have grown and benefited most…There is no evidence that the Single Market programme has helped the exports of the UK or other founder member countries to other OECD countries.’

Menon’s analysis can thus be seen to be strongly pro-EU; he has pushed its benefits and glossed over the work of those who have a very different opinion. At the same time, he has not mentioned at all controversy about EU accounting, which has been a recurrent issue in other quarters for more than a decade.

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Referendum Blog: April 12

Referendum Blog: April 12

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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Referendum Blog: April 11

Referendum Blog: April 11

MARDELL BIAS?:  Mark Mardell is the former ‘Europe’ editor of the BBC and thus has a special knowledge of EU affairs. News-watch research has established, however, that in the past – like so many at the BBC –  he has been unduly scathing of Ukip and the case for withdrawal, emphasising in one report claims that supporters of exit were the ‘BNP in blazers’, despite their electoral success.  After a stint working in the United States, he has now returned as regular presenter of R4’s The World This Weekend. His programme has been covering the EU referendum particularly closely –  most editions since January 24 have carried features about it, some of them taking up the bulk of the running time. On that basis, News-watch is carrying out a detailed assessment for impartiality, covering editions from January 24.

Meanwhile, an analysis so far has shown that at least one edition (7/2)  has already been definitely biased towards the EU, on the following grounds expressed in a letter of complaint to the BBC:

‘This was a seriously unbalanced item that explored whether David Cameron’s reform package would be accepted by Portugal.  It was followed by questions to two leading figures on the two sides of the EU referendum debate. The sequence inexplicably gave more than double the time to the pro-EU case. Overall, Mark Mardell’s editing presented a one-sided view of the Portuguese attitudes to EU reform. Further, the pro-EU commentator, Sir Mike Rake, the former president of the CBI – whose background as a pro-EU campaigner was not properly identified to listeners – had the time and framework to advance a reasoned case that it was vital that the UK should stay in a reformed EU and that the reform package was in Britain’s interests.  Richard Tice, of Leave.EU was afforded much less time (three minutes compared with eight minutes) to outline why he disagreed, and he was pushed by Mr Mardell’s questions into a narrower and more negative framework.’

The most recent edition this Sunday (10/4) was also seriously out of kilter. Mardell reported from Lake Como in Italy from a meeting about the world economy – with mentions of the possible impact of Brexit – arranged by think-tank The European House – Ambrosetti.   This provides what it calls ‘high level’ papers about economic issues. This example about a ‘multispeed Europe’ makes it plain that it believes that national differences are a problem because they hinder steps towards ‘full integration’.  Rather predictably, therefore, TWTW featured initially a stream of pro-EU guests. First off the blocks was Jason Furman, chairman of President Obama’s council of economic advisers, who said that the European Union had been a success and that exit would be an unnecessary risk.  Yo Yongding, said to be an economic advisor to the Chinese government, declared that he was confident that the British people would not be so ‘stupid’ as to want to leave the EU because the benefits of being a member were so obvious. Jens Spahn, the German State Secretary for finance, warned that if the UK did leave, ‘punishment’ would not be the right word, but the UK would not be able to ‘pick just the good things’.

Pride of place was given to ‘one of the main speakers’ from the Ambrosetti event, Elizabeth Corley, former chief executive and currently vice-president of Allianz Global Investors, a fund said to be worth £355 billion.  Ms Corley did not mince her words. She warned there was no possibility of an amicable divorce; that exit would force the EU from its main task of ‘creating jobs, creating growth, creating opportunities for its citizens’. She fleshed out in detail her reasons in a four-minute exchange with Mardell in which she delivered 700 words in response to just four questions, and also warned that exit would have short and long-term negative impacts on every aspect of the UK economy.

Thus the first part of the programme sequence focused entirely on the anti-Brexit arguments. Next up was John Mills, described as ‘deputy chair of Vote Leave and founder of home shopping business JML’.  Mardell’s tone and approach changed abruptly. With the Abrosetti guests, he had asked straightforward, non-adversarial questions; now he was much tougher. He asked Mills first what his response was to the argument that big business would have to think ‘many times’ before investing in the UK if there was an exit; why he thought people were making up scare stories; that huge companies disputed his arguments that the UK would not create problems for itself; that Elizabeth Corley had noted from her extensive contacts that politicians and business people in ‘Europe’ would not facilitate a friendly divorce; that the German finance minister had warned that the UK could not pick the best benefits of EU membership and discard the rest; that the French government was worried about the rise of the Front National, and did not want to send the signal that leaving the EU was easy (so there would be resistance); and that the Obama adviser and the Chinese economist had warned that a British exit would be bad for the world economy.

Mills had the opportunity to answer each of the points and did so. He rebutted as ‘scare stories’ the idea of negative economic consequences, pointed to the EU’s essential lack of democracy as the reason it was resisting changes, that the perspective being by offered was that of big companies which benefitted disproportionately from EU membership; and that negotiating a trade agreement would be negotiated.   His contribution amounted to 885 words in a five-minute sequence totalling 1176 words and eight questions.

The point here is not that Mills was prevented from answering some of the key anti-Brexit points – he was not, and indeed, he gave eloquent responses to several of them. Of concern are several other issues. First was the set up itself. The Ambrosetti event was clearly a framework for a variety of leading political economic and political figures to express pro-EU points in a strongly pro-EU setting and to warn of the dangers of a ‘leap in the dark’ exit.  Mardell structured their edited contributions in such a way to give the impression of the wide array of opinion against Brexit – from China, from the US, from within the EU itself and from a huge global investment funds that had potential influence over British economic performance. He also assembled a very formidable cast and, through them, a strong array of their pro-EU arguments.   They were introduced as, and came across as, commentators of authority. By contrast, the pro-exit camp was articulated by only one man who was introduced only as a founder of a mail order company. The interview was live (or projected as if live) and Mardell was much more adversarial in tone. Craig Byers, of the Is the BBC Biased?  website observed:

‘If you listen to it you’ll hear Mark Mardell adopting a doubting tone of voice and firing complicated question after complicated question at Mr Mills (and interrupting him), and using point after point from his authoritative high flyers. Now, the answers from Mr Mills haven’t stuck in my head the way Mark Mardell’s questions and the earlier (anti-Brexit) contributions have stuck in my head. (Is that just me? Or would it have been most Radio 4 listeners’ experience?) ‘

The key point here is that editors of radio programmes have tremendous power in orchestrating how contributions sound.  It’s not enough to put counter-opinion on; it will be swamped if the setting is unequal. Here, unquestionably, it was.  A presenter/journalist of Mark Mardell’s experience should do better.

This is the transcript:


Transcript of BBC Radio 4, The World this Weekend, 10 April 2016, EU Referendum, 1.11pm

MARK MARDELL:             The possibility that the UK could leave the European Union was the subject of some debate at a conference on the global economy at Lake Como organised by the private Italian’s think tank Ambrosetti House. Speakers set out a range of potential threats to stability – from a Chinese hard landing to terrorist attacks; from migration to Japanese public debt – but every list included Brexit, and not in a good way Jason Furman is chairman of President Obama’s Council of economic advisers.

JASON FURNMAN:          The European Union has been very successful in creating an area in which the free flow of goods and labour has contributed to the growing prosperity in Europe and Leave is extremely uncertain terms of what it actually means, and the amount of time and energy and uncertainty that would go into that rather than focused on what we can do to improve the European Union to work together to improve all of our economies would be an unnecessary risk to take.

MM:      That’s the view from the White House and the world’s largest economy. What about the second largest? Yu Yongding is a senior economist who has numerous posts advising the Chinese government.

YU YONGDING: No-one really gave very serious consideration about this, because of don’t believe it (sic).  They think this political struggle or whatever, I don’t think really British people will so stupid (sic) to vote for leaving EU.

MM:      But as an economist, if it did happen what, would there be any economic impact?

YY:         I think it’s not favourable towards UK, because you have benefited greatly from this kind of union.  For example, free travelling, er lowering investment costs and so on and so forth, so I think you have benefited greatly.  On the whole you should stay.

MM:      What if we did leave?  Here’s the view of Europe’s biggest economy from the German State Secretary for Finance, Jens Spahn.

JENS SPAHN:      Is the difference if you’re a member of the family or if you are just a neighbour.  Erm, and so there will be a deal of course and somehow we will arrange it but I’m not too sure everyone in Europe would really want to give them a big share again then.

MM:      You think that almost Britain would be punished?

JS:          Punishment wouldn’t be the right word.  But as I said, if you decide to leave, you just can’t pick the best things to remain for yourself and get rid of the rest.  It’s a package you get, when you are a member of the European Union, and by leaving you just can’t keep the good things.

MM:      One of the main speakers at the conference was Elizabeth Corley, until last month CEO of Allianz Global investors, now vice president of that company which operates in 18 countries and manage funds of £355 billion. I asked her what she thought leaving the EU might mean.

ELIZABETH CORLEY:        I spend a lot of time in Europe talking with policymakers, regulators some government officials and, and companies. There is no mood for an amicable divorce, if this marriage is severed, for lots of reasons: one it just isn’t possible to do this amicably,  you’re negotiating a trade agreement; secondly it will divert Europe from what its primary focus is at the moment, which is creating jobs, creating growth, creating opportunities for its citizens. It will divert an enormous amount of energy into a negotiation which isn’t going to add any value.  And thirdly I think there would be a risk that if it looked too easy then there might the other referenda in other parts of Europe, so there’s no incentive at all for anybody in Europe to make this easy.

MM:      Is that your political view, which of course you’re absolutely entitled to have, or is it your sort of analysis, as . . .

EC:         It’s a view based on, if you like, exposure to people in Europe, and running a global business and thinking about these things, thinking about opportunities that come from cross border business. So I’m always thinking about, is it easy or difficult to do business cross-border.  And one of the things that makes it much, much, much easier is if you’ve got a trade agreement.  It’s cheaper and it’s easier and I suppose the other thing is, thinking about the economic consequences – there’s a lot of economic research out there,  we’re in the financial markets and there’s no doubt at all in the minds of my economics team and most of the economics out there, that this is damaging economically.  Now, economics is only one reason for the vote, but it’s such a big negative that it can’t be ignored. My concern is that if we talk about GDP growth and economics and the world, it means nothing at all to somebody who says, ‘but I worry about can I get my child into school?’ You know, I’m a grandmother, my little granddaughter is about to try and find a school place, I care about her, I care about my daughter and my husband’s jobs, my brother and sister are self-employed small business people, critically depend on the level of demand. So for me it’s the opposite of political, it’s personal, its corporate and it’s economic.

MM:      What do you think it would mean for the way you and your company do business?

EC:         We have, at the moment, freedom to hire talent wherever we find it in the world, and particularly wherever we find it in Europe.  So, for example, if we find somebody Brilliant in the United Kingdom that we want to hire and create jobs and invest in the UK, we would have to think, not just once but many, many times as to whether we’d continue to do that. So in the medium term and long term it would definitely have an impact on where we invest, where we hire people, the number of jobs we create, the research and development we do, how we create new products. I’m afraid it would have a big impact long-term. And I think that’s also reflected in the, in the survey that the CBI did, and also the work that PwC did for them, which is talking about, if you like, the most favourable option, which is a quick, friendly divorce, and we get a European free trade agreement.  And even under that, the work that PwC economists have done for the CBI says by 2020 our global domestic product will be down 3%.

MM:      If that is the case, and people know it’s a possibility, wouldn’t investment already be being affected?

EC:         It is. It is be affected. And you also . . . this is a general problem that came out for the world by the way, there is already a reluctance on behalf of corporates to invest medium and long-term, because they’re worried about . . .

MM:      In Britain.

EC:         Globally.  Already a concern about investing globally because of the weak demand and the consumers aren’t buying as much as they used to, governments aren’t spending as much as they used to, companies are not spending as much as they used to. Therefore every single country is fighting hard and competing to get whatever investment there is in their countries.  We would be at a significant competitive disadvantage if we’re no longer the gateway into Europe for English speaking countries.  And therefore we would be competing with one hand behind our back for that foreign direct investment.

MM:      Elizabeth Corley of Allianz GI.  So we’ve heard a range of concerns about what leaving the EU would mean, so with me now John Mills, founder of home shopping business JML and deputy chair of Vote Leave, good afternoon.

JOHN MILLS:      And to you.

MM:      And what do you make of that, the argument that they, this big company, would have to think not once but many times about investing in the UK if we left?

JM:        Well, this sounds very much to me like what we had 10 or 15 years ago over the euro, when we were told by all these sorts of people that investment would dry up, that the economy would do worse and worse, that The City would collapse, and it just didn’t happen.  And I think a great deal of what has just been said is sort of scare stories which won’t be the outcome if there is a Brexit.

MM:      Why do you think they’re scare stories, and why do you think people are making those arguments?

JM:        Well, I think that large companies do have some benefits to secure from the European Union, because it’s easy for them to lobby Brussels and to get special advantages for themselves, it’s the smaller companies that are more fleet of foot, who are keener on Brexit, and business is very divided on it, erm, and it simply isn’t the case that there is a massive majority amongst all businesses for staying in. That’s very far from being the case.

MM:      Well, obviously, small business is important, but you have this huge company arguing it would mean a significant competitive disadvantage for Britain.

JM:        But I mean, I’m really not terribly clear where this competitive disadvantage is going to come from, because it seems to me to be extremely likely that there’s going to be some kind of free trade deal between Britain and the rest of the EU if we do come out.  In which case most of the conditions which Allianz and other people operate in will stay the same. I  just don’t believe there’s going to be a massive disruption, a massive change in the way everybody behaves as a result of Brexit, because I think that actually from a commercial point of view there won’t be much change in the conditions that everybody has to operate in.

MM:      Of course, Elizabeth Corley was making that point as well, she says she talks lots of business people and lots of politicians in Europe and she’s certain there would not be a friendly divorce.

JM:        Well, I don’t see how she can be certain, I mean, it seems to me there are a whole range of things where we just really don’t know what the situation’s going to be, one way or the other.  And for the people who are keen on remaining, always to assume the worst, to talk Britain down, to assume that the conditions are going to be more and more difficult, it’s just not a really . . . a realistic scenario, I think that it’s much more likely that very little will change in the commercial a sphere as a result of our coming out of the European Union, it may be easier for us to get trade agreements with other countries abroad, and I think it may well be that the economy would be a bit bigger if we do come out.  But I mean, I think the scare stories that we’ve heard of 9% reductions in GDP, and 3 million jobs being dependent on us being involved with Europe are just really scare stories.

MM:      But you’re talking about, the sort of deal that we’d have, you say it would be a good deal, but then we also heard the German finance minister saying it’s different being a family member to being just a neighbour, we wouldn’t want to give us (sic) a big share, you can’t pick the best, it’s a package, you can’t keep just the good things.

JM:        Well, I think that, that may well be the case, but if you look at the two major components of what renegotiation would be about: one is about trade, where I think it’s very likely that there will be at a trade agreement, I mean, if you look at the moment and the situation from Iceland to Turkey, from Poland to Portugal there’s free trade in industrial goods everywhere, it seems to me inconceivable that you’re going to have then just the UK as one part of the European landmass which doesn’t have free trade, I mean it just doesn’t make any sense, so I’m sure there will be some sort of free trade agreement. Indeed, I think just about everybody who’s looked at this carefully agrees this will happen. (words unclear due to speaking over)

MM:      (speaking over) But there’s a political dimension as well, isn’t there? Because in France they’re worried, the government is worried about the rise of the, er, the National Front who are also wanting a referendum, there are worries about other countries that might want to leave – they would want to give the signal ‘it’s not easy to break up’

JM:        Well they may want to give that signal, I agree, but it’s not terribly easy to see how this would actually translate into threats to the UK. And I think there is a big democratic problem in Europe which is that, by and large, the direction in which Europe is travelling, towards more and more federalism and integration, is not one which is supported by the population in most countries, which is why the Commission is so reluctant to have referendums about any of these things. I think there’s a gap opening up between what people want and the direction in which the EU is going, which is very dangerous and I think the rise of these various parties in different parts of the European Union, which want to come out, or don’t want to be in the euro is very significant. We’re just not seeing Europe carrying its people with it, with the changes and direction that it wants to go.

MM:      We heard from the White House view, which we do know, we heard from a Chinese economist, why do you think these big global figures are saying it would be bad for the world economy – they don’t care about what it means for Britain, but for the world economy.

JM:        Well, I’m not sure it would be bad for the world economy . . .

MM:      (interrupting) No, but they’re saying it would.

JM:        Well, I agree, these people are saying all sorts of things, the question is whether what they’re saying is actually true, and likely to be the result of Brexit.  I mean, it depends very much, of course, on the terms on which it takes place, and how it’s all conducted, but if there’s reasonable amount of goodwill all round, which is in everybody’s interest, I think that we could very easily see Britain refashioning our relationship with the EU much more on intergovernmental terms and as a part of a political project with free trade still being in place, in which case I think the vast majority of people in Britain will have got much closer to what they really want and I don’t think that would damage everybody else.

MM:      John Mills thank you very much indeed.

Referendum Blog: April 10

Referendum Blog: April 10

GREEN BIAS: A previous blog (April 7) highlighted that BBC2’s Newsnight had downplayed serious concerns about the role of the UK and the EU’s green energy regime in threatening the viability of the steel industry. Radio 4’s Today entered the fray the next day with an interview of Femke de Jong, the EU policy director of an organisation called Carbon Market Watch (a BBC website version of the story is here). She maintained that Tata steel was, in effect, being economical with the truth in claiming that EU green policy was a handicap; on the contrary, it had received £700m over six years through the EU’s Energy Trading Scheme (ETS) by being allocated more ‘carbon credits’ than it required – it was subsequently able to sell them.  Today returned to the subject the following day (Saturday), this time with a two-handed interview featuring Jeremy Nicholson, spokesman for the Energy Intensive Users’ Group (EIUG) and former climate change minister Greg Barker, who was said now to be president of the British Photovoltaic Association. Nicholson had the opportunity to say that his group strongly disagreed with claims that the steel industry was not handicapped by green policies, and particularly electricity prices. Mr Barker – who spoke for the lion’s share of the sequence – said steel manufacturers could apply for rebates, and high energy prices were therefore not an issue. Thus over two days, there were two features in which – hot on the tail of the Newsnight analysis – the over-riding weight of opinion was that the EU was not to blame for the steel industry’s woes.  Nicholson could have been asked much more, but was not.  A major issue is in the production. First, not made properly clear to listeners was that Carbon Market Watch is a million miles from being a disinterested party. Its website makes it clear that it wants much tougher carbon dioxide emissions restrictions, and had arrived at the calculations about Tata’s alleged ETS windfalls in connection with its agenda of jacking up energy prices to the maximum extent. Tata itself strongly denies its claims about windfalls, as does the airline industry  (which Carbon Market Watch (CMW) also wants to be hit with higher carbon taxes).  Another point about CMW is that it is funded by the EU, through the European Commission’s Life programme, the EU’s main environmental fund which over the years has disbursed billions of euros on campaigns).   Second, Greg Baker’s current role was said only to be chairman of the British Photovoltaic Association. But he is much more than that in the field of climate alarmism, most notably, a director of The Climate Group, an international organisation which is working on pressuring governments throughout the world to adopt green policies. Its website declares:

‘We work internationally with our coalition of companies, states, regions, cities and public figures on innovative programs around the world. By delivering evidence of success through our pilots and programs, we are inspiring leadership and driving the transformative change that is needed for a clean revolution.’

What’s the main point here? That the BBC’s approach to the Tata steel story continues to be fundamentally distorted and lacking in impartiality. The Today programme gave much stronger prominence to guests who argued that Tata was not hit by EU-related energy prices to the extent claimed, and indeed was substantially benefitting from the Commission’s carbon trading scheme. Both features could have signposted that the ‘green’ advocates (Barker and De Jong) were deeply biased observers who would be expected to play down the impact of the EU’s policies in triggering Tata’s woes.  Further, the programme chose to amplify CMW’s allegations about Tata without subjecting them to adequate challenge. Tata’s denial that it is benefitting from the EU’s ETS scheme was included in the BBC website version of the story, but not on Today. This, overall,  was therefore shoddy and unbalanced journalism on a matter of national importance. Further, the treatment was pro-EU in that CMW’s stance – and that of Greg Barker – amounted to a defence of high energy costs under the EU’s green targets and was given most prominence.

Photo by lorentey

Referendum Blog: April 7

Referendum Blog: April 7

Newsnight claim: ‘green’ costs are irrelevant to the future of Tata steel

CABBAGE PATCH: Radio 4’s magazine programme More or Less, which seeks to debunk and correct the misuse of numbers and statistics, has been attempting to arrive at the truth about a claim by Eurosceptics that the EU has rules about cabbage growing that add up to 26, 911 words. It’s a botched job – and shows worrying keenness to aim fire at the anti-EU side. On the plus side – although not too much, because a moment’s digging on Google reveals the true facts – the programme has established that the EU regulations affecting vegetable production have never been that long (at most around 2,500 words), and not only that, 26,911 number seems to have been both fabricated and used almost ad lib to cover other negative claims about EU rules.  Thereafter, the programme entered far murkier waters. It claimed that all EU regulations relating to vegetable farming had moved into the form of an advice booklet, and the specific regulations had been repealed.  This, however, is only partially the truth, and highly misleading. The reality – as the EU Referendum website points out here – is that yes, the relevant EU regulations were repealed in 2009, but only because the EU decided, under the growing weight and influence of international law, to subcontract the whole field to a higher body, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). It did not abandon or see the light about cabbage regulation, but instead was forced to outsource it. The replacement regulation is 1,606 words, not dissimilar from what it was  before. More or Less is a series and might balance this clearly anti-Brexit item with something equally iconoclastic; but an issue here is that in its efforts to attack the anti-EU camp, it aimed at a pretty rickety (if not downright preposterous) target and in so doing could not even get its facts right.

BIAS BY OMISSION:  One of the major points of debate in the Tata steel story is the role played by escalating energy costs in an energy intensive industry. The anti-EU side says that price hikes in electricity forced upon companies by EU climate change directives, working in tandem with the 2008 UK Climate Change Act, and the new punitive carbon trading taxes, have put not just Tata, but the whole of UK manufacturing industry in danger. The other signs of this are the closure earlier this year of the Redcar steel plant, and before that, on Anglesey, of an aluminium smelting plant. The pro-EU (and green) lobby, for example, Labour deputy leader John McDonnell, argue otherwise – they say that energy is only around one percent of steel production costs and thus coincidental in Tata’s current woes. Where does the BBC fit in this equation? Newsnight on Tuesday night looked at the issue – and through the lens of a report by a Financial Times journalist decided to come down heavily on the ‘marginal cost’ side. Flying in the face of opinion from a steel industry spokesman that such costs did matter, the FT man reiterated the same 1% figure as John McDonnell, and this was rammed home to viewers by graphics, together with opinion from Lord Deben (formerly John Selwyn Gummer), who for years has been advocating extreme climate alarmism. The concerns of anti-EU side were thus unceremoniously junked. There was no attempt to bring into play opinion such as this from the climate and energy expert Paul Homewood, who spells out here why the reality of continually escalating electricity prices make production in the UK untenable – and a flight to plants in cheaper energy regimes such as Thailand  (already the home of Tata production) the only viable options for the future. Homewood’s figures – together with arguments from the respected commentator Matt Ridley –  are summarised here by James Delingpole.  For years, News-watch research has shown that the BBC has been ignoring opinions that run counter to climate change alarmism. It is continuing with the Newsnight coverage of the Tata story, and adds up to pronounced, deliberate bias against elements of the anti-EU case. As the referendum looms, that’s very serious bias by omission.

Referendum Blog: April 6

Referendum Blog: April 6

PAUL MASON:  For years, Paul Mason was the economics correspondent/editor of Newsnight. He was part of a team lead by the programme’s ex-Guardian editor, Ian Katz, and News-watch has assembled over the years evidence that pro-EU slant has been a serious problem, especially, for example, on the day that David Cameron announced that the EU referendum would take place (back in January 2013), when the programme line-up was 18 pro-EU figures ranged against one ‘outer’ – predictably, Nigel Farage. The suspicion is that there is a BBC/Newsnight  ‘mindset’ in play that is deeply liberal-left. So what has Mason done since leaving Newsnight?  He’s surfaced as a Labour party ‘adviser’ and is also writing articles for the Guardian on his political beliefs. A thorough analysis of his views is here. In a nutshell, Mason emerges as a died-in-the-wool, old-fashioned Marxist who is still chanting 30-year-old hard-left, anti-Thatcher rhetoric.  The BBC claim, of course, that all their journalists leave their prejudices at home – but the track record of Newsnight, and its early pro-EU approach to reporting the referendum debate, reported elsewhere on the News-watch site, suggest strongly otherwise.

BIASED AGENDA?  How does the Today programme arrive at its coverage agenda? Clearly, there are certain ‘hard’ breaking news stories such as the death of icons such as David Bowie it feels it can’t ignore.  But other choices are much less obvious. This morning the programme chose an item angled on a report from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) which suggested that Brexit would lead to increases in food prices and seriously negative impacts on the nation’s farmers. The report was commissioned by the NFU from an agricultural intelligence unit based at the university of Wageningen, and was projected as unbiased. A moment’s digging, however, on the unit’s website shows that it has received significant funding from the EU, both for specific research projects and for exchange schemes involving academics and students. The issue here is the extent that Today should tell its audiences about such connections. It is against BBC editorial guidelines not to do so.


Photo by MACSwriter