A News-watch investigation into one of the BBC’s flagship news programmes has found it to be heavily biased in favour of Britain remaining in the EU.
Twenty consecutive editions of the programme – one of the main ‘hard news’ formats on the BBC – between February 22 and March 19 were surveyed. The main finding was that staunchly pro-EU figures had the lion’s share of comment.
Senior figures such as former French Prime Minister Edith Cresson and Alan Johnson, the head of Labour’s Keep the UK in the EU campaign, were given a platform to advance detailed arguments on why the UK should remain in the EU.
But only one supporter of the ‘leave’ camp – Wolfgang Ott, a member the German AFD party – was given the time to explain why he thought the British vote was essential in the interests of democracy. Ritulah Shah, the presenter of the programme, introduced him by saying he was from an “anti-immigrant party” that was “criticised for its links with the far right”.
World Tonight carried a dozen features focusing on the upcoming EU referendum, including an entire programme based on a range of contrasting views in the twinned cities of Freiburg and Guildford, as well as special features in other editions that included surveys of attitudes towards the referendum among ex-pats in Berlin and on the Costa del Sol.
Of the named guests (some were in vox pop items and therefore not named) who offered views about the EU, nineteen expressed pro-EU or pro-remain ideas, seven wanted exit or were clearly anti-EU, and eleven were neutral. This imbalance was made worse as seven of the pro-EU figures were given the opportunity to outline detailed arguments, whereas only three of the leave figures were allowed more than one or two sentences.
There were three editions in which the programme went out of its way to elicit comment from strongly pro-EU figures without balancing on the leave side in any of the 20 editions.
The three editions were:
- On February 22, former Irish PM Dick Roche, former French PM Edith Cresson and former Polish finance minister Jack Rostowski discussed their reaction to the announcement of the referendum date. Both were strongly in support of remain and advanced detailed arguments why. The only criticism was that the referendum was taking place at all and of the concessions granted to the UK. Dick Roche warned that an EU exit by the UK would damage European security, and would trigger the emergence of “disruptive (Front National-type) forces from Holland to Hungary”.
- On March 11, leader of the Labour Keep the UK in the EU campaign, was asked about his lecture to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Harold Wilson in which he had argued that the former prime minister would be a strong supporter of the EU now, and even more so than in the past because of its role in globalisation. The interview was more than 1,000 words and ran for around eight minutes. It gave Mr Johnson the framework to attack Gaitskell’s dismissal of the EU as ‘hyperbole’, to claim that voters had known they were voting for more than an economic union in the 1975 referendum, that the EU stood for democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law and was the reason it had won a Nobel peace prize in 2012.
- On March 14, P.J. Crowley, a former advisor on foreign relations to the Obama White House, was interviewed about his reactions to claims by Boris Johnson and others on the ‘leave’ side that Barrack Obama should not overtly support either side in the referendum debate during an expected visit to the UK in April. He advanced detailed reasons he believed the US should support the ‘remain’ side, and why the EU was important to the US.
None of these exchanges were adversarial to the extent that the presenters’ approach was sufficient to cancel out the heavily pro-EU points put across by the respective guests. Neither did material in other features balance these elements. In all other features, the presence of remain views was countered or balanced by further remain figures.
David Keighley, Managing Director of News-Watch said:
“This analysis shows that yet another BBC flagship programme is not being impartial in its referendum coverage. Far too much prominence on World Tonight has been given to ’remain’ figures. Their guests, such as Alan Johnson, have taken the opportunity to expound their case with both hands. By contrast, ‘leave’ supporters have been far less prominent and the details of the arguments for ‘out’ have not been explored to anywhere near the same depth.”
Peter Bone MP said:
“This is yet another example of BBC bias in the EU referendum. The broadcaster has been warned time and again but they continue to fly the flag for the EU. I urge them, to refrain from bias on this issue of vital importance. This is a once in a generation opportunity for the British people to have their say on whether we remain or leave the EU and the BBC has an important duty to the public to provide balanced, impartial coverage and it is fundamentally failing to do this. It appears to many people that the BBC is institutionally bias towards the EU. I will be writing to the Secretary of State urging an investigation into the BBC’s coverage of the EU referendum.”
Other News-watch observations about EU referendum coverage on World Tonight:
- On February 29, in a report from ex-pats living on the Cosa Del Sol in Spain, several ‘remain’ reasons were advanced by pro-EU contributors, including the likelihood increased medical bills and restrictions in freedom of movement. Christine Rowlands, chair of Conservatives Abroad declared that “you would be hard pushed’ to find anyone in the Costa Del Sol who wanted to leave the EU.” Against that, a radio show host said that ex-pats were put off by the EU because it had wasted money in Spain and had diluted Spanish culture. More time, approximately 48%, was given to the Pro-EU contributors, against 36% for those who wanted out.
- A report by Simon Jack (2/3) about a warning from BMW that exit from the EU would hit badly the prospects of British subsidiary Rolls-Royce carried comment that Vote Leave had dismissed the claims. In that sense it was even-handed, but the choice of a ‘scaremongering’ story as the subject of a correspondent interview elevated the story in importance, and there was no balancing interview about fears of the impact of remaining. It thus added to the overall skewing against the ‘leave’ case.
- On 7/3, there was a survey of opinion about EU fisheries policy from Peterhead. The commentary emphasised that there was much discontent over quotas, and reporter Paul Moss found two fishermen who outlined the reasons for their discontent. He also included opinion from Business for Britain (their local spokesman Mev Brown) who explained that he would use the plight of fishermen to illustrate the Brexit case. Moss found two local political figures who favoured staying in the EU to improve the fisheries policy, and also felt the EU was a vital market for the fish. On balance, slightly more time was given to the Brexit/anti-EU side. It was the only feature that did favour marginally the ‘leave’
- The next special survey of ex-pat attitudes to the referendum was in Berlin on 16/3. It was clear from the overall tone and comments that the four selected and named interviewees – who it was said had got together because of concern about their status in the event of a ‘leave’ vote – that they were both pro-EU and considered themselves ‘Europeans’. The questioning was about what they had done to ensure that they could stay living in Germany if the UK decided to leave the EU. Two of the figures were classed as ‘neutral’, because they were speaking purely about their own experiences, but it is likely from the context that they were pro-remain.
- Finally, on 17/3 came the special feature from the twinned towns of Freiburg and Guildford. Three of the named figures selected for comment – Wolfgang Ott, from the AFD, Gordon Bridger, a former mayor of Guildford, and Michael Gorman from the Guildford branch of the Town Twinning Association made clearly anti-EU points. Mr Ott said there should be a referendum on leaving in all the EU countries, Mr Bridger that UK exports to the EU would not be affected by exit, and Mr Gorman that he thought the deal secured by David Cameron was very poor to the point where the UK should reconsider membership. In the final sequence, Hans-Olaf Henkel, of the German Eurosceptic party Alliance for Renewal, attacked the euro, and increasing Brussels centralisation, but he was not asked specifically what alternatives they could be. He contended that the rise of populist movements in Europe was because the EU had not handled the immigration issue properly. It was impossible to discern the extent which Her Henkel was actually anti-EU (if at all – in the same way that David Cameron now strongly supports the EU but regards himself as eurosceptic) but for the purposes of this analysis he has been classed as such. So in total, there were four voices who clearly had reservations about the EU. Against that were a sprinkling of voices in the Anglo German club in Freiburg who were clearly pro EU and thought that the UK leaving would be a negative step; Marcus Adler who ran the Freiburg refugee camp, who put across that the German approach to immigration was working and had the full support of the local community; Malcolm Parry, manager of the Surrey Research Park, who said that not one of the 1,800 local businesses in his orbit wanted to leave the EU; two named members of Guildford choirs, who between them claimed that it was vital to belong to ‘Europe’ and that the EU had scored important successes in human and working rights; Ian Stewart from the Twinning Association who said Britain should concentrate in staying in; and finally Ralph Brinkhuas from the ruling Christian Democrats in Germany and Almut Moller the pro-EU Council on Foreign Relations, who argued against Herr Henkel that the EU was doing a very important job in terms of security, the economy, foreign relations and immigration, and that it would be damaging if the UK left.
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There was thus a very significant imbalance in this very lengthy (40 minute) item. The pro-EU, anti-UK- exit said was given greater prominence. In basic terms, there were only four significant clearly ‘exit’ contributors against eight who were strongly pro-EU and wanted to remain. The ‘remain side’, as exemplified by the triple-hander at the end, had significantly more space to put their case. The choice of such strikingly affluent towns could have had a role in that.
It can easily be seen that the ‘remain’ side supporters heavily outnumbered Brexit supporters in many features, the only exceptions being those from Peterhead and Spain
The full list of guests was:
Pro-EU/remain: Dick Roche, Edith Cresson, Jack Rostowski (all 22/2); Rheinhold Lopatka (25/2); Christine Rowlands (29/2), Christian Allard(7/3), Charles Buchan (7/3), Alan Johnson (11/3), P.J. Crowley (former Obama advisor) (14/3); Jane Gordon (lawyer) (16/3); Amanda Deal (16/3), Vatrod Fleismann (17/3), Marcus Adler (17/3), Malcolm Parry (17/3); James Garrow (17/3); Leslie Scordelis (17/3); Ian Stewart (17/3); Ralph Brinkhaus, a Christian Democrat MP (17/3); Almut Moller of the European Council on Foreign Relations
Against: Richard Tilsley (29/2), Mev Brown (7/3), Jimmy Buchan (7/3); Wolfgang Ott (17/3), Gordon Bridger (17/3); Michael Gorman (17/3); Hans-Olaf Henkel (17/3)
A handful of very short vox pops from Freiburg and Germany (17/3) on both sides of the debate were not included in the analysis because they were too short to include reasons.
Neutral: Damian Lyons Lowe, of Survation (25/2), John Curtice of Strathclyde university (25/2); Paul May (16/3), Martin Gordon (16/3); Ronald Ash 917Gillian Cameron (17/3); Mark Edwards (17/3); Harry Schindler (18/3). Jacob Rees Mogg (18/3) argued that Ian Duncan Smith’s resignation was nothing to do with the EU; his contribution was therefore also neutral.
Andrew Gimson and Isabel Oakeshott (26/2) have also been classed neutral commentators. Both, however, were strongly critical of the tactics of the ‘leave’ side. They agreed that the ‘leave’ side was also all over the place and Isabel Oakshott suggested that Number 10 believed the economic arguments were on its side. Andrew Gimson noted that eurosceptics could not agree where the last ditch was over sovereignty so had disagreements among themselves.