One of the problems of the BBC’s coverage of ‘withdrawal’ from the EU is that mostly, they don’t do it – but when they do deign to do so, it’s through a totally negative lens.
The News-watch long-term survey of Today – which goes back twelve years and covers roughly half the programme editions – shows that there have been only 108 appearances by ‘come outers’ where withdrawal has been mentioned. That equates to only one appearance every three weeks, compared to an average 47 EU-related speakers in the same period.
But that’s only part of picture because transcript analysis shows that most of these mentions have been very fleeting, and only very rarely indeed do Today presenters pose questions directly about withdrawal policy. What is also clear from the transcripts is that editorially, the programme tends to focus on negative issues. Are withdrawalists racist, venal, disorganised or opportunist? These are the favourites that crop up monotonously and almost mechanistically.
Another constant in the treatment of withdrawal is that the majority of the interviews has been with UKIP. Of the 108 appearances logged by News-watch, 80 were with members of UKIP. Only three (in nine years!) were with Labour figures and only 14 with Conservatives. Others, for example, were with those such as Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician, who is usually viewed by the BBC as both ‘extremist’ and ‘racist’.
It’s in that context that the rather startling interview on April 22 by BBC political editor Nick Robinson of Nigel Farage must be seen. Basically, it looks like Mr Robinson sought to inflict maximum damage on the day that UKIP had launched their poster-based EU election campaign against the EU’s free movement of people directive.
Mr Robinson first established that Nigel Farage was employing his wife (a German) as his secretary. Here is the exchange:
NR: No British person could work for you as your secretary?
NF: Not at the moment.
NR: You don’t think anyone’s capable of doing that job?
NF: What, of marrying me?
NR: No. Of doing the job of your secretary.
NF: I don’t know anyone who would work those hours, no.
NR: So that’s it. It’s clear – UKIP do not believe that any British person is capable of being the secretary of their leader?
NF: That’s nonsense and you know it.
NR: You just said it!
This is truly jaw-dropping, even by the BBC’s previous standards. What is seemingly obvious was obvious from the context and what Mr Farage said is that was employing his wife not because she was German but because he worked anti-social hours and nobody else would put up with that.
But Mr Robinson was having none of it. As Biased BBC notes, he had already seemingly made up his mind what the story was about. – that UKIP did not believe that ‘any British person was capable of being the leader’s secretary’. For his part, Mr Farage was incredulous that Mr Robinson could make such crass assumptions.
The rest of the interview touched on the levels of immigration that might be thought be fair by UKIP under the free movement of people directive. Mr Farage suggested that the current number of 100,000+ per year should be cut to a ‘more manageable’30-50,000 and that there should border controls.
Mr Robinson’s conclusion sidestepped those national interest debating points. He said instead:
‘Mr Farage’s decision to employ his wife at public expense highlights two important questions he and his party now face – about what their immigration policy means in practice and their attitude to public money.’
Put another way: it seems that rather than looking at the important issues involved in immigration policy, Mr Robinson was determined to focus instead on showing
a) That UKIP and Mr Farage had very odd attitudes towards employment
b) His policy and attitudes towards his wife’s employment meant that his ideas about immigration were potentially at least very odd and possibly racist (the word was not said but Mr Robinson’s focus suggested it was somewhere in his mind)
c) Nothing at all about withdrawalist objections to the free movement of people directive.
Mr Robinson, it has been noted elsewhere on the site, has himself recently suggested that the BBC has not covered the debate about immigration properly; on this evidence, it is easy to see why.