BBC HEZZA BIAS: It has already been shown conclusively that the BBC1 bulletin headlines over the past month have strongly favoured the ‘remain’ side in the EU debate. Last night, this bias continued with a vengeance. The eight-minute sequence after the headlines amounted to a sustained, deliberate attack on the ‘out’ case. Newsreader Huw Edwards introduced the item:
The deepening divisions in Conservative ranks on Britain’s future in the EU were exposed when Lord Heseltine accused Boris Johnson of losing his judgment, with “preposterous, obscene remarks”. Mr Johnson had compared the EU with Hitler’s desire to dominate Europe.
The report that followed was in three parts. In the first, political editor Laura Kuenssberg emphasised how deep the Conservative divisions over the EU are becoming; in part 2, about Nigel Farage, deputy political editor John Pienaar included a vox pop claiming that Farage was a ‘Nazi’, suggested that he had perfected the technique of faking sincerity, and concluded by saying that ‘he split opinion like no-one else’; in the third, business editor Simon Jack, noting that many employers were writing to their staff to urge a ‘remain’ vote stressed that ‘the weight of opinion’ of employers was with ‘remain’.
The first sequence was focused most on what Lord Heseltine had said about Boris Johnson. He was quoted as saying
….I think the strain of the campaign is beginning to tell on him. I think his judgment is going. This is the most serious decision Britain has faced in a generation and it’s descending into an extraordinarily nasty situation…He is behaving now irresponsibly and recklessly and I fear that his judgment is going…. Every time he makes one of these extraordinary utterances, people in the Conservative Party will question whether he now has the judgment for that position.
Laura Kuenssberg then noted that Boris Johnson had said that people wanted facts about the EU, not arguments about personalities and suggested supporters of \remain’ were colluding with big business. She included a direct quote to the effect that immigration was hitting wage packets and big business wanted it that way. There was then a quote from Labour deputy leader John McDonnell, prefaced with an observation that he had claimed that ‘Tory in-fighting is dragging the whole campaign down’; and finally, there was a quote from David Cameron in which he claimed that the Islamic State, the regime in Baghdad and President Putin would be happy if the UK left the EU. Kuenssber concluded:
Boris Johnson had already been accused of choosing Out because of his own ambition. If it all goes wrong, perhaps that decision could be burn his future chances.
Huw Edwards then said that Nigel Farage had warned that anger over current levels of immigration could lead to blood on the streets, and claimed that the only solution was an ‘exit’ vote. John Pienaar included comment from Farage to that effect, and also that the rancour within the Conservative party was now so great that if there was a narrow ‘remain’ vote, it could lead to a second referendum. Pienaar then observed that ‘in a campaign that is getting more bitter by the day’, he (Farage) ‘splits opinion like no-one else’. There was then a vox pop from someone who said ‘he’s a Nazi, he’s too far-right’. Someone else said Farage ‘told the truth’, and the third vox pop said he was ‘not the guy who stands with working people’. Pienaar then repeated that Farage was a ‘divisive figure’ who was either loathed or liked him, which was why the Vote Leave campaign was ‘keeping a safe distance’.
Simon Jack opened by saying that Microsoft and Aviva, with 17,000 UK employees were among the private companies pointing out that it was their view that the UK should remain in the EU and that exit would mean a reverse of economic recovery. He then noted that it was not all ’one-way traffic’ and that the chairman of Weatherspoon’s had claimed that ‘remain’ would mean giving power away to an unelected elite in Brussels. Jack noted that ‘the weight of opinion is with remain’ and then said that the Confederation of British Industry had declared that it was ‘quite right and proper’ that employers should lay out the facts as they saw them. He pointed out that Brexit groups had claimed that what employers said was not necessarily right and also that some of these pro-EU groups had in the past supported joining the euro. Jack concluded that it was hard to ignore in-box messages.
Overall, detailed analysis of the transcript reveals a number of bias issues. In the Jack sequence, the main thrust of his argument was that most employers wanted to ‘remain’ and bolstered the scale involved by specially noting that Aviva had 17,000 employees in the UK. By contrast he decided not to mention that that Weatherspoon’s has 35,000 staff, or give any evidence why he was so sure that the ‘remain’ numbers were so high. Pienaar seemed , as has already been noted, to be most determined to say that Nigel Farage was ‘divisive, and he bolstered his argument by choosing to include a vox pop which contained the observation that5 he was a ‘Nazi’. Was this fair? How did Pienaar justify bracketing the support of 4m voters at the last general election with such a verdict? The Kuenssberg sequence placed heavy emphasis on Lord Hesletine’s views and they seemed to confirm that there was indeed civil war in the Conservative party. The inclusion of the comments from David Cameron and John McDonnell heightened that projection, and also bracketed the ‘leave’ case with extremist regimes.
The issue here is rather large. Since 1999, when the News-watch first began monitoring the BBC’s EU’s content, Heseltine has been very regularly used by BBC to highlight such problems about ‘Europe’. Kathy Gyngell explained the history of this issue during last year’s General Election, when yet again, he was wheeled out to warn about the dangers of not supporting the EU; that there would be no co-operation from the EU over immigration unless, in effect, the Conservative party became more enthusiastic about the EU.
The fact is that Heseltine stopped being an active politician in 2001, but the BBC has regularly used him over the years to draw attention to, ‘Tory splits’. This BBC1 News at Ten sequence continued that tradition. The programme editors elevated the importance of his remarks to a major level, and then buttressed that ‘row’ with two items which drew deliberate attention to the weakness of the ‘leave’ case by emphasising how deeply divisive Nigel Farage was and then by ramming home how much big business was supporting ‘remain’.
Here is the transcript in full:
Transcript of BBC1 ‘News at Ten’ 17th May 2016, Boris Johnson and Lord Heseltine, 10.07pm
HUW EDWARDS: Well, it’s policies that matter, not personal attacks – that’s the response from Boris Johnson’s team following highly-critical remarks made by the former Conservative minister, Lord Heseltine. The deepening divisions in Conservative ranks on Britain’s future in the EU were exposed when Lord Heseltine accused Boris Johnson of losing his judgment, with “preposterous, obscene remarks”. Mr Johnson had compared the EU with Hitler’s desire to dominate Europe. Our political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, has the story.
BORIS JOHNSON Conservative, Vote Leave: Take back control of this country. Can you hear me at the back? (cheering)
LAURA KUENSSBERG: Whose side are you on? Outers and Inners were both desperate to get him on theirs. But with recent claims about President Obama, invoking Hitler in the EU debate, and today, claiming, wrongly, that EU interferes in bunches of bananas, someone who knows a thing or two about the Tory leadership said Boris Johnson has gone too far.
LORD HESELTINE Former Deputy Prime Minister, Remain: I think the strain of the campaign is beginning to tell on him. I think his judgment is going. This is the most serious decision Britain has faced in a generation and it’s descending into an extraordinarily nasty situation.
LK: Campaigns often get very dirty. People say things they don’t necessarily mean because they’re trying to win?
LH: He is behaving now irresponsibly and recklessly and I fear that his judgment is going.
LK: Do you think he still could potentially be the leader of the Conservative Party?
LH: (fragment of word, or word unclear) Every time he makes one of these extraordinary utterances, people in the Conservative Party will question whether he now has the judgment for that position.
LK: But look at this. Boris has political pulling power.
BJ: Are we going to turn out on June 23rd everybody? (crowd shouts ‘yes’) Yes, they are.
LK: His team say tonight people want the arguments about the EU, not personalities. He made his strongest attack so far on his Tory opponents in the Remain camp, claiming they’re colluding with big business.
BJ: Some of the people on the FTSE 100, they don’t care about uncontrolled immigration, of course they don’t. But what happens is that their pay packets go ever higher and higher whereas the wages of most people in this country have not increased and in some cases have actually been going down. My friends, it is a stitch-up.
LK: The decision for all of us is much bigger than the career of any one Conservative politician. But this is a significant slap-down for Boris Johnson and the bitterness inside the Tory Party is hard to ignore. But both sides have to make this feel like it really matters and they’ve both been accused of hype. But Labour says the Tory in-fighting is dragging the whole campaign down.
JOHN MCDONNELL Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Remain: I think the debate has degenerated into the worst form of negativity and brought out the worst in Westminster politics. And the negativity has been overwhelming at times. It’s time to turn this debate around, drive out the politics of despair and offer a vision for Britain in Europe.
LK: But in the glitter of the City, the Prime Minister claimed today the leader of so-called Islamic State would be pleased if we vote to leave.
DAVID CAMERON: It is worth asking the question, who would be happy if we left? Putin might be happy. I suspect al-Baghdadi might be happy. When we’ve got a difficult decision to make, you should ask what it means for your country’s prosperity, what it means for the families, what it means for jobs and you should ask your friends what they think.
LK: Boris Johnson had already been accused of choosing Out because of his own ambition. If it all goes wrong, perhaps that decision could be burn his future chances. Laura Kuenssberg, BBC News, Westminster.
HE: Well, the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, has warned that anger over levels of migration could lead to violence on the streets – and he insists that the only answer is for Britain to vote to Leave the European Union. He’s been talking to our deputy political editor, John Pienaar.
JOHN PIENAAR: Nigel Farage, 37 days to go, are you sure you’re going to win?
NIGEL FARAGE UKIP Leader, Leave: Well, I’m confident. The other side won’t talk to me, that must be good.
JP: Perfect sincerity. When you can fake that, you have cracked it. Not that his desire to see Britain quit the EU isn’t real, it’s his life. But he’s such a performer that for many Nigel Farage is the UK Independence Party and, for him, win or lose, this is no farewell tour. The message couldn’t be clearer.
NF: When Isis say they will use this migrant crisis to flood the Continent with their jihadi fighters, I suggest we take them seriously.
JP: Get the message? Well, over a curry lunch, there is more. Anger over EU migration might, just might, lead to blood on the streets.
NF: I think it’s legitimate to say that if people feel they have lost control completely, and we have lost control of our borders completely, as members of the European Union, and if people feel that voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step. Now, I’m not . . .
JP: Even in this country, in peaceful Britain?
NF: I find it difficult to contemplate it happening here, but nothing is impossible. I’m meeting people (fades out)
JP: And what if Britain voted to remain, pressure for a second referendum?
NF: The rancour between the two sides of the Conservative Party is now so great that if the Prime Minister was to pull off a narrow victory, I have a feeling that a lot of them simply wouldn’t be reconciled to it.
JP: Today’s debate audience showed the Farage effect. In a campaign that is getting more bitter by the day, he splits opinion like no-one else.
VOX POP MALE: To me, I’m afraid it’s (sic, means he’s) a Nazi, he’s too far-right.
JP: A Nazi, that’s a bit strong?
VPM: I know it’s a bit strong.
VOX POP FEMALE: I personally, I think he’s been brandished (sic) a racist because he’s talking common-sense about numbers.
VOX POP MALE 2: He is the only person that is telling us the truth, whether we want to hear it or not.
VOX POP FEMALE 2: He’s not really the kind of guy who stands with working people. I think he does a good job of making it look like he is though.
JP: It was arguably fear of Nigel Farage and Eurosceptic feeling that drove David Cameron to promise this referendum in the first place. He is a divisive figure. People either tend to like him or loathe him and that is one big reason why the official Vote Leave campaign is keeping a safe distance. (at an ice cream van) Nigel, what are you going to have?
NF: A 99, please.
JP: For this political outsider, nothing would taste sweeter than a vote to leave.
NF: There are 37 days to go, we are in battle, we are charging and I’ll keep doing it!
JP: Yes, Nigel Farage preaches best to the converted.
NF: (to voter) Hello, you alright? But so much depends on getting your supporters to turn out and vote. Who’s to say he won’t have the last laugh.
NF: Are we voting out?
UNNAMED VOTER: Yes.
JP: John Pienaar, BBC News.
HE: And some of Britain’s biggest private companies have entered the referendum debate by sending letters directly to staff outlining the impact a British exit would have on their businesses. Let’s talk to Simon Jack, our business editor, what are they saying Simon?
SIMON JACK: Well you know, even if you wanted to avoid this debate, this is going to be hard because these are messages dropping into the in-boxes of tens of thousands of employees, a real flurry of them. Let me give you a quick flavour, we’ll start with Microsoft, who say, the boss says in a blog, ‘our view is that the UK should remain in the EU.’ Aviva, 17,000 UK employees, they warn the economic recovery could go into reverse. Now, it’s not all one-way traffic, the boss, the chairman of Wetherspoon’s says that a vote to remain would give power away to an unelected elite in Brussels. So, it isn’t one-way traffic, but I would say the weight of opinion, of employers, is with Remain. Is it OK for employers to, you know, get involved in this way? The CBI, the employers groups says yes, it’s quite right and proper that they should lay out the facts as they see them. The Vote Leave campaign describe this as a Government and big business stitch-up. So, you know, a difference of opinion there. One other Brexiteer says, look, the CBI can say what it likes, what your employer says does not mean that it’s right, harking back to the fact that some of these groups were ones which supported joining the euro all those years ago. But as I say, very hard to ignore some of these messages, so even if you didn’t want to be involved in the campaign, when it’s in your inbox it’s very hard to ignore indeed.
HE: Okay, Simon, again, thanks very much, Simon Jack there for us, our business editor.