ACCORDING to weekend press reports, Boris Johnson’s director of communications Lee Cain has had a lightbulb moment. He has told Downing Street staff that appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme is a ‘waste of time’.
Well, golly gosh. An old saying about a pikestaff rushes to mind.
In reality, it is hard to believe that the Johnson administration wants to do anything serious to tackle the BBC because the new Culture Secretary is Nicky Morgan. Her reaction when 70 MPs wrote to BBC director-general Tony Hall complaining about BBC Brexit coverage?
— Nicky Morgan MP (@NickyMorgan01) March 21, 2017
Theresa May, of course, was not concerned about BBC bias at all. That’s because she and her communications chief Robbie Gibb – a former BBC news executive – knew that the Corporation would assist in every way possible to undermine a clean break departure from the EU. It is reasonable to infer that they were probably not disappointed in the support they received.
News-watch research, contained in six separate surveys, has shown consistently that since the EU referendum in 2016 the Today programme has massively under-reported and misrepresented the withdrawal perspective, and in parallel characterised ‘no deal’ and those who support it as extremists or ‘hardline’.
Perhaps the most egregious example was that in the six months after the vote, the programme’s business news section carried only ten interviews with supporters of Brexit out of a total of 192. The introduction to the survey stated: ‘Between them, the negative guests painted a relentlessly pessimistic picture of gloom, doom and uncertainty, of plunging economic prospects, of a collapse of consumer confidence, rising inflation, a drying up of investment, job freezes, of a drain of jobs from London to mainland Europe, skills shortages because of the ending of free movement, the introduction of tariffs, and endless, complex renegotiation.’
For three years, this has been the hallmark of the BBC’s mindset. Preliminary findings from the latest News-watch survey, covering Today’s coverage of the European elections in April and May, show that as the May administration collapsed there was a doubling down on the BBC’s projection of concentrated Brexit gloom.
There were 487 EU-related speakers, of whom only 76 (15.6 per cent) were from withdrawalists (drawn from the ERG, the Brexit Party, UKIP, or those who had voted Leave in 2016 and were opposed to Theresa May’s ‘deal’). Between them, they spoke 14,000 words, which is only 10.5 per cent of the total of 133,500 spoken by all the EU-related contributors.
Figures, of course, are only part of the story. Perhaps the most striking exchange, illustrating the overall editorial approach, in the survey period was an interview by Nick Robinson with Sir William Cash on April 23. The background was that Nicky Morgan had complained the day before on the programme that she had received death threats because people such as Sir William had written an unhelpful letter to the press about her stance containing words such as ‘capitulation’ and ‘betrayal’.
The transcript of the interview with Sir William has to be seen to be believed. (It follows below.) Nick Robinson adopted a tone reserved by BBC presenters for those whom it regards as especially unsavoury, such as former BNP leader Nick Griffin. In an aggressive barrage of questions, Robinson asserted:
‘. . . what’s at issue here is the language you used, Sir Bill. No, the issue here is the language you use and I want you to address the language you’ve used rather than the argument.’
‘Do you think we’re still at war with Germany, Sir Bill? You refer to “appeasement”, “collaboration”, “surrendering”, “being on our hands and knees to Germany”. Do you think the war is continuing? . . . Why do you use the language of wartime, “appeasement”, “collaboration”, “surrender”, Sir Bill?’
Sir William patiently and politely explained that he had chosen the words because they were appropriate in the context that the EU were being very intransigent and ‘doing everything possible to make it difficult to leave’ on reasonable terms. Robinson was having none of it. Nicky Morgan had been offended and penance was required.
In sharp contrast, the programme’s general approach to the numerous Remain guests who suggested that leaving the EU with ‘no deal’ would be damaging or ‘catastrophic’ was benign acceptance.
Finally, a comparison with BBC’s 2014 European election coverage yields a startling statistic. The percentage of Brexit supporters who appeared in the survey period before the EU referendum was more than in the 2019 equivalent!
In this context, it would be an exciting development if the Johnson government did decide to do something concrete about such overwhelming BBC bias. Can Lee Cain succeed where others have so clearly failed?
Footnote: The News-watch legal application for a judicial review of the BBC’s approach to impartiality has been formally lodged with the BBC and the legal team is awaiting their formal reaction.
Transcript of interview with Sir William Cash, Today programme, April 23, 2019
Nick Robinson: ‘A forced and humiliating surrender. Appeasement on bended knee, the Prime Minister is making us crawl on our hands and knees to Germany and France.’ Not my words, the words used by the veteran anti-EU campaigner, Sir Bill Cash, who was condemned on this programme yesterday by fellow Conservative MP Nicky Morgan who, like many MPs who back Remain, has received a series of death threats and blames, in part, the language used in this debate. Sir Bill Cash joins us on the line now, good morning to you.
Sir William Cash: Good morning.
NR: Will Nicky Morgan’s words make you reconsider the words you use?
WC: No, for a very simple reason that considering the anger in the grass roots against what’s been going on and the broken promises that have been made and the fact that I don’t think she’d read my article, in fact I’m pretty certain, because she referred to the article in the Daily Telegraph today, when it was the Sunday Telegraph and didn’t give me the impression that she’d actually read it. But there we are.
NR: (speaking over) But she’s not the only person who’s condemned it. A fellow Conservative MP Alistair Burt said, ‘Does it ever cross your mind what you’re contributing to?’ So does it?
WC: Well, no. And the answer to that is this: that this is actually about the question of our leaving the European Union. We are standing up and I’m certainly standing up and have been consistently for the vote that was cast in the election, in the, in the referendum vote and also democracy itself and the manner in which . . . and this is what my article is actually about, which is about the legality of the extension of time and the broken promises that were associated with that by the Prime Minister and in the . . . in the House of Commons. (words unclear due to speaking over)
NR: (speaking over) Indeed, but what’s at issue here is the language you used, Sir Bill. No, the issue here is the language you use and I want you to address the language you’ve used rather than the argument.
WC: (speaking under) Yeah, okay.
NR: Do you think we’re still at war with Germany, Sir Bill? You refer to ‘appeasement’, ‘collaboration’, ‘surrendering’, ‘being on our hands and knees to Germany.’ Do you think the war is continuing?
WC: No I don’t, I think . . .
NR: (speaking over) So why do you use that language?
WC: As . . . well as, as quite clearly you can gather from looking at the situation as I’ve described it, I’m talking about what is going on now. This is the problem. (fragment of word, or word unclear due to speaking over)
NR: (speaking over) Why do you use the language of wartime, ‘appeasement’, ‘collaboration’, ‘surrender’, Sir Bill?
WC: Words mean what you choose them to mean, Nick, and the reality is that . . .
NR: (interrupting) They’re your words and you chose them, and I’m asking you why you use the language of war to describe a political disagreement.
WC: Well it is actually about a (fragment of word, or word unclear) as the European Scrutiny Committee made clear last year, we are, have been, consistently in these negotiations supplicating the European Union and thereby France and Germany. That is the position as it is now. We made a report, we made it clear, (words unclear due to speaking over)
NR: (speaking over) Are they the enemy, Sir Bill?
NR: Are our nearest neighbours in Europe the enemy, in your view?
WC: They’re not the enemy, but what they are, are people who are being very intransigent and are doing everything possible to make it as difficult as possible for us to leave the European Union on the terms on which we have a right to leave. (words unclear due to speaking over)
NR: (speaking over) But what I notice, that you use very different language now you’re on the radio to the language that you write . . .
WC: (speaking over) No, I . . .
NR: . . . in the article. You used the words, I put it to you again . . .
WC: (speaking over) That’s your interpretation . . .
NR: . . . of war.
WC: . . . of it, Nick. (words unclear due to speaking over)
NR: (speaking over) It’s not my interpretation, it’s a fact. You use the language of war, ‘surrender’, ‘hands and knees’, ‘collaboration’, ‘appeasement’ – why do you use that language?
WC: I’m using the language because it is an accurate description of what is actually being done over the last two, two years in negotiations.
NR: So Theresa May is a traitor to her country, is she?
WC: No, I’ve never said that. What I’m saying is it’s a complete misjudgement. It’s the manner in which the negotiations have been conducted. It’s the manner in which the extension of time has been made. And when I said, in the House of Commons, it was an abject surrender, I meant what I said, because that’s what it was.
NR: So, brief last question if I may, if someone issues a death threat and echoes the language you use, is your view, ‘so be it’?
WC: They certainly, they certainly wouldn’t be justified in doing so. I’m absolutely and totally against all those sort of death threats and anything of the kind. What I do say is that actually we have to express our language in a manner which reflects what’s been going on, and that’s what I did.