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BBC blindspots or BBC bias?

    “Quite frankly, if politicians don't trust the people, why on earth should the people trust the politicians?” Last night Eurosceptic Labour MP Gisela Stuart accused William Hague of executing a 180-degree turn from his previous position on the referendum. She might have accused the BBC of – over the years – successfully bullying Hague into his new position, at least if had she heard and stopped to ponder Peter Hitchen’s question (before advocating secession from the EU at the Bruges Group debate) ‘what is the final line of Orwell’s 1984?’ The answer to which of course is that, “he (Winston) loved Big Brother”

     

     

    For last week’s BBC coverage of the Eurozone’s self inflicted financial crisis and of yesterday’s back-bench motion for a three option referendum showed that little has changed at the BBC. Here’s one extract from Today:

     

    John Humphreys You say they’ve never had a say, but they've always had the option in election after election for many years anyway, of voting for parties that want to pull us out of Europe, they haven't taken that option?

    Mark Pritchard MP: No there's been this grand consensus, and in fact one of the . . .

    John Humphreys: (interrupting) Well, there have been parties who’ve said, ‘let’s pull out of Europe, let’s have done with it’, and they haven’t had the support of the British people. BBC Radio 4, Today, 20thOctober 2011, extract from EU Referendum Debate, 8.10am

     

    Mark Pritchard MP failed, just as his predecessors have failed before him, under the fire of Humphrey’s attack, to ‘rebut’ the assumptions underlying his question. The BBC got away, again, with skewing the entire debate on Europe, as they have done over the years. And no wonder. For taking the BBC on, on Europe, is a challenge that few politicians have relished. Those who have tried have fallen foul – most notably William Hague, whose Prime Ministerial chances were bruised, battered and blighted by the BBC’s bullying of him (I was tracking and transcribing the output at the time – see Outbreak of Narcolepsy CPS,2004 and Blair’s EU Turn.) It is a moot point whether Mr Hague has been left permanently traumatised by this experience and brow beaten into accepting that BBC construct, articulated again by Nick Robinson last week, that Europe is a ticking time bomb for the Conservative Party. Other politicians have been painted permanently into the corner of extremism. For the BBC has never and still does not allow Euroscepticism to be considered or treated as mainstream – though indeed it is.

     

    This is despite, indeed in face of, the independent monitoring and analytic surveys of the Today programme EU coverage conducted byNewswatch (formerly Minotaur Media Tracking) for Global Britain since 1999, despite the findings of the Wilson enquiry that effectively accepted aGlobal Britain’s evidence, making me wonder at times whether the Today programme presenters editors and researchers were ever asked to read any of these reports.

     

    How the BBC casts an argument or ‘sets the agenda’ of debate is hugely influential. It can - by omitting people, argument and facts, by failing to subject others to proper scrutiny - skew the terms of debate for years.What’s remarkable, in face of the current crisis, is how unreflective it remains of its own stance - how it continues to repeat its favourite ‘memes’. The first and foremost of these is that Euroscepticism is a product of, and ‘problem’ for, the Conservative party alone. Yet dividing lines, all the way across the political spectrum are fuzzy to say the least.

     

    It is a former Labour appointed ambassador to Washington, one time BBC Economics Editor and son of a leading Labour Party Politician who has just written, in a searing introduction to Peter Oborne’s CPS publication, Guilty Men, of that insidious “great middle ground confidence trick”. As Peter Jay (for that is he) explains, this proceeds by insisting that political choices are arranged along a one dimensional political spectrum from left to right, that anything near its ends is called extreme – by implication weird and mad, and that anything in the middle is correspondingly moderate – by implication sensible, reasonable and sane. The third step of the process Jay identifies is to stipulate that support for European Union unification and Britain’s total involvement in it is in the ‘middle ground,’ “– and therefore, QED, moderate, sensible, sane - and so right.” This, though Jay does not point the finger, is exactly the position adopted by the BBC over the years.

     

    The Today programme’s coverage last week and so far this week shows no change to this default approach. “The prism of coverage is still that the EU is a problem for the Conservative party”, David Keighley, the analyst of now thirteen years of meticulous monitoring said yesterday, “nothing has changed since 1999 when we started”. Those who want ‘out’ are still regarded as the batty extreme by Today, he might have added.

     

     

    In the last three weeks of unprecedented EU coverage on the Today programme I have yet to hear one Labour Eurosceptic speaking. If Newswatch’s last survey - the Today programme was monitored for 13 weeks between September and December 2010 – is anything to go by we can expect no direct questions about withdrawal, no interviews with figures who favour withdrawal, no questioning of Labour sceptics and no attention to fundamental issues. For over that 13 weeks Today did not report on any important newsworthy EU topics that affect us - reform of CAP or the failure of the EU to sign off its accounts for the 16th year running. Though coverage of the cause celebre of the left - attempts to extradite Julian Assange by a European Arrest Warrant – left no stones unturned. This continued ‘outbreak of narcolepsy’ – Jeremy Paxman’s defence of less than enthusiastic BBC EU coverage in 1999 – and the perpetuation of Jay’s middle ground confidence tick has done the country no favours.

     

     

    The BBC is a national (and global) institution - one that I am a true devotee to and defender of – and this is why it must be its own sternest critic. On controversial issues like climate change, “science” and drugs policy it has a way to go. My antennae are already telling me that on drugs liberalisation BBC scepticism of the current well-financed, determined and clever lobbying remains well buried. Today it is in danger of buying into another liberal metropolitan elite uncritical ‘consensus’. Only by maintaining the highest of editorial standards– that means checking the numbers – will it keep its balance and impartiality.

     

    Whether indicative of bias or of bad briefing, James Naughtie’s interview with Joao Goulao’s, the Portuguese Chairman of the EMCDDA, last week (19th October) was of doubtful newsworthiness and inadequately researched. “Eurozone woes increase drug abuse” the item led without any reference to hard fact. Mr Naughtie uncritically accepted Mr Goulao’s disingenuous, indeed convenient, linking of the current ‘resurgence’ of Class A drug use in Portugal with the economic slow-down. But a quick check of the facts would have revealed that hard drug use has been rising there from well before the downturn, doubling since 2001 when Portugal decriminalised personal drug possession. Manuel Pinto Coelho, my astounded Portuguese addiction psychiatrist contact, asked me, “how is it possible the radio professional is not aware of the real data?”

     

    To make matters worse it followed an equally poorly researched report earlier the same morning from Mexico. “The one thing that hasn’t changed is the demand for drugs in America,” its reporter confidently concluded. But this is the one thing that has changed and remarkably so. Had he, or anyone else at the BBC, bothered to check the facts he would have found a 75% drop in US cocaine consumption since 1988 (from 660 to 165 tons in 2008) and a sharp methamphetamine decline since 2002 (the latest SAMHSA National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows levels of use similar to those from 2007 through 2009, but lower than those from 2002 through 2006).

     

    Let’s hope that the BBC, in future, will want to check such facts and resist ignoring those that might not fit received wisdom.

    Kathy Gyngell has a first class honours degree in social anthropology from Cambridge and an Oxford M.Phil. in sociology. She has worked for the former ITV companies, LWT and TV-am as a producer and senior programme executive. A full time mother after the birth of her second son, she founded the voluntary organization Full Time Mothers.

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