Beyond our shores: Europhobia and the BBC

The BBC has been attacked from all sides about its European coverage. How it responds will have consequences far beyond the newsroom.  

Jamie Mackay
25 February 2015
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Title credits for ‘The Truth about Immigration’, 2014

Euroscepticism in Britain continues to thrive and will be one of the most heated topics in the run-up to this year’s general election. A poll conducted by WIN/Gallup at the end of 2014 indicated that if a referendum were held now 51% of the public would vote to leave the EU. The reasons for this are diverse, ranging from democratic critiques of Brussels’s nefarious institutions to hysterical anxieties about immigration, the latter of which have notoriously tended towards racism.

In a climate of intense cynicism towards transnational governance a large chunk of the English language media has reflected an idea of Europe as it is presented by the Westminster elite, as something intrinsically opposed to the sovereignty of Parliament and, by extension, the people of Britain. Following in the footsteps of the politicians - from the Lib Dems to UKIP - journalists have made frequent mistakes, conflating Europe with the EU, the Commission with the Troika and, most gravely, freedom of movement with unchecked immigration. By and large it has been a sham debate. 

At the centre of this conversation, and first to take the blame for all national shortcomings, is the BBC, an institution that continues to exert considerable influence over public opinion. MP’s have long been complaining about an apparently “pro-EU bias” on the part of the organization but in recent years this has gone beyond mere grumbling. Tony Hall has been summoned on multiple occasions to answer the questions of the European scrutiny Committee on the basis that the institution presents an ‘unintentional pro-European bias’. The DG has repeatedly refused to attend such a meeting, controversially exploiting his position as a Lord to avoid doing so (if he were not a peer this would constitute a criminal offence). Hall’s stance has been condemned by many within and outside the institution but was supported by the Trust who reiterated that such a process would “threaten the BBC’s independence in the run up to the election”.

Last month Hall u-turned on this hardline stance and publicly declared his intention to meet with the committee. No reason was given and no statement was made. The timing of this announcement though – just three months before the vote - raises some uncomfortable questions about the relationship between the state and broadcaster: What kind of pressure is the BBC under from government beyond the saber rattling of Eurosceptic politicians? What information, or data, is the BBC privy to which is kept from the general public? What is the real link between the coming elections and Britain’s future in Europe? Hall’s dance with Westminster represents more than a tension over ‘balanced reporting’. It is indicative of the BBC’s changing relationship with the British state and indicative of the central role its news coverage plays in the operation of Britain’s informal constitution.  

Biased coverage and the power of ‘big names’ 

The BBC’s current European materials are split between wonkish statistics on the one hand and manipulative populism on the other. There are in-depth resources such as the online blog ‘Inside Europe’ which is comprehensive, with extensive detail about everything from policy debates to spending reviews. The archive is clear and concise, detailing both the successes and failures of EU legislation without much in the way of spin. For those blessed with Buddhistic patience this dense analytical material is supplemented by a livestream of the European Parliament, which can be found on the website’s politics section. The content which most people encounter however – and that which is prioritized in scheduling - lacks any of the rigour that characterizes this dedicated European section. Far from ‘liberal-left’, as the organisation’s opponents in parliament have accused, the content that is aired on the most popular media (TV or radio) tends to be explicitly anti-European. 

The most publicized documentary of last year, The Truth About Immigration, for example, was characterized by a kind of elite conjunctivitis, privileging voxpops by Nigel Farage and Jack Straw over 'inconvenient' facts (migrants to Britain make a net contribution and are less likely to claim benefits and live in social housing than people born in Britain). Throughout the programme Nick Robinson, the organisation's political editor, delivered a compelling narrative about 'waves', 'invasions' and 'our shores' with no mention of imperialism, class or, most importantly, capitalism which remains a dirty word for the organisation. Despite this, other senior figures including Jeremy Paxman, Helen Boaden and John Humphreys anticipated such criticism and were vocal in calling-out the BBC’s ‘leftwing’ bias, bizarrely singling Europe and its “ideal” as evidence of this (there is of course little that is ‘left’ about Europe). The latter, bear in mind, is the presenter of Britain’s most influential radio programme. 

It is this kind of subjective and emotive framing – by ‘trustworthy’ celebrities - which stands in for critical debate in exactly the places where the objective information on ‘Inside Europe’ is needed. This is even more important in the context of official political debate. In the showdown between Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg before the European elections last May, for example, there was no context given for the conversation and the agenda was allowed to run according to the paranoid logic of the tabloid media (with immigration and border checks dominating the discussion). It was apparent from the acceptance of these terms - and Farage’s subsequently inevitable victory on YouGov - that most people knew little about what was at stake in the discussion. 

This point says much about how Europe is understood within the BBC at large - either as an evil beast threatening the cultural purity of ‘our shores’ or else something to be hidden away and left for the technocrats to brood over. Meanwhile, the European Parliament is almost never shown on the prime-time news or analysis shows like Newsnight despite the fact that debates there have at least as much relevance to the British public as those happening in Westminster. Take TTIP, for example, which will determine whether corporations are able to sue governments on the basis of threatening their profits. Or the Acta law, which MEPs recently voted against in an unparalleled defence of freedom and creativity on the internet. These are just two examples of stories that deserve to be looked at alongside the ‘more important’ issues of finance and immigration.   

How does the BBC compare with other PSBs? 

It is important to note that on this latter point the BBC is distinct from public broadcasters in other European nations. In Italy, for example - a country hardly renowned for its open democratic media - debates in Brussels and Strasbourg are covered daily, often with extensive (if frequently superficial) commentary. RAI media, the public service broadcaster, has been particularly fastidious in detailing the alliances among different parties, which on the BBC are presented as sideshows to the ‘main actions’ of the ECB, while TTiP has been a regular topic for panel discussions on 'Ballaro’, the national equivalent of Question Time. In the run-up to Juncker’s appointment as President of the European Commission too livestreams were broadcast day and night from Brussels featuring interviews with leaders and civil society groups from across Europe. This is one of the most corrupt media organisations in Europe, but it is defiantly international in its scope. 

The situation is similar in Spain despite the fact that the public service broadcaster there is actively and openly entwined with the state. The unambiguously right wing and nationalist TVE has several dedicated radio and television programmes, which aside from panel discussions host in-depth documentaries and investigative stories about the political culture in Brussels. Despite the politics of its management (Pablo Inglesias and Podemos representatives were notoriously banned from appearing for a number of months) the broadcaster nonetheless occupies a European identity through the range of its concerns, covering everything from the refugee crisis to radical and anti-state protests in Greece and Italy. In the end, despite the conservative narrative in which these stories are embedded, the European lens itself can be seen as positive for democracy - and it is surely significant that Podemos remain the most popular party in Spain despite the propaganda being deployed against them. 

The BBC by immediate contrast appears isolationist, and despite hosting occasional debates about Podemos or The Five Star Movement, or emotive features about shipwrecks at Lampedusa, those looking for actual information are forced back to ‘Inside Europe’ or to Gavin Hewitt’s personal blog (which focuses mainly on hard economics and personality politics). European polity, as a civic space, seems not to exist. The minimal treatment of EU democracy in turn means that other parts of the organization seem as much in the dark about what goes on as the majority of the public. The Newsnight report on Syriza’s victory in the Greek elections is a perfect example. Not only did Emily Maitlis fail to position the elections in an appropriate historical context, against the brutal dictatorship of New Democracy, she even pandered to a Fox News version of the new government as some uncompromising behemoth, baying for blood. The Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis was left speechless in the face of this sheer ignorance: “I’m a great BBC fan, but I’ve never listened to such an inaccurate report”. 

British exceptionalism and the ‘constitutional moment’

Whether by design or as the result of structural pressures, the BBC’s editorial decisions reflect and perpetuate the idea that the UK is somehow ‘exceptional’ in its relationship to Europe. Contrary to the accusations of ‘liberal internationalism’ the BBC is an active component in the continuation of a certain kind of paranoid nationalism; a fact which might legitimiately be seen to compromise the organization’s ability to provide adequate coverage of EU issues. It is true of course, and it should be reiterated, that the broadcaster has been confined to intervene in a political climate that is itself remarkably poor. One might even say that in the absence of any conversation about an ‘alternative Europe of the left’, or a left Euroscepticism, the BBC has had no choice but to position UKIP as its main coordinate in the Europe debate.

The allure of such an argument is particularly unfortunate from a democratic perspective as another function of a European lens - aside from that of holding Brussels to account - is to provide a more general template through which to observe Britain’s own nationalist idiosyncrasies (those which underpin the the nationalism's of both UKIP and the current government). This was a point that emerged with force in the run-up to last year’s Scottish independence vote and was put particularly well by Adam Ramsay in his comparative analysis of European demography. Britain, is exceptional, just not in the way that its own nationalists have tended to emphasise:

[It’s ] Britain that is the fourth most unequal developed country on earth, in which pay has in recent years fallen faster than in all but three EU countries, in which people work the third longest hours in Europe for the second lowest wages in the OECD despite having Europe's third highest housing costs, highest train fares and the second worst levels of fuel poverty. 

It's Britain which has the least happy children in the developed world, the highest infant mortality rate in Western Europe and some of the worst child poverty in the industrialised world. It's British elderly people who are the fourth poorest pensioners in the EU. It's Britain which has the eighth biggest gender pay gap in Europe and child care costs much higher than most European countries.

It's Britain which has a wealth gap twice as wide as any other EU country, Europe's greatest regional inequality, productivity 16% behind the average for advanced economies and the worst record on industrial production of the rich world

These are shocking statistics and demonstrate in clear-cut fashion that Britain’s problems do not stem from the EU alone. The level of inequality, for example, can be traced to a string of national neoliberal policies and particularly the gusto with which the political elite has embraced the mantra of privatization, as James Meek outlines in his encyclopedic Private Island. Why, for example, can Germany have free higher education and Britain one of the highest tuition fee costs in Europe? Why does Germany invest in high-quality social housing and Britain doesn't? If the BBC was to emphasise these case studies, objective truths, rather than relying on the emotive misinformation of its key figureheads the culture of debate surrounding Europe would be significantly higher. This would not constitute bias – i.e. prejudice against a group or position – but the introduction of vital information into one of the nation’s most significant debates.

UKIP’s popularity is grounded in the attractive claim that ‘bringing sovereignty back’ will resolve Britain’s problems on its own. Without major constitutional reform, of course, this will achieve nothing more than the consolidation of the elite into a new configuration, with no guarantees against corporate power, state surveillance or the excesses of financial capitalism. Surely it is the BBC’s responsibility to make sure these arguments are heard. The British public is Eurosceptic largely on the basis of a perceived ‘invasion’ by migrants when what is really at stake is the democratic illegitimacy of both Westminster and Brussels. As UKIP seeks to force public discontent inwards, towards an archaic of the nation-state, the BBC at the very least has a responsibility to reframe this problem in a wider European context, of which the UK is only one part. 

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