Scrutinising the Scrutineers: part 1

The European Scrutiny Committee has locked horns with the BBC, repeatedly accusing it of a pro-EU bias. Is the corporation’s editorial independence under threat? 

Julian Petley
14 April 2015
EU headquarters

What are they actually scrutinising? Flickr/Shelley Bernstein. Some rights reserved.

In 2013 the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee produced a report in which it argued that “given the possibility of some form of EU referendum - either on membership or following treaty change - over the next ten years, the media, particularly (given its role) the BBC, needs to ask itself difficult questions about how it deals with EU issues.”  It returned to this topic last month in a follow-up report, noting that “given the possibility of a referendum on the UK’s EU membership before the end of the decade, and potentially a renegotiation of the Treaties, the issue of how the media in general, and the BBC in particular, covers the EU is of paramount importance.”

Indeed. Given that informed debate about the EU has been made largely impossible by raucous withdrawalist newspapers in which all pan-European institutions are ignorantly lumped together as a Britain-threatening ‘Brussels’, one most certainly needs to raise the question of whether it is even possible, let alone desirable, to hold a referendum in such circumstances. As for the BBC, research carried out by Cardiff University for the BBC itself, published in 2013, found that there were distinct problems with its coverage of the EU in the two years which it studied, namely 2007 and 2012. According to this research:

Both years see a sharp focus on Europe as a problem for the UK, particularly in terms of national sovereignty. Both years also see Westminster voices and in particular the views of the Conservative and Labour parties, dominating coverage … UKIP barely merits a mention whilst the positive case for Europe tends to be framed solely in terms of economic benefits and political influence. There is very little room for sources presenting a broader range of views, and for substantive information about what the EU actually does and how much it actually costs … This is a topic area which does not generally encourage a broader representation of opinion because the reporting – and the views of the sources interviewed – largely focuses on political infighting. The reliance on Westminster sources means that the relationship of the UK with the EU is usually covered within a framework where the EU is seen as a threat. 

The European Scrutiny Committee

These were not the lines of enquiry pursued by the Scrutiny Committee, however. The press, specifically, is never mentioned. It is piqued to the point of obsession by lack of media, and particularly BBC, coverage of its own affairs. It takes entirely at face value ‘research’ carried out by an anti-BBC, anti-EU pressure group, Newswatch (if you think my characterisation unfair, take a look here). It clearly wants more voices critical of the EU to be heard on the BBC. And it appears to believe that it has the right to try to exert pressure on BBC editorial decision-making.  

So, what exactly does this Committee do? According to its webpages it assesses the legal and/or political importance of draft EU legislation deposited in Parliament by the Government, deciding whether to clear the document from scrutiny or withhold clearance and ask questions of the Government. It can also recommend documents for debate, either in a European Committee or on the Floor of the House. Additionally it can question Ministers in person and conduct general inquiries into legal, procedural or institutional developments in the EU. Its Chairman is Sir William Cash, and its members include several other MPs who are highly critical of the EU, to put it mildly, namely James Clappison, Kelvin Hopkins (who is openly in favour of withdrawal), Chris Kelly, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Henry Smith.  

What originally piqued the Committee was the lack of media, and especially BBC, coverage given to its 2013 report, Reforming the European Scrutiny System in the House of Commons. This argued that “the depth and pace of EU integration, now accelerating with demands for fiscal and political union and economic governance, has demonstrated the need for effective democratic parliamentary scrutiny and accountability of Government at Westminster - all of which affects the UK electorate." The report alludes frequently to the “fundamental role of national Parliaments”, in line with recent speeches given by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe, and argues that:

It is time to translate this shared view into concrete proposals, and we do so in this Report. Not only do we recommend a strengthening of the scrutiny reserve, we conclude that now is the time to propose the introduction of a form of national veto over EU legislative proposals, and then to explore the mechanics of disapplication of parts of existing EU obligations, notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972. 

This would require “an Act of Parliament to disapply the European Communities Act 1972 in relation to specific EU legislation”, an action which, with truly remarkable understatement, the Report admits “would be legally complex and controversial.” 

The bowels of the BBC’

In order to understand the Committee’s critique of the BBC it would be helpful to start off by looking at the evidence session on 6 February 2013 with Ric Bailey, Chief Adviser, Politics, BBC; Mary Hockaday, Head of Newsroom, BBC; and Peter Knowles, Controller, BBC Parliament.

Questions concerning BBC coverage, or lack of coverage, of the Committee’s work crop up on at least eight occasions (Q191, Q193, Q200, Q201, Q203, Q208, Q210, Q242) and the Chairman mentions not being asked onto Question Time “or any of the other programmes” (Q238). Two examples of alleged BBC bias are given, and both, unsurprisingly, concern alleged pro-EU bias, one involving a Today item (Q214) and the other general coverage of the Lisbon Treaty (Q221-2).  

The Chairman also takes a particular interest in those contributing to the BBC College of Journalism, asking:

What are the qualifications? You get people who have degrees in various subjects giving the lectures, all that sort of thing. As somebody who takes an interest in the extent to which people have looked at these questions in detail and in the broad landscape, what sort of qualifications do they have? Do they come from academic institutions? … It is the old business of who guards the guardians? The question is, who are the people who are providing the basic information? Where are they coming from? When the researchers sit down in the middle of the night, for example for the Today programme – I cannot believe John Humphrys and the others invent all the questions off the cuff; they are sitting there and being fed certain lines of inquiry – it is not unnatural that we would be interested in the base of the research that goes into that. (Q231-3)

The distinct suspicion that he may be thinking that he may have found the source of the pro-EU ‘institutional culture’ that those critical of both the BBC and the EU are convinced lurks at the heart of the Corporation is only intensified by a question which he posed to David Keighley of News-watch in an evidence session on 13 March 2013:

Do you think that there is any possibility that this [institutional bias by omission in EU matters] is derived from the nature of the research that takes place within the bowels of the BBC, in terms of the attitudes of the people who are asked to go through the output for news and current affairs and whose job it is to do the research-not just on the Today programme but on anything else? Do you think that … the question of the College of Journalism is an area where some further analysis needs to be done in order to establish why it is that you have this silo attitude when actually there should not be one at all? (Q133)

An ‘inappropriate’ request

The Committee also asked Lord Patten, the Chairman of the BBC Trust, to appear before it, which for some time he refused to do, giving rise to a correspondence (increasingly testy and threatening on the Chairman’s part) consisting of ten letters sent between 11 September 2013 and 13 March 2014. Patten eventually agreed to appear, but then retired from the Trust and so was unable to do so. In his letter of 25 September he explained that “I do not think my appearance at an evidence session would add materially to the Committee’s work” on the grounds that “the Trust has no role in day-to-day operational or editorial decisions, such as the level of coverage to afford to any particular area”, and that “while the Trust has a general duty to do all it can to ensure the impartiality and accuracy of the BBC it is not and should not be involved in decisions such as which programmes to broadcast.” 

As the correspondence wore on, however, Patten made it clear that his unwillingness to appear stemmed additionally from his, and the Trust’s, concern that to do so might be perceived as undermining the BBC’s independence. As he pointed out on 14 November

It is incumbent upon the Trust under the terms of the Royal Charter to stand up for the independence of the BBC and in particular its editorial independence. We are bound to weigh this as of paramount importance when viewed against a request to appear before your Committee which we believe to be inappropriate. Accordingly I must decline your request. 

He noted that he has appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport and Public Accounts Committees six times, “and neither attempt[ed] to engage with us – as you are proposing to do – on the editorial decisions of the BBC." He continued: 

We wonder if you have considered that the result of you asserting your right to call me before your committee on this issue is that BBC Trustees could in future be required to appear before any select committee to discuss the coverage of the BBC in its particular area of responsibility … We can’t believe that is what was intended when the Royal Charter was drafted and we do not believe that it is consistent with the idea of an independent Trust protecting the BBC from undue political interference.

When, on 3 March, he did finally agree to appear he pointed out that, “in line with the Trust’s Charter role, I will not be in a position to engage with your Committee on the detail of BBC operations or editorial decisions.” The Report itself tartly notes that “we reject the assertion in Lord Patten’s letter that our invitation to him to give oral evidence was “inappropriate”. We fully respect the editorial independence of the BBC. But that does not mean that the BBC Trust is above Parliament, and should pick and choose its interlocutors here.”

Part two of this article is available here

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