Scrutinising the Scrutineers: part 3

UK media coverage of EU issues is frequently superficial and plagued by basic errors. The BBC, and others, must work to change this.

Julian Petley
21 April 2015

MEP’s walking to the chamber. Image: Flickr/European Parliament

At the end of the previous part of this series I noted that the European Scrutiny Committee had frequently referred to the 2005 report by Lord Wilson of Dinton, BBC News Coverage of the European Union, as a means of highlighting what it regards as the BBC’s current failures and shortcomings in this area – prominent amongst which was what the Committee appeared to perceive as its failure to give sufficient coverage to views critical of the EU.

I suggested both that this was a partial reading of the report, and that the Committee’s repeated concern (as much implicit as explicit) with the alleged paucity of voices critical of the EU on the BBC obscured other aspects of both the Wilson report and the Committee’s own strictures against BBC coverage of the EU. 

But what did Lord Wilson actually say? In general terms, he noted that:

While we have found no evidence of deliberate bias in BBC coverage of EU matters, we have found that there is a widespread perception that it suffers from certain forms of cultural and unintentional bias. It is striking how much agreement there is about this among groups who otherwise disagree passionately about almost everything else to do with Europe. We think there is substance in their concern. The problem is complex. In essence it seems to be the result of a combination of factors including an institutional mindset, a tendency to polarise and over-simplify issues, a measure of ignorance of the EU on the part of some journalists and a failure to report issues which ought to be reported, perhaps out of a belief that they are not sufficiently entertaining. Whatever the cause in particular cases, the effect is the same for the outside world and feels like bias

As far as oversimplification and polarisation were concerned he warned that:

The drive for accessibility must take account of the dangers of over-simplification. Many witnesses wished the BBC to be more precise in describing the principal institutions of the EU and its political and business process. For example the BBC should not characterise every EU institution as ‘Brussels’. This term contributes to a misleading impression in the public’s mind that the UK is not part of the decision making process within EU institutions and makes explanation of the institutions more difficult

Prefiguring one of the criticisms made by the Cardiff researchers which was cited earlier in this series, Wilson warned that ‘too often EU events are reported through the prism of party politics’, with the result that the BBC had ‘failed to reflect a significant minority opinion that the UK should withdraw from the EU because this does not figure in the policies of the Westminster parties’. This also led the Corporation to use MPs to discuss European issues when MEPs might be more appropriate. Furthermore, ‘by allowing the debate about the Constitution and the Euro to be viewed as an extension of domestic party politics it understates the cross-party and non-party divide on these issues.’

Wilson had some pretty sharp words for BBC journalists, observing that they are:

Unlikely to be able to explain the issues clearly unless they understand them themselves. There is much evidence that the public do not get the clear and accurate explanations they need because there is a lack of  knowledge of the EU at every stage of the process from the selection of an item to the conduct of the interview. Presenters often appear to be ill-briefed and insufficiently armed with the facts necessary to challenge assertions made by interviewees in live interviews, reflecting not just pressure on them but a lack of understanding by programme researchers and producers

He also pointed to ‘evidence of a misunderstanding of the political process in the EU’, drawing attention in particular to written evidence submitted by the Labour Party which stated that ‘too often it seems that you report stories about the EU in terms of events in a foreign country and present the idea that the process is one of “Brussels v the UK.” In reality the decision making process of the EU is overwhelmingly characterised by negotiation rather than confrontation, and very few decisions are taken without the UK’s support.’ 

Wilson was also concerned about what one might call bias by omission, noting that:

All external witnesses pointed out that the BBC News agenda understates the importance and relevance of the EU in the political and daily life of the UK. We of course understand that the BBC has to attract, engage and retain the audience, but this must not lead it to distort or omit challenging topics. A stated aspiration of BBC journalism is to ‘make the important interesting’ but there is a danger that instead they make the interesting important … The role of editors is very important in this context. The competitive nature of getting a story on air perpetuates the tendency to stick with tried and tested formulae, for example making sure an EU story is put across with a UK angle

At the same time, however, he criticised other BBC coverage of the EU for being inaccessible to general audiences, arguing that ‘too often coverage of EU issues fails to connect with people’s everyday experiences or the impact of EU measures and the focus is on politics and personalities rather than policy.’ Here he drew on focus group work undertaken by the BBC which indicated that ‘large sections of the public have very little understanding of the workings of the EU and how it affects their lives, and they do not find the EU coverage accessible.’

Wilson’s recommendations and the BBC’s response

Wilson produced twelve recommendations to ensure ‘better and more impartial coverage of the EU’. For our purposes here the key ones were as follows:

  1. Coverage should reflect the importance of the policy issues under discussion in the EU, should focus on substance and outcomes for the lives of the audience and should not always be seen through the focus of Westminster politics or the pro- and anti- debate. Decisions on coverage must be based on BBC News’ own assessment of their importance and how they fit into the BBC ethos as a public service broadcaster.
  2. The BBC needs to take more care in the selection of interviewees. The test of successful coverage should be whether the audience is better informed about an issue, not just whether there has been a lively confrontation between interviewees or presenter and interviewee.
  3. In particular there needs to be a more creative approach to representing the spread of public opinion particularly on issues where the full range of arguments is not represented in Parliament. This may require a different approach to non-political contributors.
  4. The problem of ignorance among BBC journalists on the EU issue must be addressed as a matter of urgency. The BBC should devote more resources to training programme makers and researchers so that they better understand the EU.

 In its response, BBC Management undertook:

  1. To offer our audiences across all platforms clear, accurate and accessible information about the way EU institutions work and their impact on UK laws and life;
  2. To ensure impartiality by reflecting the widest possible range of voices and viewpoints about EU issues; to test those viewpoints using evidence-based argument or informed opinion;
  3. To demonstrate the relationships between the different member states and the European Union;
  4. To reveal and explain to our audiences areas of contentious fact and disputed principle. 

In practice this meant that the BBC appointed a Europe Editor (the first one being Mark Mardell), and that when the BBC College of Journalism was established, training on reporting the EU was readily available. In a written response following the Committee’s 2013 hearing, the BBC Trust noted that, additionally, ‘coverage of Europe is reviewed regularly at BBC News’s Editorial board. Coverage of European issues was widened to look beyond the Westminster prism and all output ensured a wide range of interviewees.’

Different views

The first point to note about the Wilson report is that it does not accuse the BBC of being biased towards the EU, nor does it recommend, specifically, that more voices critical of the EU should be broadcast by the BBC. Thus Kelvin Hopkins is frankly wrong in his assertion during the evidence session with Rona Fairhead and Richard Ayre that Wilson ‘concluded that the BBC has shown prolonged bias in favour of the EU.' On the other hand he is entirely in line with Wilson when he asks in the session with Lord Hall and James Harding: ‘Is it not critically important that different views on EU issues are always reflected in the BBC output?  … Those views cut across all political parties and are of great importance to enable the public to form a judgment about their relative merits. They must therefore be given equal weight in the public interest.’

Providing this is taken to mean that the BBC should take into account different views on the EU within parties, as well as between them, and that it should pay attention to extra-parliamentary views on the matter as well, this is not only in line with Wilson, but also with Stuart Prebble’s 2013 assessment of breadth of opinion in BBC output, about which the Committee is distinctly sniffy. In the session with Fairhead and Ayre, for example, Hopkins describes it as ‘something of a poor relation’ to Wilson. In that with Hall and Harding the Chairman notes that some of the Committee regard it as ‘a bit of a let off’, while the Committee’s follow-up report published in March 2015 states that its members were not convinced that it was ‘sufficiently thorough’. But if the Committee believes that there should be a wider range of views, of all shades, in BBC coverage of the EU, and not simply more views critical of the EU, then it would surely be bound to agree with Prebble that the reporting the EU is a highly complex matter that cannot be encompassed simply by giving equal space to expressions of the in/out, for/against arguments, and that we have to:

Start with the fact that there is an entire Westminster perspective on every aspect of EU business, and an entire Brussels perspective on the same business. Both in turn have their own complexities, which include different voices representing powerful interests, expressed via the various arms of government, elected politicians and bureaucrats, and quangos. All of these overlap and interweave, so that frequently it may be far from obvious whether a story should best be covered from London or from Brussels, and that’s not to mention the 26 other capital cities which will have their own perspective on major matters

However, the suspicion that what at least the Committee’s Chairman, actually wants is a simple, binary approach to the issue, summed up by the question ‘Who governs Britain?’, is kindled by a revealing exchange with Lord Hall, which is sparked off by the latter referencing an earlier report on impartiality for the BBC by John Bridcut, in which, as Hall puts it, impartiality is achieved by ‘seeking as many different views as there are across our country about issues that are important.’ The Chairman responds that ‘I do not really share your view that this multiplicity of diffused ideas helps anyone to understand anything very much … When it comes to the simple question of who governs Britain and the whole relationship between ourselves and the European Union, these are things that can be explained simply.’ He then continues: 

There are two sides to this equation, in terms of whether or not you want more integration. You cannot really answer my question by referring back to this diffusion of voices. There is a question. Quite simply, there are people who believe that there should be more integration and there are people who believe there should not. On that issue, what I am asking you is very simple—that you make sure that there is a complete and equal balance between those two views as and when they come out of the radio or the television

But as Hall himself points out, it actually isn’t that simple at all; for example, the same people may want more integration on particular issues, and less on others.

Which voices?

The issue of including a wider range of voices in broadcast coverage of the EU immediately raises the obvious question: which voices? People who are opposed to the EU because of years of exposure to utterly absurd Euromyths in the British press? In the interests of informed debate, presumably not. But Hopkins is surely correct to point out during the evidence session with Bailey, Hockaday and Knowles that ‘there is one great yawning gap and that is the left critique of the European Union, which does not feature at all.’ This surely encompasses the Green critique of the EU, which in turn raises the question of why the BBC has given UKIP, and Nigel Farage in particular, not just more airtime but vastly more airtime than it has given the Green Party. As the Chairman noted during the evidence session with Hall and Harding: ‘Nigel Farage has been repeatedly put on heaven alone knows how many flagship programmes—it has been calculated at something of the order of over 30.’

And yet consider the following. The Green Party has one member in the Commons, one in the Lords, and two in the European Parliament. At the 2010 General Election it polled 265,187 votes (0.96 per cent of the total), and at the European Parliament Elections in 2009 it secured 1,223,303 votes (8.7 per cent of the total). Meanwhile UKIP has two members in the Commons, three in the Lords, and nine in the European Parliament. At the 2010 General Election it polled 919,471 votes (3.1 per cent of the total) and at the European Parliament Elections in 2009 it secured 2,498,226 votes (16.5 per cent of the total). In terms of local authorities, UKIP holds 133 seats on County Councils and the Green Party 19; the figures for Unitary Authorities are UKIP 58 and the Green Party 38; for the London Borough Councils UKIP 12 and the Green Party 4; for the Metropolitan Borough Councils UKIP 39 and the Green Party 30; for the District Councils UKIP 126 and the Green Party 67; for the Scottish Unitary Authorities UKIP none and the Green Party 14; and the Welsh Unitary Authorities UKIP 1 and the Green Party none. Overall, at local level, UKIP have 369 seats and the Green Party 172. 

‘Widespread ignorance’

Wilson’s concern that many people have very little understanding of the workings of the EU and how it affects their lives, and that consequently they find the BBC’s EU coverage inaccessible also finds a distinct echo in the Committee’s deliberations. In the session with Hall and Harding, Geraint Evans twice mentions ‘widespread ignorance’ about the EU, and in the session with Bailey, Hockaday and Knowles Michael Connarty observes that ‘I am not worried about whether they like it [the EU] or not, or which side they are on in the controversial debate. It is the lack of understanding and the knowledge that really worries me about what Europe means for the day-to-day lives of our country and the day-to-day work of our businesses.’  Judging by Connarty’s voting record on EU matters he is being entirely sincere when he expresses agnosticism about people’s attitudes to the EU, but it is difficult to read the Committee’s reports, and certain of the Chairman’s remarks, without wondering if there are those  on the Committee who feel that the more people know about the EU’s impact on the UK, the more critical of it they are likely to be. 

However, ignorance of the EU is undoubtedly an extremely serious problem. According to Eurobarometer 75 (Spring 2011), of all the members of the EU, the British are the most ignorant about it. In fifteen of the 27 EU Member States a majority claim to understand its nature and workings. In the UK, 58 per cent of respondents claim not to understand how it works, representing, along with Malta, the highest level of ignorance in the EU. Two-thirds of Europeans know that the EU consists of 27 members. With the sole exception of the UK, at 48 per cent, an absolute majority in each of the EU countries calculated the number of member states correctly. 62 per cent of Europeans think of themselves as citizens of the EU.

This is a minority opinion in only four states, the UK, Greece, Bulgaria and Latvia, with the UK scoring lowest at 41 per cent. Hand in hand with ignorance of the EU goes hostility to it. In 22 of the EU’s 27 members, a majority believe that EU membership is beneficial. In the UK this is a minority view, since only 35 per cent of those questioned thought it was beneficial, whilst 54 per cent took the opposite view. 40 per cent of Europeans state that they have a positive image of the EU. The percentage of positive opinions is equal to or above the EU average in thirteen member states, and below the average in fourteen states, especially the UK at 22 per cent. In the EU as a whole, 41 per cent state that they tend to trust the EU whilst 47 per cent express distrust. In the UK the corresponding figures are 24 per cent and 63 per cent. 

Now, this is certainly not to argue, pace the Committee, that if only the British knew more about the European Union they would learn to love it, but it is simply to state that it cannot be healthy that so many people know so little about an institution which plays such a key role in their lives, and that, in such circumstances, a referendum on the UK’s continuing membership of the EU is a truly alarming prospect. And this is a situation for which the BBC must surely take a share of the blame.  

The withdrawalist press and the BBC

Of course, by no means all the blame for widespread ignorance about the EU can be laid at the corporation's door. As I noted in the first of this series of articles, 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’. For such papers, distinctions between the Council of Europe, the European Council, the European Commission and the Council of Ministers are routinely confused, and all such institutions are simply lumped together as ‘Europe’.  

The presence of such papers, entirely ignored by the Scrutiny Committee in its deliberations on the BBC, obviously engenders considerable difficulties for the Corporation in its coverage the EU. First there is the danger that the agenda of morning news programmes in particular, such as Today, becomes skewed by the remorselessly anti-EU agenda of much of the daily press, full as it is of stories which, in actual fact, are stories only by the standards of the anti-EU news values of those particular papers. This is not a test which Today passes with flying colours (particularly when presented by John Humphrys). As Denis MacShane argues in Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe, '[the programme] seems to take its editorial line on Europe directly from the Daily Mail and the Spectator’. Certainly it is extremely hard to judge what it thinks is being contributed to rational debate (on the EU or any other subject, for that matter) by habitually including in its newspaper reviews editorialising (whether in ‘news’ stories or actual editorials) from which the programme itself would be debarred by the BBC Editorial Guidelines.

Second, and conversely, if it does not cover anti-EU stories, however threadbare, that are dominating the press at a particular moment, it then lays itself open to the charge from those hostile to the EU that it is biased towards the EU (as opposed to simply applying the journalistic values that are proper to a public service broadcaster). Nor is the BBC particularly adept at defending itself from such attacks – that is, when it bothers to do so at all.

The corruption of language   

The BBC is operating in a universe of discourse which makes rational debate on the subject of the EU well-nigh impossible. The very language of that debate has become corrupted. First of all, the words ‘Europe’ and ‘European Union’ are used as if they are synonymous, whereas it is perfectly possible to have a positive attitude towards the continent of Europe and the countries which constitute it, and a negative attitude towards the EU – and vice-versa (as Kelvin Hopkins pointed out during the Scrutiny Committee’s deliberations). Even those friendly towards the EU make this elementary mistake – witness the title of the book by Denis MacShane cited above.

Then there is another fundamental error which the BBC (and other media) makes as a daily matter of course. Take these news items on its website: ‘Talking on The Andrew Marr Show, Mr Cable agreed with Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg that a proposed cap of 75,000 people coming to the UK from the EU would not work’. Or this one: ‘The report of the leaked Home Office paper in The Sunday Times suggested Mrs May wants to introduce a cap on immigration from the EU, at about 75,000 a year. In the year to June 2013 183,000 people from the European Union moved to the UK.’ In each case the article should have said ‘from elsewhere in the EU/European Union’, but this infuriating semantic tic in BBC stories about the EU serves only to reinforce the profoundly mistaken belief that the EU is some kind of alien imposition upon the UK rather than an organisation of which the UK is a member. As Nia Harris put it in the evidence session with Bailey, Hockaday and Knowles: ‘Sometimes you get the feeling that the coverage of Europe is very similar to your coverage of a foreign country; it is not really coming from the inside. If you are covering what is happening here in Westminster, you are covering it because we are part of that country. We are also part of the European Union, but that does not seem to come across. It seems very much that it is outside.’

Problems also attend words such as ‘Eurosceptic’. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a sceptic as ‘a person who is inclined to doubt all accepted opinions’, but this means that those implacably opposed to the EU and who want Britain to leave it come what may cannot properly be defined as ‘Eurosceptics’ as, on this subject at least, they have not a doubting bone in their body. Inelegant though it may be, the only available word to describe such people would appear to be ‘withdrawalist’. ‘Eurosceptic’ would then be reserved for those who have doubts of one kind or another about the benefits of EU membership, and who want to see EU institutions reformed in one way or another, but are not committed unconditionally to pulling out.

A different view

In these articles I have shown how the European Scrutiny Committee has been angered by lack of coverage of its affairs by the media, especially the BBC, and how it has suggested that this has helped the government to downplay the importance of its work. This work is clearly significant and worthy of coverage, although on occasion the Committee might be accused of over-stating the importance of what it does and indulging in fits of pique. I have argued that a number of the Committee’s criticisms of BBC coverage of the EU are well-founded, particularly those which echo the findings of the 2005 report by Lord Wilson. But I have also suggested that, implicit in the Committee’s criticisms of the BBC, and sometimes explicit, is the demand that, if it is properly to fulfil the requirement for impartiality enshrined in its Charter and Framework Agreement, then the Corporation’s coverage of the EU needs to include more voices which are critical of it.

I have argued that this is not in line with what Lord Wilson suggested, and also that such a demand could be seen as constituting a threat to the BBC’s editorial independence. I have also suggested that it is difficult the read the Committee’s various deliberations without wondering if at least some of its members believe that the more that people understand about the EU, and especially about its impact on British people’s everyday lives, the more critical of it they are likely to be. I have shown that there is indeed a very significant lack of knowledge about the EU in the UK, and suggested that this needs to be remedied, particularly given the possibility of a referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the UK. Whether more knowledge of the EU would lead people to like or dislike it more is neither here nor there, and I have no idea what the result of greater knowledge of it would be, but, given the role played by the EU in our lives, and given the possibility of a referendum on our membership in the near future, this is a knowledge gap which needs urgently to be filled, by the BBC and others.

As I have noted at various points in this series of articles, it is difficult to read the Scrutiny Committee’s reports and deliberations without sensing that their underlying (and sometimes overt) message is that the EU plays too great a role in our national affairs, and in particular that the relationship between EU institutions and the UK Parliament needs to be re-balanced very much in the latter’s favour.  But, of course, it is possible to take a different view on this matter.  

Shortly after coming to power, the coalition agreed to undertake the most comprehensive assessment ever of the workings of the EU: the Balance of Competences Review. The idea was to allow evidence-based deliberations over the government’s European policy. As Michael Emerson explains:

Of course, the two coalition parties differed drastically about Europe from the outset. The Conservatives were largely eurosceptic, if not europhobic, and the Liberal Democrats firmly pro-European. Many Conservative MPs saw the review as an opportunity to gather information to back up their broad desires to repatriate various (unidentified) competences from the EU back to national governments. At least the coalition partners could agree on this exercise to collect information. An open invitation was extended to any interested people or organisations to make submissions and the plan was to analyse and publish that evidence. It was agreed that the publications would not attempt to draw policy conclusions, obviously because the coalition partners did not want to face the prospect of negotiating these with each other … In the end, 1,500 pieces of written evidence were submitted. These were distilled into 32 volumes of analysis, looking at individual sectors such as agriculture, energy and taxation. All in, it amounted to 3,000 carefully drafted

The publication of the 32 volumes was completed in January 2015, at a cost of between £4.5m and £5m.  Since then, there has been complete silence. This caused the House of Lords set up an inquiry via its EU Select Committee, and on March 10 it asked David Lidington, minister for Europe at the Foreign Office, if it had been worth the expense of launching the project if no conclusions were to be drawn from it. He responded: ‘The government felt it would not be right to draw conclusions that could not possibly do justice to the diversity of opinions expressed.' But as Emerson points out: ‘The central question for the review was whether the legal powers of the European Union are excessive and should be handed back to individual countries. In not one of the 32 volumes did the evidence support the repatriation of any of these powers.'

Lord Boswell, the Chair of the Select Committee stated

The Government's Review of the balance of competences between the UK and EU is to be welcomed. It could contribute to an informed public and political debate about our relationship with Europe, by making it clear where authority lies in different areas of policy. But if the Review is to have an impact, it must be better understood and much more widely read. We are disappointed therefore that the Government has gone back on its commitment to publish an analysis, summarising the key points in the 32 reports that make up the review in a single, readable, concise form. The next Government should get on with this immediately after the election. There is no point spending up to £5m of public money on an excellent Review, and then burying it. People need to know the facts about the UK-EU relationship  

Indeed they do, as I have stressed throughout this series. But apart from an article in the Guardian the non-appearance of the review appears to have received no mainstream media coverage. One can certainly understand why this story would not appeal to withdrawalist newspapers during an election campaign in which the party which they so vociferously support has made ‘standing up to Europe’ one of its key policies. But what about the BBC? One sincerely hopes that the story’s non-appearance there does not stem from the fear that those selfsame newspapers might accuse the Corporation of being biased towards the EU if it ran the story. Perhaps the EU Select Committee should take a leaf out of the Scrutiny Committee’s book and summon the BBC….    

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