Tuesday, 28 June 2016

EU referendum: the case against BBC

Chris Dillow has a blog post about BBC's record in covering the EU referendum. I agree with much of it, but most of all Norman Smith's advocacy of a more robust attitude on the part of the BBC in correcting misstatements. Indisputable lies like "Turkey is about to join the EU" were not refuted authoritatively, but instead their rebuttal was attributed to the Leave campaign. At the same time, genuinely debatable assertions like "the EU is a failed project" and "the euro has been a disaster" were accepted as a given, instead of proponents of either or both being given the chance to argue to the contrary.

I would go further than Mr Dillow. I believe the BBC lost the cause of truth about the EU long ago. Lord Reith offered the British people programmes to educate, inform and entertain. With the addition of "and services" after "programmes", this is still the basic mission statement of the corporation today. My contention is that in its news coverage, the BBC is more intent on entertainment than in education. Its news editors have a tabloid mindset.

 It is difficult to recall an item in daytime news bulletins on a subject for debate in the European Parliament, except for a couple of Nigel Farage's xenophobic rants. Today's 1 o'clock news was at it again. Contrast that with the excessive coverage given to US politics. We are instructed in the mechanism of selecting presidential candidates and in the internal politics of US parties, neither of which can be influenced by British voters. They do have entertainment value, admittedly.

Instead, the corporation responded to the need for information about EU matters with an occasional short programme put on late at night and in the hands of the Eurosceptic Andrew Neil. BBC-Parliament does now provide raw coverage of some European Parliament proceedings, but it seems only when neither the House of Commons nor the (unelected) House of Lords nor the Scottish Parliament are in session, and when there is no recent unbroadcast footage from the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Recorded-as-live EP debates are all very well, but even people who know a bit about European politics need the sort of guidance as to what is going on which is provided by the BBC in respect of the Senedd or the House of Commons.

The BBC should have been educating the British people regularly about the democratic structure of the EU, including the power that elected national ministers have over policy. It should have highlighted the debates in the EP about matters which affect us, such as mobile telephone roaming charges, vehicle emission limits, curbing bank bonuses and fisheries policy. It should explain the different political forces at work, including those of the UK-based parties and the groups to which they are allied on the continent.

If this had been the case since the UK's accession, the EU referendum vote could have been carried out on the basis of knowledge about the EU rather than on voters' judgments of the personal character of the leaders of each of the campaigns. It is not too late to put European affairs on the same footing as American coverage. Indeed, it is essential if, as is probable, there is a general election this year which is in effect a second referendum on our relationship with the rest of Europe.

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