Why 'biased' BBC news team
stands accused of selling its soul to Euroland
Eurosceptics are questioning the corporation's
impartiality. Damian Thompson asks if they have a case
A retired research scientist from Cambridge is
refusing to pay his television licence fee in protest at the BBC's
coverage of the European Union. "We are moving towards an
oppressive super-state yet the BBC gives us very little real
information about it," he says. "It reminds me of Soviet propaganda.
It really does."
On the face of it, the comparison sounds a little
excessive. But this particular licence refusenik, Vladimir
Bukovsky, has actually spent 12 years of his life in Soviet
psychiatric hospitals and prison camps. As a civil rights
campaigner, he did more than anyone else to expose the persecution
of dissidents during the Brezhnev era.
Earlier this month, Bukovsky stood outside the
reception of Broadcasting House and took a pair of scissors to a
giant facsimile of his licence. Needless to say, there were no BBC
television cameras present to record the event but it will have
acutely embarrassed the corporation at a time when the Eurosceptic
campaign against BBC bias is gathering pace.
For the past year or two, sarcastic paragraphs have
been appearing in diary columns, offering miniature illustrations of
the corporation's Europhile mindset - reporting, for example, that
production staff were seen applauding pro-federalist speakers during
a televised debate on the EU or that Martha Kearney,
Newsnight's political editor, had agreed to judge an essay
competition entitled: "Why are we afraid of the European Union?"
Minotaur, an independent monitoring unit run by a
former head of publicity for BBC News, is currently analysing every
reference to Europe on the Today programme. Previous Minotaur
surveys have covered the 2001 general election and the launch of the
euro notes and coins.
Each has come to the same conclusion: that the
corporation's European coverage is slanted in favour of the single
currency and presents the case for withdrawal from the EU as, in the
words of one BBC correspondent, "flat-earth politics".
So far, the BBC has found it easy to shrug off the
Minotaur reports. It points out that they have been commissioned by
Lord Pearson of Rannoch and are therefore not quite as
independent as they might seem.
There are signs, however, that corporation executives
are more worried than they are prepared to admit. Anne Sloman, the
corporation's political adviser, has been spotted lunching with
Pearson. The meeting was cordial but it is hard to imagine anyone
less likely to win over the corporation's critics.
According to a BBC current affairs presenter who
understandably refuses to be named, she once told him: "Don't you
realise that these people [hard-line opponents of the EU] are mad?"
Pearson's organisation, Global Britain, has posted
several hundred pages of Minotaur findings on its website, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/exit.jhtml?exit=http://www.globalbritain.org.
Although in places the reports do seem one-sided, reading too much
into slips of the tongue or hurried editorial decisions, taken as a
whole they point to a subliminal BBC "line" on Europe that is
difficult to reconcile with the obligation of impartiality set down
in its charter.
In the five years up to 2002, Eurosceptics became
increasingly convinced that the BBC was acting as an unofficial
cheerleader for the single currency. Several programmes employed the
device of inviting pro and anti-euro lobbyists to change the minds
of a target audience but, on closer inspection, seemed designed to
produce a particular outcome.
A 1997 Panorama studio debate achieved an 18
per cent swing to the euro in less than an hour. In 2001,
Referendum Street subjected residents of a north London
street to the arguments of both sides.
But, not long before filming began, the Eurosceptic
Zac Goldsmith withdrew from the project because of the producers'
insistence that their anti-euro team should be led by the
unappealing David Mellor.
This time, the swing was 23 per cent in two days,
though viewers were given no evidence about how the polls were
conducted. When Panorama repeated its debate this May, there
was another swing to the euro but only after 40 voting machines were
switched off "to refine the sample".
By this stage, many Eurosceptics were convinced that
the BBC would try to nudge the electorate in a referendum, just as
it has admitted doing in the 1975 Common Market vote, when
Today disseminated pro-EEC information supplied by the
Public opposition to the euro fell during 2001;
Minotaur speculated that the BBC's positive coverage "could well
have contributed to this significant change".
The high-water mark of euro-enthusiasm was reached
this January when the euro notes and coins were launched. "Euphoria
in Euroland," was the opening line on the Ten O'Clock News.
"Euphoria at the BBC" might have been a better description.
This was how Paul Mason of Newsnight reported
the scenes in Maastricht: "As the midnight hour approached, a giant
inflatable euro tree blossomed into life. For once, the Ode to
Joy seemed exactly the right tune."
Jim Naughtie, in Paris for Today, struck an
almost Biblical note: "The arrival of the currency that the fathers
of modern Europe dreamed about are [sic] all symbols made
As it turned out, it was the last good news about the
EU the BBC could report for nearly a year, until the agreement on
enlargement. The value of the euro dropped as the Germany economy
went into seizure; allegations of corruption were levelled against
the European Commission by Marta Andreasen, its sacked chief
accountant. Blair argued with Chirac.
Some BBC programmes reported these developments
impartially. Others seemed intent on acting as a buffer between the
bad news from Europe and the public.
The Six O'Clock News, after reporting
Andreasen's charges, went over to a BBC correspondent in Brussels
who simply repeated the EU's rubbishing of Andreasen; the
Commission's press officer couldn't have done better.
The latest Minotaur report focuses on Today's
handling of the last European Council summit. The Franco-German deal
to cap farm subsidies caught the programme by surprise, says
Minotaur, and its review of the press on Oct 25 played down its
significance. Listeners were told that the agreement was opposed by
"those European conspiracy theorists" the Sun and the Daily
The next day, it emerged that Tony Blair had made a
scathing attack on the deal. On Oct 29, his stand-up row with Chirac
dominated the newspaper headlines.
Today reported it briefly but a crucial part of the
story, the cancellation of an Anglo-French summit, was ignored until
Oct 30 when, bizarrely, the Rev Leslie Griffiths announced it on
Thought for the Day with the comment: "What a to-do!" Throughout all
this, only two out of 13 interviewees expressed negative sentiments
The case for withdrawal from the EU was not heard.
But then, as Minotaur says, it almost never is. Thirty per cent of
the electorate want to leave the EU but you would never guess that
from the BBC's output, which treats the pro-withdrawal lobby as an
eccentric or malevolent force.
A television news report during the election showed a
UKIP candidate hammering at a campaign board. He was shot from a low
angle, the sky throwing his face into shadow: pure Hitchcock.
"Steve Reed wants to smash the European Union to
pieces," said the commentary. Why is there such antipathy to anti-EU
campaigners? According to one senior BBC journalist, it is because
their opinions fall outside "the fairly thin band of ideology that
gets the stamp of approval".
In August, the BBC accepted a £25 million EU loan to
make programmes, tying its commercial future into the success of the
EU project. For the BBC's Labour-supporting chairman and
director-general, support for the EU makes ideological and
Yet there is no evidence that the management dictates
a pro-euro line to its senior journalists, most of whom would scream
blue murder if it tried to.
But, in a sense it does not have to because, outside
a small circle of independent-minded correspondents, there is a vast
army of junior reporters, script editors and researchers whose
right-on prejudices - on Europe, hunting, immigration and abortion -
are so instinctive that they are not even aware of them. This is
hardly surprising, given that they are recruited mainly though the
media pages of the Guardian.
If, over the next few years, the strain of
enlargement begins to pull Europe apart, it will be interesting to
see if the BBC will allow a national debate over Britain's
membership - or, to put it another way, whether million of licence
payers who oppose membership will get their money's worth.
At the moment, the signals are mixed. Richard
Sambrook, head of news, has warned his journalists that they need to
be more concerned about impartiality. On the other hand, no public
institution is quite so resistant to criticism as the BBC.
A few months ago Andrew Turner, the Tory MP, wrote to
Gayvn Davies, the BBC chairman, asking about the Minotaur reports -
documents that contain the most detailed allegations of bias ever
levelled against the corporation. Davies's reply was positively
Olympian in its condescension.
"BBC management have not so far alerted us [the
Governors] through the normal reporting channels of any issues
raised by the Minotaur reports of bias in our coverage," he wrote.
"I therefore have no reason to believe that these reports give
grounds for concern."