Saturday, 30 March 2013

The UK's future in Europe

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As a fairly regular listener (for over a quarter of a century) to Radio 4's The World Tonight I often find myself viewing its homepage. For several weeks now, prominently positioned just beneath its 'Latest episode' link, the homepage has been showcasing one particular edition of the programme, from last December:


I presume the reason for featuring this special edition so prominently and for so long must be because they are especially proud of it and think it represents The World Tonight at its best, dealing as it does with a charged political issue. 

The charge that the BBC is biased in favour of the European Union is an often-made one. (I've been known to make it myself from time to time!) The corporation's admission that it received nearly £3 million of funding from the EU has only served to fuel such concerns. Does this edition of The World Tonight supply any evidence for such a bias? Did it provide a range and balance of views - some arguing that the UK can prosper outside Europe, with others disagreeing?


John Jungclaussen's report

The programme began with a 'point of view'-style report from John Jungclaussen, London Correspondent of Die Zeit - a "a self-confessed Anglophile and Europhile".  Dr Jungclaussen is "very worried" about Britain's possible divorce from the EU.

He talked first to the joky Eurosceptic Quentin Letts of The Daily Mail, getting in the charge that the British media is "highly emotive" in its misleading of the British people and, after Quentin had finished, mentioning the "Little Englander" charge made against people like Mr Letts (whilst personally distancing himself from it).

Dr Jungclaussen continued that Britain leaving the EU would be "catastrophic". The EU is the UK's biggest customer. What about the "special relationship" with the US? Won't that "save" us? Not according to an American "business analyst who had lived in London for a long time" (Glenda Geeves?). Dr Jungclaussen ask her a splendidly leading question: "So for American business how important is it for Britain to be in the UK (sic - he meant EU!) and offer a gateway into the European Union. I mean, after all, one of the largest markets in the world?" "It is extremely important," she replied, agreeing with the thrust of Dr Jungclaussen's question and said that the UK would be as "attractive as before" for the US if it were no longer in the EU.

He then argued that the UK's departure "would be terrible for Europe as well" as Britain has long been "the voice of reason in the EU". The "Europhile" cross-bench peer Lord Haskins was summoned to back up this point. Lord Haskins praised Britain's role in building the single market and said he would be "sad and shocked" if the UK left the EU. He remembers why the EU was formed, after the most devastating war in human history.

To the strains of "Silent Night", Dr Jungclaussen expresses his own fears that the UK will leave the EU. "A disaster for Britain and a disaster for Europe" he calls it.


'Interview' with Radosław Sikorski

OK, so that's one side of the argument put. What's next? A European voice which shares Britain's Euroscepticism perhaps? No, rather remarkably, it was an interview with Radosław Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister - another European who believes precisely what John Jungclaussen believes, that Britain should stay in the EU. Mr Sikorski talked to presenter Ritula Shah. "He explained why he felt so strongly about the need for the UK to remain within the European Union," said Ritula. And so he did. This section took the form of an interview, though Mr Sikorski's answer was more like a speech. It went on, uninterrupted and unchallenged for  2 minutes and 42 seconds.

Essentially, we had the same case put twice in the opening twenty minutes of the programme.



Paul Moss's report

Instead of allowing a third voice to put the counter-argument (either as a report by that person or as an uninterrupted talk/interview), the programme then proceeded straight to a report by the BBC's Paul Moss.

Paul went to Cornwall to investigate British Euroscepticism. Ritula Shah's introduction to his report framed the argument thus:
"Are the critics right in their concerns or is it simply a misunderstanding about the purpose of Europe?" 
As far as I'm concerned, Paul Moss made no attempt to show that the sceptics could be "right in their concerns" and every attempt to show that there is indeed a lot of "misunderstanding about the purpose of Europe". It was an argument - and, in my opinion, a pro-EU argument being advanced by the impartial BBC reporter.

Amazingly, this report was the only section of the programme where voices were heard expressing arguments in favour of the UK exiting the European Union. Why "amazing"? Because in a programme whose stated aim was the air this very issue, the relegation of this particular side of the argument to a few fleeting vox pops in a report is highly questionable.

Paul Moss went to meet some UKIP supporters in a pub. We heard from two of them, very briefly. We then heard from the local UKIP candidate Stephanie McWilliam, who Paul mis-introduced as "Steph McWilliams". She said UKIP is now on a roll. In less than one and a half minutes, UKIP disappeared, and were not heard from again. That was it - in a three-quarters-on-an-hour-long programme on the subject of Britain's membership of the European Union.

Paul then went off "in search of someone who might put the other side of the argument" and found John Teagle, a local company director who "is a big fan of the European Single Market" because it makes exporting to Europe (his biggest market) easier. "Case closed, you might think", said Paul, after choosing not to challenge Mr Teagle over this aspect of his comments. Paul Moss continued
"But not quite, because it turned out that John Teagle is not actually a fan of the European Union itself. He cited one thing he particularly disliked about the power of Brussels. What he said wasn't actually true, but represents perhaps a commonly held belief." 
This attempted to fatally undermine Mr Teagle's point even before he'd made it. Mr Teagle's "untrue" point was this:
"Brussels is imposing on us under the Human Rights legislation. There's debate now on whether prisoners in the UK should be able to vote at general elections."
Paul Moss pounced, firmly:
"What's that got to do with the EU? It's actually to do with the Council of Europe, nothing at all to do with the EU."
Poor Mr Teagle was taken aback and sounded embarrassed, laughing nervously:
"Ah, OK, er..but, no, but it is difficult for Joe Public to tell the difference between one aspect of Europe and another."
He stood corrected.

Or did he? Well, not according to Mary Ellen Synon at the Daily Mail:
Yet the fact is that Teagle had it exactly right, and Moss had it exactly wrong. The Lisbon Treaty incorporated the European Council's Court of Human Rights into the EU.
I won't go into the full trainspotting details, but for a start the preamble of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, one part of the Lisbon Treaty, states: 'The Charter reaffirms...the Social Charters adopted by the Union and the Council of Europe and the case-law of the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights.'
The EU has made it legally impossible for any member state to operate outside the demands of the European Court of Human Rights. The EU has nailed Britain and every other EU member state to it.
So for a BBC reporter such as Moss to tell Joe Public that the ECHR is 'nothing at all to do with the EU' is, and this is the best gloss I can put on it, deeply ignorant.
As I say, I hope Teagle demands a correction and an apology from the BBC. 
Having made his point about Mr Teagle's misunderstanding of the EU (if such it was), Paul Moss went to talk to the Cornish band Road Runners who "were also not exactly sure about what the European Union does."

Before we heard from them, Paul told us that the community centre in Redruth where they record their music (the Elms Centre) was "set up with the help of an EU grant". Paul ask the band's singers what the words "European Union" meant to them. They were pretty positive to begin with - "Community. Community trying to be together. All working for the same goal, trying to make a better place for the whole of Europe" - but went on to say that different countries want different things. Paul was ready for them:
"And yet no more here seems to be aware that this whole thing was funded by the European Union". 
The band members took the bait:
"Maybe it's a marketing problem for themselves."
"Maybe it's something they need to start letting know that they're funding it, if you know what I mean, so that people like us will know where it's coming from and then we can give...."
"Gratitude!"
"Yeah. They'll get thanks for it, if you know what I mean."
"That is exactly what the European Union is trying to do", continued Paul as he assumed his commentary. He helped the EU along even more by then detailing other grants the EU is giving to help Cornwall before speaking to Nigel Ashcroft,  the man who runs the superfast broadband project in Cornwall and who says the EU should do even more to "blow its funding trumpet":
"We should really be making sure that everybody in Cornwall knows that the money that's coming from Europe is really going to accelerate our economy." 
You can, I hope, see how Paul Moss's report has gone so far. After letting us hear very briefly from some UKIP supporters, none of whom was giving time to make the case against the EU- never mind the case for withdrawal from the EU - we heard from a businessman who was used to show how (supposedly) ignorant people are about the EU and then from three beneficiaries of EU largesse who are used to amplify this point about how we don't understand the EU and then used once more to blow the EU's trumpet.

Finally, what about the Common Fisheries Policy? Paul then talked to some fishermen, all anti-EU. We heard from some of them, voicing their concerns. Paul countered their concerns in his introduction and in his questions to them - pointing out that Brits can fish in French and Spanish waters and reminding them of all those project being funded by the EU ("an awful lot" of them), for example. He didn't get very far though in convincing them!



Closing discussion


We still hadn't heard a sustained argument against Britain's continued membership of the European Union. We'd heard two sustained argument for though. Would the closing discussion with three members of parliament change that?

No. None of Ritula Shah's three guests were in favour of Britain leaving the EU. Given that the programme was specifically about the question of whether the UK should leave the EU - an issue challenged by Dr Jungclaussen and Mr Sikorski - I would have though that it would have been only right and proper to have at least one guest in this final discussion willing to make the case for the UK's exit. I would have said that was obvious. Evidently the producers of The World Tonight thought otherwise. If they thought about it at all.

We did have a Eurosceptic though, given that the first guest was Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom. She wants us to stay inside the EU but favours renegotiating a looser relationship with Europe.

To compound the clear imbalance in the programme so far, she was put up against two more European  pro-Europeans who would stick up for the EU and criticise British Euroscepticism. At least they differed, however, on the question of the UK's continued membership of the EU. Otto Fricke of the German liberal FDP wanted us to stay but the French socialist Axelle Lemaire was prepared to shrug her shoulders if we left.

Still, at least Andrea Leadsom challenged some of their arguments - and Paul Moss's argument about the generosity of EU funding - and put across plenty of Eurosceptic points and Ritula Shah conducted the discussion fairly enough.


Conclusions

By featuring this edition of the programme (from just before Christmas last year) so prominently on its homepage - even more prominently that the latest edition! -, Radio 4's The World Tonight is clearly wanting as many of its listeners as possible to hear it - and re-hear it. Why? Is it simply because they think it's a 'gold standard' edition of the programme, something that it can proudly recommend to its audience, or is it because they want the pro-European message I believe it seeks to project to be heard, again and again? My trusting side says the former; my sceptical side (in more senses than one) says the latter. You must make up your own minds on that, of course.

I've dipped into this territory before as far as The World Tonight is concerned, but dipping really doesn't cut it with the BBC.  Is this edition typical (if you agree that it's as biased as I'm saying it is), or merely a blip? You can't judge a single edition of a BBC programme - as the BBC is the first to tell complainants. You have to take the programme's output as a whole into account. That being the case, this may need a more systematic examination. Does it keep happening? Are there enough counter-examples to neutralise it if it does?


Coda: Book of the Week

The pushing of this edition of the programme puts me in mind of another quirk of Radio 4's 'Listen again' facility.

If you fancy trawling the Book of the Week archive and listening to some of the past editions (this past week's book has been a biography of Hugo Chavez by the Guardian's Rory Carroll), you can trawl through the whole of 2012 and find not one Book of the Week you can re-listen to. Same for 2011...with two exceptions: a biography of Charles Dickens from November 2011 and a collection of essays of the state of the European Union from the same month. This latter book (if book if is), State of the Union, was serialised  (if serialised it was) in five daily essays.

Rather like a standard Dateline London panel, it gathered five writers (journalists, historians, novelists) from five different countries - Italy, Germany, France, Ireland and Greece. Unfortunately, also like on Dateline London, it gathered together five like-minded people. All are strong pro-Europeans: journalist Beppe Severgnini, Chancellor Kohl's former advisor Michael Stürmer, French commentator Agnes Poirier, Irish writer Fintan O'Toole and (less obviously) Greek novelist Ersi Sotiropoulos.

Is it not intriguing that they should choose to keep this particular pro-European Book of the Week available for listeners to listen again for getting on for one and a half years now whilst making no other book - except that biography of Dickens - available for the same purpose? I'd call that odd, at the very least. Wouldn't you?

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