Saturday 18 May 2013

Dateline Europe

Dateline London continues down its familiar path, unfortunately.

Today's discussion opened with the question of Britain's membership of the EU and the Conservatives. As Gavin Esler framed the question in his introductory remarks: 
Britain in or out of Europe? Is the Euro-debate helping or hurting the Conservatives?
When the panel was introduced I doubt I would have been alone in expecting to see someone of a Eurosceptic, right-wing persuasion as one of the programme's guests. Alas, it wasn't to be. Alongside the American liberal Michael Goldfarb, Mina al Oraibi of the Saudi-backed Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and the Indian liberal Ashis Ray was David Aaronovitch, the Labour-supporting columnist of The Times - a keen pro-European and no friend of the Tories - or UKIP. 

I bet you can guess what happened next. Gavin Esler framed the debate more strongly by asking whether the debate on Britain's EU membership is 
a distraction from the core problem of a still-struggling economy and is it a sign of what some see as a damaging European obsession within the Conservative Party.
David Aaronovitch agreed that it "isn't as important issue for most British people" compared to the economy and unemployment. The "population as a whole doesn't share this obsession". He then critiqued the Conservative Party. 

Just as David echoed Gavin's question, so Gavin's next question echoed David's response - all reinforcing the same message:
Ashis, what do you make of the argument put forward by Labour [and just then by David Aaronovitch], which is it is a distraction, which is the way they would put it, the economy is the issue, there's not much use in promising something that might not happen till 2017, you've just got to get on with fixing the economy? Does that play to the majority, as David would put it, of British people who don't care about this as much as some activists?
Ashis obliged, saying "Absolutely right, people are much more concerned about the economy and several other issues than whether or not Britain should be a part of the EU or not. It's incredible that this is a topic of discussion at all at this point of time...". He then critiqued the Conservative Party, accusing Tory backbenchers of "panic and Europhobia" and the leadership of being "immature".

Gavin then bowled Ashis a gentle, underarm lob:
We've seen quite a bit of Indian investment in this country in recent years, outward investment from outside the EU into the United Kingdom. Do you think - because, again, this has been raised - that there may be some business people who think, 'Well, let's postpone thinking about this, just to see what happens'.
Ashis obliged again, batting this anti-Eurosceptic question for six, saying "Indeed" and claiming that Indians invest in Britain as a staging post for the European Union. "It is the Common Market that Indian investors have been looking for".

Mina al Oraibi (above) brought up the U.S.'s position on Britain and the EU, agreed with David, and reinforced the point that the Euro-debate is a distraction: "Nobody seems to have anything sensible to say about the economy, so, you know, this gives soundbites and talking points..." Unemployment is rising, and the papers are wasting all this "ink space" on the EU.

Michael Goldfarb took up an invitation from Gavin and used it to bash the sort of people he likes bashing, imaging Obama saying "How are your crazies?" to Cameron and Cameron replying "How are your crazies?" (My, how they laughed!) Obama and Cameron are trying to behave as they should but they both face these people who are "so detached." Like in America, there are enough safe seats for British Conservative that they can be "obsessed about something that only 8% of the rest of the population is obsessed about". He then attacked the US Republicans over Obama's health laws. Another guest reinforcing a single message, projecting by the presenter and the other panellists. A cosy consensus. And it didn't end there...

Gavin Esler took up Michael Goldfarb's point and reinforced one of Mina's:
Gesture politics, as this has been called, has its uses, doesn't it? It keep the party faithful quite energised. It gives them something to talk about. As Mina says, everybody knows....the economy is very difficult and..."
Michael attacked gesture politics, recalled John Major and the "bastards"...."and it goes on and on and on, and it's ridiculous" [rather like the bias on 'Dateline London]. 

This intervention from David Aaronovitch is an interesting one:
You've put your finger on a real difficulty here, which is that if the inclination of the political parties is to notice a tendency in the population as a whole and think we'd better be with it what it gradually means is that the contrary argument, which is quite often the sensible argument, goes by default. You just don't hear it. So quite often at the moment you will hear three shades of Eurosceptics debating terms of referendums on BBC programmes and you want get a single person who's arguing in favour of Europe. You just don't hear it.
All I can say to that, as I'm working my way through past editions of The World Tonight, is that David hasn't been listening enough to the BBC! The pro-European bias is one of the few really clear trends to emerge so far (as I shall outline in due course), with nary a Eurosceptic in sight for weeks on end - until splits in the Conservative Party arise - and pro-European after pro-European presenting their point of view on matters European. I believe David to be mistaken about this. (I'm sure the feeling would be mutual).

Gavin then invited him to compare the debate in the Conservative Party with that over gay marriage. David obliged and attacked those in the Tory grassroots opposed to gay marriage as "backwards". (Nice display of liberal contempt for social conservatism there). Gavin didn't demur (even out of devil's advocacy) but chucked in the name of Phillip Hammond instead. David Aaronovitch said Mr Hammond is wrong on gay marriage. 

Michael Goldfarb then put the liberal, elitist line in support of David Aaronovitch:
But, you know, sometimes, occasionally, it used to be, in the recent past, in my lifetime, politicians sometimes got out ahead of their constituents rather than pandering to their prejudices, both again in Britain and in the United States. 
Then, clinching the whole argument of the programme so far, Ashis Ray described the Euro-debate as "a non-issue", and dismissed Eurosceptic dreams as "not going to happen".

"OK, let's move on," said Gavin. As indeed they did. 

The BBC's concept of impartiality involves giving all the main shades of a hot, political issue a fair crack of  the whip. This debate presented BBC viewers with four shades of anti-Euroscepticism. Worse, five shades of anti-Euroscepticism given Gavin Esler's general line of questioning. Quite how this is considered acceptable, I just can't say. 

Except that they might say that this is an internationally-focused programme and if the only Brit on the panel was pro-European and pro-Labour, that was just a fluke to be balanced out over many programmes by Eurosceptic, pro-Conservative/UKIP Brits. (Quite how they'd defend Gavin's general line of questioning I'm less sure.) That isn't the case though. Firstly, British politics is discussed pretty much every week and, secondly, over the last three editions when the British Euro-debate has been discussed, the representatives of the British press have all been from the pro-European camp:

18/5 David Aaronovitch (The Times)
11/5 Yasmin Alibhai Brown (The Independent)
4/5 Michael White (The Guardian)
(Ann Leslie of The Daily Mail was on the week before, but Europe wasn't discussed).

On neither of those other editions was there a Eurosceptic voice to be heard either: Greek leftist Maria Margaronis, U.S. reporter Greg Katz and Israeli writer Saul Zadka alongside Michael White; Pakistani journalist Shahid Sadullah, BBC reporter Dmitri Shiskin and John Fisher Burns of The New York Times alongside Yasmin Alibhai Brown.

Last week's edition was almost as bad as this week's. 

Gavin Esler asked Yasmin Alibhai Brown whether she thought the idea of the UK getting out of the EU was "realistic politics". She said "no, it's not realistic politics". She talked of the country's "high fever". "There's no rational debate about Europe any more. At all," she said. [Given her irrational debating style that's a bit rich coming from YAB!] She mocked the Tories and added [oh so rationally], "The nation's gone mad because of this UKIP thing." The consequences of getting out of Europe "won't be pretty."

Shahid Sadullah couldn't "see how anyone in their right mind can talk of leaving Europe." 

"They are not in their right mind," interjected YAB [as sensibility as ever].

"Exactly," agreed Shahid.

John Fisher Burns did the decent thing and warned his fellow panels of "the danger of being so dismissive" of UKIP and tried to explain why UKIP might appeal to people and why is winning votes ("like it or not"). Needless to say, he was swiftly rounded on for his attempts at impartiality and the ever-emotional Yasmin ranted on about it all being "emotional and it's all about not wanting immigrants, not liking foreigners, not liking Europe." JFB laughed and said "I don't want to be - God help me! - a propagator for UKIP" [clearly feeling he had to say that, in this less than entirely rational company], and said that UKIP voters aren't against immigrants per se, they just want some controls. 

The impartial BBC reporter Dmitry Shiskin then came in and gave his impartial point of view that "I think the general tone of conversation probably needs to be a little bit calmer and more constructive about Europe." He recounted his own experience of coming to Britain in 2000, quoted a Russian nobel prize winner in Manchester's criticism of all this "knee-jerk" immigration talk, and then opined (oh so impartially) that 
there's something of the past in the whole discussion about...It's about Britain being an island. It's very easy for us to get away from Europe. In 2001 and 2003, during the economic upturn, nobody talked about leaving Europe. I think it's directly linked to the economic situation.
Well, if he thinks that nobody was talking about leaving Europe in the early 2000s, he's clearly misinformed about British politics. And why is he - the BBC Global News Digital Development Editor- expressing an anti-Eurosceptic point of view? I'm at a complete loss to know how that's not considered a breach of BBC impartiality.

Gavin Esler finally (and belatedly) made some attempt to do the right thing, asking Yasmin Alibhai Brown:
But let me put a point to you, not the arguments about immigration, not the direct political arguments...but the big picture argument surely is that most British people think they joined some kind of club, which is a good economic club, and they understand that, but actually what they joined is a process and it's a process towards European integration and, so, while they're quite happy with the economics of it, broadly, and they understand the questions you've raised about jobs, they don't like the process. They do not want to be part of the euro and that's a perfectly legitimate argument, isn't it?
Yasmin began another rant, but time was running out and she and John Fisher Burns were cut off in their prime. 

Again, except for that single token question from Gavin Esler, where was the inbuilt impartiality in that discussion? Nowhere to be seen, prompting John Fisher Burns to attempt a measure of fair play. 

The problem with Dateline is its limited range of panellists. The line-up needs refreshing. More attention to providing a range of views is needed too, as is a much greater sense of balance. Gavin Esler needs to play devil's advocate for the under-represented side whenever an imbalance arises. He certainly shouldn't, as he has a habit of doing, ask questions that reinforce a strong imbalance on the panel (as he did this week). Dateline could be such an interesting programme if it sorted itself out.

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