Saturday 12 March 2016

Keeping tabs on 'The World Tonight'

As well as looking at Newsnight's coverage of the EU referendum, I've also been taking a look at its counterpart on Radio 4, The World Tonight, reviewing all the editions since the announcement of the date of the EU referendum to see how they've covered it. 

I'll also go out on a limb and pass judgement on the bias (or lack of bias) found on each episode. (Feel free to question any of them).


The first post-announcement edition, on Monday 22 February, had three features on the subject. 

First came an interview with Alex Forsyth, BBC political correspondent. This discussed the story from the angle of "profound" party splits, especially for the Conservatives.

Then came the first joint interview, introduced like this: 
But how is the renegotiation and the prospect of a referendum viewed by European politicians? We brought together three former senior figures. all of whom agreed they wanted the UK to remain in the union but had rather different views of what might lie ahead"
The guests were Dick Roche, former Irish minister for European affairs; Edith Cresson, former French PM; and Jacek Rostowski, former finance minister of Poland  

As the presenter said, all three supported Britain remaining in the EU. No anti-EU voices from inside the EU were included.

Then came a report asking, Could football be an important factor in the final outcome of the referendum? Its talking heads were: Keir Radnedge, sports reporter; Mark Perryman, Philosophy Football; Charlie Whelan, former advisor to Gordon Brown; and Mark Field, Conservative MP. Its closing line went to the (pro-REMAIN) Mr Field: 
The perception of most voters is that we in politics are in a bit of an ivory tower and it looks, therefore, if you're trying to play that footballing card that somehow you're doing it in a rather inauthentic way. But I still think it's quite possible that sporting success, as peripheral as it might seem, at the margins these things might just make a difference.
The report, which didn't focus on the substance of the issue, suggested that if the home nations do well in EURO 2016 it might book the 'Remain' vote while if we go out early it might boost the 'Leave' vote. 

Especially because of the raft of anti-Brexit non-British politicians this must result in a...

Bias conclusion: Pro-Remain


Next, on Thursday 25 February, came a joint interview with polling expert John Curtice of Strathclyde University and pollster Damian Lyons Lowe of Survation, on the topic:
What about the migration crisis in Europe? Will voters be swayed to leave or remain depending on how European countries handle the growing numbers of arrivals?
Naturally, as polling experts, neither nailed their own colours to the mast here on the question of 'In' or 'Out'.

Bias conclusionn/a


On to Friday 26 February and a joint interview between David Cameron biographer Isabel Oakeshott of the Daily Mail and Boris Johnson biographer Andrew Gimson of  ConservativeHome. They were invited on...:
For a flavour of the different points of view already being expressed by senior figures in the Conservative Party on the EU referendum...
This wasn't focused on the substance of the issue. 

Were I to guess I'd say Miss Oakeshott was pro-Leave and Mr Gimson pro-Remain, but I'm not sure. So...

Bias conclusion: n/a


The second week began with a report on Monday 29 February. The choice of subject was highly favourable to the 'Remain' side, as it's one of their chosen themes - the threat to the ex-pat community of a Brexit:
Forget for a moment the immigrants. What about the emigrants? That concern was flagged up by the government today as it published its assessment of the exit process should voters choose to leave the EU in the referendum. The report warned that British people who've emigrated but still live within the EU could lose many of their rights. So, 2 million risk losing the right to work abroad, but also the right to free healthcare in their adopted countries. The report's been dismissed by Out campaigners as just more scaremongering. But what about the views of ex-pats themselves? The EU country with the most ex-pats is Spain, many of them living on the Costa del Sol. The World Tonight's Paul Moss has been there to canvas local opinion.
Paul Moss's report did, however, offer a balance of pro-Remain and pro-Leave 'vox pops', though more time (47.5% of the interview) was given to the Remain supporters than to the Leave supporters (who got 35.8% of the interview). The last part of the report was given over to Simon Manley, the UK's ambassador to Spain, who got the closing line
We have Facebook channels, we have Twitter channels, to spread the message from the Electoral Commission that the referendum is a really important decision for all of our country and I think it's important that Britons wherever they live have that opportunity to exercise that vote.
Bias conclusion: Pro-Remain


Wednesday 2 March's edition also picked a helpful story for the Remain side - a remain business making the anti-Brexit case. The point was made in an interview with Simon Jack, the BBC's business editor: 
Management at BMW have tonight waded into the debate over Britain's membership of the EU. It's been revealed that workers at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars in the UK have received an email from the German parent company apparently highlighting the risks posted to the company by a vote for the UK to leave the European Union.
The interview did discuss criticisms of the company for its behaviour but the choice of subject (for me) results in a...

Bias conclusion: Pro-Remain


There wasn't a section about the EU referendum on the Friday 4 March edition, but the substance of the issue was raised during an interview with the (pro-REMAIN) former SNP leader Alex Salmond

The issue at hand was Mr Salmond's involvement in getting Iran to change its policy on the death penalty for drug traffickers. Mr Salmond used the opportunity to score an anti-Brexit point, arguing that the EU was vital in bringing this about and that individual countries could not have achieved what the EU achieved.

This wasn't really the programme's 'fault' (though he wasn't contradicted by the BBC interviewer), so this will probably have to be....

Bias conclusion: n/a.


Onto last week and a couple of features on the Monday 7 March edition. 

The first of these was an interview on the topic of "Is paralysis [in parliament] possibly the knock-on effect of the upcoming EU referendum?" with Peter Riddell, director of the Institute for Government. This stuck to procedural matters. 

Then came a report on a topic highly favourable to the pro-Leave side - i.e one of their chosen themes - namely the EU's negative effect on British fishing:
When it comes to voting in the EU referendum, what issues will decide it for you? Trade? Perhaps sovereignty? How about fishing? The fishing industry is a relatively small part of this country's economy but it's one that's long complained that membership of the European Union is damaging to business, and members of the anti-EU campaign have now said they'll give fishing a prominent position in their attempt to win over wavering voters. Our reporter Paul Moss has been to Scotland's main fishing port of Peterhead to hear which way the argument's blowing.
Paul Moss's report did, however, offer a mix of pro-Remain and pro-Leave 'vox pops', this time with more time (57%) going to the Leave supporters and less time (43%) to the Remain supporters (the percentages here not counting the report's opening scene-setting passage). The closing line went to one of the pro-Remain 'vox pops': 
We've got long-standing historic ties with Europe. It would be terrible if we break them.

Despite giving the last word to the pro-Remain side and presenter Ritula Shah's introductory counter-point that "the fishing industry is a relatively small part of this country's economy", this has to be given a...

Bias conclusion: Pro-Leave


The EU referendum-related joint interview on the Wednesday 9 March edition was on the topic of who's allowed to give a view on the subject rather than on the substance of the issue itself: 

This morning's headline in The Sun read 'Queen Backs Brexit'. Now, in a rare move, Buckingham Palace has complained about the article to the press watchdog. The Palace says the Queen is and remains politically neutral. But at the beginning of the week, John Longworth resigned as director general of the British Chambers of Commerce after facing criticism for declaring his personal views about the Europe referendum during the BCC's conference. And the Charity Commission's been criticised for telling voluntary organisations they can only enter the referendum debate in exceptional circumstances. Yet David Cameron's freed his MPs and cabinet ministers from collective responsibility. In other words they can openly support and campaign for whichever side of the Europe debate - in or out - they choose. So with more than 3 months until the EU referendum actually takes place who should be allowed to take part in the public debate? Well, Adam Ramsay is co-editor of Open Democracy UK and Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA - the union for senior managers and professionals in the public service".
However, some of the things said by the two guests - Adam Ramsay of Open Democracy (who talked about Britain having the chance to finally lay its colonial past to rest) and FDA union general secretary Dave Penman (who backed the sacking of the boss of the BCC for his pro-Brexit comments) - led me to check. Adam has blogged that he will be voting to 'Remain' while Dave's union's press release makes it pretty clear where his union stands too (backing the government line on staying in a reformed Europe).

Somewhat hesitantly then, that must be given a... 

Bias conclusion: Pro-Remain


No hesitation is needed over the final item though - an interview on the Friday 11 March edition with Alan Johnson, head of the Labour Party's 'In' campaign:
Now, as leader of the Labour Party's In campaign in the EU referendum the former home secretary Alan Johnson wouldn't call himself a reluctant European but that's how he describes the man he says is his hero - the former Labour prime minister Harold Wilson.
You won't be surprised to hear that Mr Johnson used the opportunity to wax poetic about the virtues of the EU and the UK remaining in the EU. And he received little challenge either.

So that's a firm: 

Bias conclusion: Pro-Remain


Now, of course, none of these 'Bias conclusions' mean that any particular edition of The World Tonight was deliberately biased - or badly biased. It's just my judgement that they had a bias in a particular direction. 

And it's a matter of interpretation, obviously. 

On that basis then...I make it 5 editions with a pro-Remain bias and 1 edition with a pro-Leave bias. 

I'd say though that the opening edition's gathering of three people from outside the UK all trying to persuade us to stay in the EU and the final edition's unchallenging interview with Alan Johnson were the strongest cases of bias, and that an overall trend of 'Pro-Remain bias' is becoming clear.

There's still over 3 months to go though.


  1. A lot the bias will come from structural bias. For instance Norman Smith's 5 key issues doesn't include democratic control. But that is a key issue for many leavers on both left and right.

    1. Good point. Norman Smith chooses "security, immigration, jobs, finance and trade".

    2. Yes, that's why the BBC has to distract with immigration and economic fearmongering.

    3. But notice how immigration is treated differently from trade. With trade you get items on "What would happen to trade and jobs if the UK left the EU?" But with migration you don't get "What will happen to immigration if the UK remains in the EU?" When migration is looked at it's in a rather amorphous way as something that "people are concerned about", not as something real, with real impacts on schools, hospitals, employment and pay. The BBC are much more likely to go to a particular firm and ask them how their orders will be affected by Brexit - far less prepared to go and ask people on the social housing waiting lists how they feel about their chances of getting a decent place to live in with net migration running at 320,000 per annum. Also I've noticed the debate is set out in very black and white terms e.g. that either you have free movement and the right of people to move here from the EU area or you don't. But there is no reason why, having left the EU, you might not have people coming to work in the UK on a guest worker, time-limited basis, with an infrastructure contribution from their employer.

  2. Excellent work and tireless effort as usual, Craig. I have only one quibble.

    The Thursday Feb 25 edition was ultimately pro-Remain. Everything leading up to the pollsters segment was about how some European countries not wanting to take in refugees will destroy the EU. Not that the undemocratic methods which led to crisis are the problem, but that countries like Austria don't want innocent women and children seeking safety coming in through countries like Greece. I realize that events predicated the choice of examples, but it's almost pantomime. Innocent, put-upon Greece, already a victim of the wealthier EU countries, being hurt by stock villain Austria.

    If the UK leaves the EU, that will be the final straw, apparently. This sets up the pollster segment about whether or not immigration is the main reason people want Out. Ritula Shah took care to make the distinction between the 'refugee/migrant' issue and plain old immigration. It was clear she was trying to get the pollster to say that Leavers were concerned about immigration, full stop, which as we know is racist and wrong, as opposed to having a possibly more legitimate concern about Europe creating chaos with the 'refugees/migrants' from outside Europe. Big difference. Then one of the pollsters gave the game away.

    "It's only if this cultural concern, this concern about immigration, is married with a belief that if we left the European Union we'd actually be economically better off..." would it be a deciding factor. Otherwise, the pollster said, most people think Britain would be economically better off In. So racism and xenophobia is the deciding factor for Leave supporters.

    This is pro-Remain in that it demonizes people concerned about rapid, mass immigration from third-world Muslim countries and creating more segregated communities. In other words, the usual BBC Narrative worked in where useful. If they had done the pollster segment first, then gone to the Austria/Greece debate and then on to the Christian refugees in Thailand and so on, it wouldn't have had the same effect. The producers chose to build a narrative instead.

    1. I agree. The narrative is what counts. One way of looking at the migration crisis is "A state that cannot patrol and protect its borders must die." This would lead into a narrative about how the EU is in danger of chaotic disintegration. Well, you won't find that narrative on the BBC will you? No, the dominating narrative is all about a humanitarian crisis that has to be responded to within Europe. An Australian style solution of processing people thousands of miles away from mainland Europe is hardly ever canvassed even though it is easily the simplest way of distinguishing between genuine refugees and economic migrants (the latter won't waste their time on it whereas genuine refugees will be glad to find safety wherever that be). The narrative about WHY we should be concerned specifically about Islamic migration (Cologne/Rotheram style attacks; importing terrorism; introducing Sharia law which competes with our democratic law making etc) also doesn't get a look in as a narrative (these issues only come up in a disconnected way as though they are not all linked to the common factor of Islam.

  3. Also we should keep an eye on the non-news progs. On the Now Show there were several references to the Referendum issue. One was quite oblique (all about how the media like things cut and dried or black and white, whereas any sensible person realise things are more complicated and we have to settle for muddy compromises in life) which I read as a subtle Remain nudge. It was a very odd item because normally comedy works on the principle of extreme contrasts - comedy is rarely subtle in the way it treats its subject matter. But suddenly "settling for the imperfect" is the new comedy gold. Then there was the John Holmes piece which was like wading through a jungle of caveats but he managed to smuggle in the message that concern about EU migration was a sign of "racism".

    The more I think about it the Now Show was seriously weird! But really it was only because they were clearly having to perform contortions in order to just launching an all out attack on those want to Leave the EU.


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