Sunday 9 October 2016

Sir Craig Oliver gets it wrong

On this week's The Media Show, Sir Craig Oliver got to complain about BBC 'false balance' during the EU referendum campaign and used the following specific example:
One of the stories that I tell in the book is: George Osborne and I were standing outside the Prime Minister's office on Sunday evening watching the BBC News, about to go into a meeting. And in the morning Penny Mordaunt, who was a government minister, had said that Britain does not have a veto on Turkey joining the EU. It does. It's a straightforward fact. And yet all day long on BBC bulletins, on BBC online, we were struggling to say, "But why can't you just say 'It's not true' right from the off? Help people understand this story because she's just got it wrong". 
And we watched the bulletin and there were two packages about Turkey in that bulletin that night. And at the end we just looked at each other and said, "What hope do the viewers have in understanding this?" because at no point was it made crystal clear that there are no international experts at all who think Turkey is going to join the EU in the next few years and Britain does have a veto and France, you know, I think, has to have a referendum. 
And I'm just saying that what needs to happen...and it's not just me that's saying this but Paul Johnson from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who did a report for the BBC on this subject...when you speak to BBC viewers and listeners and readers online they feel incredibly frustrated because they feel they're just getting 'on the one hand, on the other' and saying 'Help me out!'. 
Well, it looks as if I'm going to have to do what Sir Craig demands on the BBC's behalf - as The Media Show didn't do it here - and 'help' people out by pointing out that Sir Craig himself 'just got it wrong'. 

What you've just read above from Sir Craig Oliver is simply not true, and I know because I wrote a piece about that very Sunday evening bulletin (including some transcriptions) and, as you will see, the former Downing Street spin doctor was wrong on several counts. 

He said the BBC didn't say that Penny Mordaunt was "wrong" when the BBC actually explicitly did say that she was "wrong" - and the BBC's Alex Forsyth even used the word "wrongly"!

And when he said that "at no point was it made crystal clear" about international experts saying there was no chance of Turkey joining the EU in the next few years, he 'forgets' that Alex Forsyth not only made that clear, saying herself "It is in fact some way off" but also featured Prof. Anand Menon (an expert) saying "it's not anywhere near becoming an EU member". 

The BBC could hardly have done Sir Craig's bidding better.

So, Sir Craig Oliver is behaving like Coco the Clown here and talking out of his newly-knighted behind.

Even his bit about BBC online is wrong. The BBC News website's Reality Check feature did rubbish Mrs Mordaunt's claims "right from the off" and "helped people understand this story":

So Sir Craig was comprehensively wrong.

On a related matter incidentally, why, whenever he uses this Turkish accession example on the BBC (as I've heard him do before), does no BBC interviewer ever ask him about his boss David Cameron's Turkey unlikely to join EU ‘until the year 3000’ claim? That claim was surely at least as worthy of a BBC 'reality check as Mrs Mordaunt's claims?

Anyhow, here's the relevant bit from my original post (from Sunday 22 May) in full just to show just how wrong Sir Craig was here. (I'll be charitable and put it down to 'confirmation bias' on his and George Osborne's part):

Wrongly claimed

Tonight's BBC One evening news bulletin began with the following headline:
Referendum battle lines are drawn over the Health Service and the chances of Turkey joining the EU. With controversy over what future migration levels might be David Cameron clashes with one of his own ministers on whether Britain could veto Turkish membership. The head of NHS England says the Health Service would be effected in a UK exit caused an economic slowdown. We'll be exploring the latest arguments from the two sides, with less than five weeks to go.
The bulletin (courtesy of BBC reporter Alex Forsyth) quickly - and explicitly - ruled who was right and who was wrong over that Turkey 'controversy': 
Sitting on Europe's south-east flank, Turkey's now at the centre of this referendum battle. Its role in tackling the migrant crisis has renewed talk of it joining the EU, and that's allowed those who want the UK to leave to raise questions about immigration and security. Like this minister [Penny Mordaunt] who today wrongly claimed the UK had no power to stop Turkey joining.
So put that in your pipe and smoke it, Penny! (according to the BBC).

We then got clips of Dave and Boris both saying (in the past) that Turkey should join the EU.

Then Alex did a 'Reality Check' for us. She 'made it clear' that Turkey wasn't going to be joining the EU any time soon. And blog favourite Prof. Anand Menon (the one who did that massively pro-EU series on the EU for The World at One) then duly appeared as Alex's 'talking head' to say (correctly) that the UK has traditionally been Turkey's biggest cheerleader as regards its entry into the EU and to emphasise the point that it's not "anywhere near becoming an EU member". And Alex then capped that by saying of Turkey's prospective EU membership, "It is in fact [emphasis hers] some way off..." (BBC message reinforcement on overdrive, I think, here!)

So relax about Turkey! (And don't, whatever you do, mention that Turkey has already been granted free visa access to the EU as part of the panicky EU-Turkey migrant deal!  {Edit: But see comments below}.)


  1. This, by the way, is a classic illustration of why the BBC's favourite line of defence - "We get complaints from both sides, so we must be getting it about right" - is such a weak one.

    Here I was attacking the same BBC bulletin from one side and Sir Craig Oliver was attacking it from the other side. Ergo, 'complaints from both sides'.

    However, Craig Oliver's complaint about is demonstrably untrue while mine isn't (if I say so myself), so the 'complaints from both sides' argument collapses as a result.

  2. I remember this well. Mordaunt was on Marr on the Sunday morning and repeated her view. Marr gave her ample opportunity to clarify, but she was trying to inject a conspiratorial tone without losing her job.
    I read her point as being "even though the veto existed, it was unlikely to be used because the EU commission supported Turkey's access, and the UK government was pouring money into Turkey's accession campaign to facilitate access."

    The BBC did clarify the veto point ad infinitum, but didn't spend any time on asking why, if you don't desire something, you'd put a massive deposit on it and start construction. That sums up my problem with BBC journalism.

    Johnson clarified his enthusiastic support for Turkey's accession a few days ago.

  3. Craig, I just re-read the last sentence of your article. Are you sure this is the case ?
    I had a quick look around, but only found this update.

    1. There's "Muphry's law" in action, right at the very end!

      Yes, you're right. It looks as if Turkey isn't getting free visa access to the EU until December. The word "already" was wrong.

  4. Excellent debagging of the Nuisance Knight! What a load of tosh he spoke!

    I think there is a further layer to this as well...there is a difference between a legal power of veto and a practical power. Having already campaigned for Turkey's accession it is difficult to see how Cameron could effectively oppose Turkey's entry if it managed (difficult I know) to tick every box required of it. And if the other 27 countries all considered it a matter of political interest for Turkey to accede, then tremendous pressure would be put on the UK to accept. A further point is that even if Cameron was implying (without saying) he would exercise a veto in contradiction of his previous stance, he could not stop a future other government, a pro-EU Labour/Lib Dem/SNP coalition government for instance, from agreeing the accession.

  5. Excellent work, Craig. I do remember this incident. The whole point of it was to debunk what Mourdant said. Oliver couldn't be more wrong here. I also remember that a good number of Beeboids spent the rest of the following hours and days telling any Brexiter in view (e.g. Carswell) that there was no chance Turkey was going to join the EU for at least 30 years. Plus they gave Cameron and others plenty of air time to state the same. "Complaints From Both Sides", indeed.

    I've just finished reading Roger Mosey's "Getting Out Alive" memoir about his time at the BBC (not anywhere near as filled with damning evidence as I expected - more apologia than attack - but he does say a few pointed things). He speaks well of Oliver, but this and other incidents give the impression that Oliver only wants the BBC to report things he likes (except that one time he was right to rant at Norman Smith).

    I was very critical of any Brexiter who kept saying that 75 million Turks were poised to rush into Birmingham and London (e.g. Carswell and Boris and Farage). However, I was also critical of the BBC for not pointing out that, regardless of the claims that Turkey wasn't joining for decades, this was actually a very recent development due to recent Erdogan shenanigans, and it was still official Conservative party and EU policy to fast-track Turkey's membership once it all died down. Of course, doing so would have appeared to lend credence to UKIP and Brexit concerns, and might have made a viewer think twice about Remaining. Can't have that, so they stifled that part of the debate. It seems that Craig Oliver would have objected and called it pro-Leave bias had they allowed it to be discussed.


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