Saturday 4 November 2017

Of Francoists and illegal referendums

Q: Which side is this?

The BBC's Catalonia coverage has been quite controversial. 

I know that many of you, like lots of people I see on Twitter, think the BBC has been biased in favour of Spain against supporters of Catalan independence, but the BBC also came under attack last week from a couple of MPs - Labour's Chris Bryant and the Conservatives' Sir Greg Knight - who jointly accused it of 'pro-separatist bias'

Mr Bryant and Sir Greg, the Times reported,
...condemned the BBC for referring to Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, as a Francoist, “as if to suggest that he supports a totalitarian state”. They said: “The impression left by BBC reports is that this is a battle between noble-spirited Catalans and iron-fisted Franco-supporting right-wingers. This too is entirely misleading. 
As soon as I read that I wondered, "Did the BBC really call Mr Rajoy 'a Francoist'?" Because if they did that would be quite something, especially if they meant by it that the Spanish PM is a Francoist now, here in 2017. I've hunted and hunted and I can't find any evidence that the BBC actually did call him that, but who am I to doubt such honourable gentlemen (as Mark Antony might have said)? 

Anyhow, this week's Newswatch with Samira Ahmed saw more complaints of pro-independence bias from three viewers, and Samira said that most of the complaints about the BBC's Catalonia coverage had come from that direction too. The BBC's Andrew Roy came into the studio to answer the charges and, in the way of BBC editors on Newswatch, stood by every jot and tittle of the BBC's coverage.

(Incidentally, the conspiratorially-minded among you will notice that if you add the letters 'a' and 'j' - the German for 'yes' backwards - to Andrew Roy's surname you get 'Rajoy'. Can that really be a coincidence?)

Here's the inevitable transcript:

Andrew Roy

SAMIRA AHMED: I'm joined by Andrew Roy, who's World Editor for BBC News. Thank you for coming on Newswatch. Most of the viewers who did complain said the BBC had been too favourable to the pro-independence side. How do you respond? 
ANDREW ROY: We haven't been. We've been physically in both locations, in Madrid and Barcelona, so we can put both points of view. Our correspondents have always been careful to get pro and anti clips from protesters and politicians into their pieces. We've been trying throughout to be absolutely rigorous in being impartial and objective and putting both sides of the argument. 
SAMIRA AHMED: I think the concern is that the headline coverage, which is how most viewers encounter the story, they feel has given the impression that this has been primarily a violent state crackdown on a popular independence movement and that's not fair. 
ANDREW ROY: I think that's incorrect as well. There was violence at the very beginning around the illegal referendum. We reported that the referendum was illegal. We showed what was happening in the polling stations. We also reported afterwards the disparity in figures about the numbers arrested and the people injured by both sides. Since then, there hasn't been much violence. There has only been a series of rallies in Madrid and Barcelona, both pro and anti independence, and we've been reporting that, reporting what the politicians have been saying, and giving both sides air time. 
SAMIRA AHMED: Do you think you did enough to explain why the referendum was illegal? 
ANDREW ROY: We've put online an awful lot of explainers. We've got pieces about the constitution of Spain. We have got pieces about the devolved powers of Catalonia. We have the history of the two sides in this dispute. If your audiences are saying they still don't understand it then maybe we need to do more, but we've certainly gone out of our way to try to explain what is a complex situation and anyone who wants more depth, that's all available online. 
SAMIRA AHMED: The trouble is, audiences, I think reasonably, can say we can't be expected to go hunting for every piece of background online. The bulletins are what a lot of people watch and that is what they are complaining about. And perhaps in reports that tend to be two or three minutes long, it becomes simplified as a tale of right and wrong. 
ANDREW ROY: We haven't been doing just two or three minutes on this story. We've been doing much, much more than that throughout the whole dispute, and like I say, we have also been pointing out here is a correspondent in Madrid, here is a correspondent in Barcelona, we're giving you both sides of the story. We've done historical explainers on air. We've also brought in the issues about the economics around this independence movement and whether it would or wouldn't work. So we've tried as hard as we can to get across to the audience the complexities of it in a reduced television bulletin, but this issue has had an awful lot of air time. 
SAMIRA AHMED: I think there's a particular challenge for television when you get passionate, colourful demonstrations wanting change, compared to what can seem a relatively grey argument, with a government that wants to keep things the same. Does that leave viewers inevitably with an unbalanced impression? 
ANDREW ROY: You saw from those clips, that the people who are in favour of unity are just as passionate and waving just as many flags, confusingly similarly coloured to the Catalan flags, but they are as passionate in putting their views across. We covered those rallies. We covered them when they are in Barcelona and when they are in Madrid. And we also go out into the crowd and get the voices supporting the rallies and also the voices down the sides of the rallies, who are possibly not supporting that point of view. So we do try to get the balance across, but also within the bulletins pieces we do. 
SAMIRA AHMED: Andrew Roy, thank you. 


  1. Roy: "There was violence at the very beginning around the illegal referendum. We reported that the referendum was illegal."

    I think that proves the BBC bias the other way. As far as Catalan nationalists are concerned, the referendum was perfectly legal, following on a previous referendum and the last elections, and on the basis of human rights conventions allowing for self-determination of peoples. To call it an "illegal" referendum is to come down firmly on Madrid's side.

  2. The metro-left pro EU bias of the BBC has been tested by this whole Spanish business. On the one hand the liberal streak want to empathize and be on the side of the "brutally oppressed" by showing images of riot police preventing people voting. But on the other hand, since these riot police were from a Pro-EU democracy and the EU seems happy enough with the situation, any criticism might detract from their top priority of Brexit reversal by any means.
    I suspect their are many at the BBC who just wish the Catalonia situation would just go away.

    1. Yes, I think you are right. They are completely conflicted. Barcelona has always had a sentimental attraction for them, being identified with Orwell, fighting fascism and a modern, progressive approach to life. But as you say, all that will if necessary be sacrficed by the BBC on the high altar of the EU Cult.


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