Sunday 29 April 2018

BBC Radio 4 marks a year out from Brexit - a review

This, you may recall, was the BBC's way of marking one year before the date when we leave the EU, and it was evidently meant to showcase the BBC's range, depth and impartiality.  

I've not have the time to write about it so far, frustratingly, but I have (at last) finally heard it all.

In lieu of a full-scale review (to come, no doubt, from the good folk at News-watch), I'll give my own impressions at, hopefully, not too great length (as John Milton might have said before preparing to publish Paradise Lost)....


Iain Martin in his lab

The Brexit Lab

Firstly, the day did feature a programme presented by a pro-Brexit (non-BBC) journalist. Iain Martin's The Brexit Lab focused on possible positive outcomes for the UK after Brexit. 

Lord Pearson of Rannoch has been challenging the BBC for nearly two years now to name a single example of a Brexit documentary that focused mainly on the positives of Brexit. Answer there came none...

...until The Brexit Lab.

I thought at the time that it was going to be used as the BBC's 'Get Out of Jail Free' card and that they'd plug it for all it's worth - and, if last week's Feedback is anything to go by, that's already proving to be the case.

The BBC's political advisor Ric Bailey said, if you recall, "And incidentally, there was an entire half-hour programme which Iain Martin did on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago, precisely on that point about the opportunities Brexit, so they are there, and we are, you know, it’s an active part of our journalism."

Well no, Ric, it's not an active part of your journalism. On Radio 4, it's been a complete and utter one-off. 

(The occasional A Point of View from Roger Scruton or John Gray doesn't count as they aren't documentaries).

The fascinating thing though about Iain's The Brexit Lab is that it was 'more BBC than the BBC', so to speak. It really did try to be impartial. The guest list ranged far-and-wide and had a very decent balance of Remainers and Leavers, and lefties, righties and centrists (Caroline Flint, Paul Mason, Oliver Lewtin, Greenpeace's Douglas Parr on one side, Joshua Burke, Michael Gove, Mark Littlewood and Gerald Lyons on the other, with David Halpern, Nicole Badstuber and Julie Fourcade floating somewhere hard to place in between.) And Iain Martin was very generous in letting all sides have their say whilst toning down his own views.

The particularly interesting thing about this programme, however, is that Radio 4's continuity announcer announced it as:
a very personal view
I heard that live as I drove home from work that day and thought, "Well, I've never heard a programme announced like that before".

I mean, it wasn't just that the BBC announcer called it "a personal view", he called it "a very personal view".  

Have you ever heard a Radio 4 programme announced like that before (and, more importantly, can you name it)?

It strikes me as fascinating that the one pro-Brexit-leaning documentary broadcast by BBC Radio 4 since June 2016 was introduced with such a heavy distancing caveat by the BBC. 

No such caveats preceded (or followed) any of the other BBC programmes that day - even those presented by strongly anti-Brexit (non-BBC) presenters like David Aaronovitch and Jonathan Freedland.


Uriah Davis?

The EU After Brexit

And now let's move onto the rest, starting with the only programme I listened to fully at the time: The EU After Brexit (though also half-hearing The Brexit Lab), co-presented by Evan Davis and David Aaronovitch.

I rolled my eyes at it at the time, and those eyes of mine are still rolling on (like Ol' Man River). Here - unlike Iain Martin - you have a BBC man and an anti-Brexit man. And yet - unlike Iain Martin - neither of them (BBC or non-BBC) made the slightest attempt to balance their programme. 

Seriously, please listen to this and compare it to The Brexit Lab. While The Brexit Lab had a wide variety of voices, The EU After Brexit - over the course of an entire hour of BBC broadcasting - did not see fit to include a single Eurosceptic voice. 

It's not as it there aren't plenty of Eurosceptic voices across the EU, but Evan and David didn't talk to a single one of them. 

Before listening to it I laid out my expectations for what an unbiased BBC programme about the EU after Brexit would be. and top of my list was that - given the depth of Eurosceptism across Europe - it would feature Europhile and Eurosceptic voices. I thought that was the least it could do, and actually expected at least some sop to 'BBC impartiality' by the brief appearance of, say, some 'far-right populist' (for balance!). But even that never came. 

There wasn't a Eurosceptic voice anywhere to be heard. This was a view 'from Europe' which excluded Eurosceptic voices. 

This programme was, therefore, deeply and unquestionably biased.

The David Aaronovich bits featured pro-EU former ECB banker Jean-Claude Trichet, pro-EU Daniela Schwarzer of the German Council on Foreign Relations, pro-EU Labour former Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem and an academic from Warsaw University called Justyna who put the Polish point(s) of view in a dispassionate, academic way. 

Then came Evan Davis's bit featuring three EU businessmen - Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, chairman of Société Générale (former ECB); Matt Regan, Senior Vice President & Head of Europe of Novo Nordisk (Denmark); and Teofil Muresan, chairman of Electrogrup (Romania). 

Evan's opening commentary was about UK pro-Brexit people saying that being attached to the EU was being "shackled to a corpse", to a "shrinking proportion of the world economy" and to a zone that's "ill-adapted to change". What did his three EU business leaders make of that, he wondered. Well, guess what? They all think the EU is flipping marvellous!! 

Evan's little 'Evanisms' were all present and correct too. His first question to his first question was 'What is good? What is bad? about the EU. This second question to his second guest dropped the 'What is bad?' part of it and just went with 'What is good?' And when Evan told one of them not to 'talk Brexit', he later asked all three of them for their views about Brexit (with very predictable results). 

This programme is one that goes entirely into the pro-EU-biased column. 

BBC reporter Adam Fleming's commentary during the programme is worth looking at too, especially as regard President Macron (a dubious pro-EU take on why people voted for him - because he's pro-EU!) and anti-EU "propaganda" (as Adam put it) from Hungary's Viktor Orban that would make UKIP types "blush" (as Adam also put it) - highly loaded language.


Jean-Claude Juncker (after one too many glasses of claret)

The Long View

As for Jonathan Freedland's The Long View Brexit Special, well, yes, anti-Brexit Jonathan's guests throughout were pro-Brexit Kwasi Kwarteng and anti-Brexit Eloise Todd.  

So far so balanced. 

The programme, however, was fascinating, full of historically questionable analogies - and deeply biased. 

Expert One used to flight of some Anglo-Saxons to Asia Minor after the Norman Conquest to talk about the "rhetoric" of "nostalgia" that has "bled into the Brexit debate" - " the emotional connection to an ideal of a land rather than perhaps a more critical understanding that sometimes history changes and that sometimes you can’t turn back the clock". 

Jonathan Freedland then asked Kwasi Kwarteng about "older voters" behaving like those Anglo-Saxons "unnerved by hearing alien tongues" (nudge, nudge, hint, hint - not that Kwasi picked up on what JF was implying!) whilst asking Eloise Todd a very different kind of question, about whether it was her "understanding" that it was "a kind of nostalgic longing" that motivated those doomed Anglo-Saxons. Eloise then blew JF's not-so-well-hidden cover by immediately answering about Brexit and Leave voters and pretty much calling for a second referendum. 

The expert then praised the good things the Norman Conquest had brought and ended by opining, "And, in fact, the point about people today being uncomfortable about hearing different languages, again, I think goes back to the point of nostalgia for a place that is an ideal rather than a reality."

I won't go on, but the rest of the programme continued in a similar vein. 

There was the Napoleon blockade bit about how bad it was for the UK and how the UK wanted to be at the heart of Europe to counteract it. (JF: "So there’s George Canning then, Foreign Secretary, asserting Britain’s right to sit at the very centre of the European system.  Listening to that, Kwasi Kwartang, don’t you think George Canning would be amazed today if he heard that Britain was voluntarily taking itself out of the single market, the trading market of Europe, when he was prepared to use military might, naval might in order to make sure that Britain was right there in the centre of that trading system?") 

And then the programme, taunting Brexiteers, resurrected that old canard that Winston Churchill was in favour of an Anglo-French union in the early years of the Second World War. 

We've been here before. (See here too). It's not true.

Winston Churchill after bathing in the sea at Deauville, France (1922)

And JF, being biased, naturally used it in contrasting ways. To his pro-Brexit guest he asked:
Kwasi Kwartang, no figure in British history is more lionised by all sides, but especially by the Eurosceptic side of British politics than Winston Churchill, the great British bulldog, and there he is, calling for merger between Britain and France, the declaration says there won’t be two nations anymore. Surely that is a shocking fact for Eurosceptics and particularly their view of Winston Churchill?
To his anti-Brexit guest he asked:
Eloise Todd, when you hear that, of the man voted the greatest ever Britain calling for a union between Britain and France, does that alter your perspective on Britain’s relationship with Europe?
As you can see, he was asking the same question from the same stance both times, disadvantaging the pro-Brexit guest and advantaging the anti-Brexit guest. That's how biased interviewing works.

To conclude Jonathan Freedland asked his three experts for their summary. I think I need to quote this in full to give you a flavour of just how unbalanced the programme was in choosing its experts from all the available opinions and framing the questions. (Only David Reynolds refused to reveal his hand):
Jonathan Freedland: Let’s broaden out a little bit. History has played a big part in this Brexit debate, it’s raging right now with these protestors in Westminster. Erin Goeres and David Andress our historians from earlier have rejoined us here on College Green, and Erin Goeres, start with you, history is often very contested, what role do you think it has played in the debate about Brexit? But perhaps more importantly, what role should history play in this today?
Erin Goeres: I think looking back at history is a good reminder that we don’t stand at a unique moment we have seen from all of these examples that Britain has a long and complicated relationship with Europe, it is an issue that is revisited time and time again.  Britain has always been a part of Europe culturally, linguistically, politically, it’s just to what degree should we negotiate that.
Jonathan Freedland: But it seems like it’s almost always been an uncomfortable relationship, there’s always jostling and jockeying and arguing, David Andress?  I know there was a group called Historians for Britain that was on the pro-Brexit side, I think you signed a letter on the other side of the argument, can history play an important role in this discussion?
David Andress: Well, I think one of the important things we have to remember is that people don’t really learn very much history.  They learn a lot of things that they think are history, they think they understand where we’ve been in the past, because they vaguely remember things they were told at school, or politicians or newspapers use historical reference.  But in the context that I was talking about earlier, a couple of hundred years ago one of the things that you absolutely have to recognise is, on the one hand, Britain absolutely wants to remain part of this jostling European process, it cannot conceive of itself working in the world without being part of a European concert of nations. And on the other hand, when we look back and talk about British greatness, its prosperity, over the intervening two hundred years, it’s absolutely connected to the fact of Empire, to the fact of dominating and exploiting tens of millions of people all around the world. We’re simply not in that position any more.  We were the America and China combined of 200 years ago, and we no longer live in a world where we can expect to take anything by force, we have to cooperate and collaborate.
Jonathan Freedland: David Reynolds, the bit of history you talked about with us, of 1940 and Britain standing alone, it’s entered the mythology it’s in some ways the sort of founding narrative of modern Britain, it was a big part of the Eurosceptic case that Britain had stood alone, didn’t need the rest of Europe and could stand alone again.  What’s the reading you have of that 1940 episode in terms of Britain’s relations with Europe?
David Reynolds: Well you see, I’m not so keen on the idea of using history as analogy, I’m not so keen on the idea that it’s a source of lessons we can pull of the shelf and say, ‘Ah, this is a 1940 moment’ or whatever it is. For me, history is a way of thinking, and what one is trying to do as a historian is understand, if you like, complex situations from the past, what’s the elements that went into decision-making then, all the different factors and that’s then a way of helping people to open up their thinking about the situation is now, what kind of factors should be taken in, how should leaders respond, don’t go for the quick fix, ask yourself . . . don’t ask for the lessons from history, say, ‘Well, what’s the story we’re in now,’ and then try and make some sensible judgements. 

That could hardly be less impartial as a piece of broadcasting #despiteKwasiKwarteng. And yet, unlike with Iain Martin's programme, it wasn't introduced as either "a personal view" or "a very personal view" - something that speaks volumes about BBC impartiality and how the BBC sees BBC impartiality.


Really, Craig? Are you really going with this image to illustrate the next section of the post?

Oh dear, this short summary is already getting close to Miltonian length (without the magnificent language), and I've not even touched on the big main Radio 4 current affairs staples on Radio 4's Britain at the Crossroads day.

I'll try to be brief (as Tolstoy said before writing War and Peace - according to the BBC's Reality Check)...

The World Tonight

Working backwords, The World Tonight featured (as its only Brexit feature) a truly classic BBC report from BBC veteran Allan Little.

It was everything a cynic would expect from a BBC report - and the mighty Allan is a veritable master of such things.

It featured a balance of talking heads - two pro-Brexit ones, followed by three anti-Brexit ones. The first pro-Brexit voice was an aggrieved fisherman, the second a pro-Brexit blogger.

After the latter appeared, Allan said (in a subtly undermining way), "But is this anything more than a leap of faith, based on ideological conviction, rather than evidence?

And guess what? Everything that followed gave an emphatic, undermining 'no' to that question.

First came an historian talking of "Imperial amnesia" on the part of Leave voters.

Next came a fruit processing company that fears Brexit - the "fear that that Brexit vision will cut Britain off from the workforce it needs".

And finally come another Kent businesswoman who pronounced herself "petrified" about Brexit.

And Allan Little ended with the less-than-reassuring words:
No one knows what kind of Britain will emerge in the years that lie ahead, but the journey begins a year from now.  There is no return ticket and the destination remains unknown...
Seriously, Allan is one of the absolute masters of biased BBC reporting. If I were teaching the dark angels of Hell in the arts of subtle reporting (to Hell's advantage) I'd start with a thorough exploration of Allan Little dark genius at this kind of thing - and this very example. 

Allan's particular genius, I suspect, is that he doesn't believe he's being biased, even for a second. I bet it never even occurs to him, and that he sees any criticism as his reporting as being simply invalid.


That day's PM meanwhile gave over a lot of time to BBC Reality Check's supreme guru Chris Morris - someone whose bias against Brexit we've spent hours and hours detailing. It's no longer available on the BBC iPlayer but I heard it and it was typical Chris Morris as far as Brexit is concerned.

I should have transcribed it to capture it for posterity, but if you know your Chris Morris (as regular readers will), you'll easily imagine what you've missed.

The World at One

That day's The World at One featured (like that night's The EU After Brexit) the view from the Continental EU - from the BBC's Chris Paige in Ireland, the BBC's Lucy Williamson in France, Jenny Hill in Germany and Adam Easton in Poland. 

It was all disappointment and negativity about Brexit. 

The famous Laura Kuenssberg....

....(and, for all passing Corbynistas, I'll say "Boo!!" for you here to save you a little time)....

....popped up in between interviewing Theresa May on the Brexit issue. 

'Tory' Laura pressed the Tory PM on whether there would be a 'Brexit dividend', specifically as regards NHS spending. (We don't need to guess which much-mentioned bus motivated that line of BBC questioning). 

To sum up the other contributions here: Chris Paige said that Ireland is looking to the EU more than ever; Lucy Williamson said that "President Macron’s gaze is fixed towards Europe, not across the Channel"; and Jenny Hill said that the "back in business" Mrs Merkel is focused on the integrity of the EU, not Britain and its "baffling" decision to leave the EU.  Oh dear, Britain.

As for Poland, Adam Easton said that even the "most Eurosceptic" government there since Poland joined the EU "knows the benefits membership brings". 

And then Mark Mardell began his new history of the EU-UK which I'll return when it finishes. It began with Mark highlighting that OMG The Daily Mail was in favour of us joining the EEC and went on from there. 

Some bridge in Stockton-on-Tees


And as for Today, what can be said? 

Well, its starting point defined it. 

It started from Stockton-on-Tees with Mishal Husain saying "And to mark that anniversary we've come to a car parts factory on Teesside", and then adding: "Before the referendum its managing director warned that leaving the EU would be business suicide. Today, however they voted, his staff just want the process over with".

And guess what? The factory's managing director, interviewed later, still thinks that leaving the EU is a bad idea.

That's a good one for Lord Adonis. One this landmark day of BBC broadcasting why did Today decide to broadcast from a factory whose owner had previously declared it would be "business suicide" to leave the EU? Did they expect him (wrongly) to have changed his mind, or did they expect him (rightly) to still hold much the same anti-Brexit view?

Matthew Price was on hand throughout too. His first contribution was typically downbeat:
Absolutely, good morning, yeah. We’re going to hear a lot about the uncertainty that the people in this factory feel during the programme, and in fact, the BBC's internal surveys show us that people as a whole understand less about the Brexit process now than they did even just 6 months ago. 
And gloomy Matthew also ended the programme in the same downbeat way:
The BBC carries out internal research to see what audiences make of certain issues. People are concerned about the impact on the NHS, they are concerned about the way it’s going to affect the pound in their pocket, their jobs.  One of the most striking observations before we leave, one year before we leave the EU, is the growing number of people who feel they just don’t fully understand Brexit. 
To which Mishal gave the closing reply, "Matthew, thank you."

In between came sections featuring employees at that company and a young people's panel, plus BBC reporters from the three non-English nations of the United Kingdom, a section on the Arts and Brexit, as well as interviews with the Lib Dems (Jo Swinson), Labour (John McDonnell), the Conservatives (Liam Fox) and the SNP (Stephen Gethins). And, for good measure, there was a short, interruption-strewn interview with John Longworth of Leave Means Leave and a longer, much-less-interruption-strewn interview with Tony Blair. However you class John McDonnell, that's a tilt towards anti-Brexit interviewees. 


So, as you can see, there's still at lot to dig into - especially as regards Today - but the trajectory remains clear.

For a day of Radio 4 broadcasting that was, apparently, meant to exemplify the BBC at its impartial best, this day of BBC broadcasting in fact showed the BBC to be incapable of producing a fair package of programmes on the issue of Brexit. 

It was - with the exception of The Brexit Lab - the usual BBC stuff, pumping out negativity about Brexit pretty much all of the ways.

And it really is no use the BBC citing Lord Adonis & Co. in 'complaints from both sides' evidence here, grasping at The Brexit Lab and instantly escalating it to Ofcom in a colossal huff. The balance of that day's Radio 4 broadcasting was a tsunami of bias in favour of negativity about Brexit. 

I seriously challenge anyone (with time on their hands) to review this day's output for themselves and argue otherwise. You will fail (I think).


  1. Sue, you need a medal for enduring a full day of listening.
    its no surprise though. As Nick Robinson said "The referendum is over. The duty we broadcasters had to ‘broadly balance’ the views of the two sides is at an end".

    Those who commission and present BBC programmes are pro-remain. The social circle they all inhabit is pro-remain. The areas where they live are most likely London , so pro-remain.

    There is no chance whatsoever of the BBC being more balanced on Brexit.

    It is a disgrace but the evidence, clearly documented by you in this article and repeatedly on this blog demonstrates the BBC position. It will be this way for a generation, maybe longer.

    1. Very good, Sir T.H., but it was Craig's work, so the medal goes to him!

    2. You're right about the generational thing. Alistair Campbell and co. will still be out there fighting in the political jungle like a Japanese soldier continuing with the war in the Emperor's name.

      This is only Part One of a bigger struggle in any case. We still don't have a government that is serious about controlling migration properly like other countries (Japan, Singapore, Australia for instance) actually do. And we still don't have a government committed to national prosperity through increased manufacturing rather than the prosperity of a narrow financial elite based in London.

  2. Craig, not suggesting you have the time (!) but I think it would interesting to check lead BBC presenters' twitter feeds for the number of pro-Brexit tweets and re-tweets/pro-EU items/neutral items. I might have a go myself.

  3. Didn't hear the Long View (I've given up on the programme since it became a vehicle for Freedland's increasingly extreme politics). Here are some comments on it:

    1. William the Conqueror committed what amounted to genocide in the North of England (the harrying of the North). Since when has that been acceptable behaviour for the liberal establishment? Or were the guests mostly advancing a "what about the autobahns?" kind of argument?

    2. The supposedly quaint castles of the Norman that dot our land should be seen as combined prisons/torture chambers/military occupation admin centres. They are the proof that the Normans could only rule through fear. I once read an amusing piece by a historian who suggested we think of the Norman knights stationed at a castle as the equivalent of a modern day Hells Angels outfit.

    3. The Franco-British Union proposal of 1940 has to be seen as a last desperate throw to keep France in WW2. It was really a proposed merger between two Empires as well. When Churchill had the chance (several in fact) to get the UK involved in plans for European political and economic union he decidedly did not put our hat in the ring.

    4. The claim that "You can't put the clocks back!" as a political metaphor is clearly rubbish...Norway regained its independence from Sweden, the Baltic States reclaimed their independence from the Soviet Union, the Dutch Republic was followed by a monarchy, Donald Trump has reversed the globalist drift in the USA, President Xi of China has reinstated one person rule for life. Technology may be all one way, but social and political history is far more complex. Russian retains its huge empire but the other metropolitan empires collapsed. At one time "imperialism" had seemed inevitable, indeed desirable and the likes of socialist HG Wells thought it was good for lesser tribes to be wiped off the map. There has undoubtedly been a move to large trading blocs but some of the most successful economies (China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea) have not been part of them.

    The EU may yet collapse. It certainly will if it cannot police its borders.

  4. Another point about the hare-brained Franco-British plan was that its progenitor was Jean Monnet. It never had a cat in hell's chance of acceptance. That says it all - and that's why supporters of the EU push it so hard as an example of Churchill's approach to European unity. It's part of their sustained drive to re-write history so that the EU is seen as a bringer of peace. The BBC is totally complicit in that process. Their equivalent programme during the EU Referendum campaign, The Poisoned Chalice, pushed exactly the same point.

  5. The BBC's special day passed me by. Also I know better than to listen to anything presented by Freedland. It's funny how he's the one harking back to Canning and even the Normans while accusing leave voters of being the backward-looking ones. Still, it doesn't suit to look at the actual EU and enquire into that.

    I've just read last week's Feedback transcript from your link above. Thanks for that. It's quite revealing. Something intriguing was the mention of a Chief Political Adviser. I had no idea they had one. And Nick Robinson is no longer the political editor so who is? A search for Nic Bailey reveals a few more of the BBC's labyrinthine structure and endless job titles. He is a career BBCer going back to 1982 as a local radio reporter, producer and editor and has had several parliamentary and political posts as reporter, correspondent, editor, newsgatherer, deputy head, before reaching the pinnacle of Chief Adviser, Politics.

    Also Jonathan Freedland is former BBC as well and not just an outside presenter or Guardian writer.

    1. I've just looked up that Political Advisor role. It's been around longer than I thought. Ric Bailey took over in 2006. Before that it was David Jordan. I don't know when it began though. Laura Kuenssberg is now the BBC's political editor.

    2. Freedland is a rabid remainer. On the evening of the referendum result, the BBC were in complete shock and replaced the schedule on BBC1 with an analysis programme which was all doom and gloom and disbelief. The main commentator who was in mourning set the tone for all that followed. His name was Jonathan Freedland.

    3. As with Matthew Parris, the Brexit vote seems to have induced a state of psychological instability in Jonathan Freedland. Both were interesting observers of the political and historical scene prior to the Referendum vote. But now they appear quite obsessive about this one issue and they seem happy to abandon all objective standards of accuracy and reasoned debate in attempting to stop Brexit.

  6. Ah, of course. Major lapse there to forget Laura Kuenssberg - she who snarls and spits venom at the PM while May cowers and goes Yes, Laura. I wonder what the Chief Political Adviser is for, when they already have a political editor but then obscure job titles and overlapping roles are not unusual at the bloated corporation.

    Freedland is like the eager clever boy in the class,
    and far too pleased with himself to be bearable.


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