BBC’s coverage of it, after scathing criticism from an inquiry led by
Lord Wilson last month.
Although the former cabinet secretary’s report did not find
deliberate bias in the corporation’s coverage, it pointed to a
“widespread perception” of “certain forms of cultural and unintentional
bias” which had to be corrected, an “institutional mindset” and a
tendency to “polarise and oversimplify issues”.
In response, the
BBC has promised a shake-up. Yet judging by last week’s Newsnight
devoted to a European debate, there is a long way to go. Its attempt to
do justice to the complex issues descended into farce. Scapegoats,
stereotypes and clichÃ©s converged.
Meanwhile, some BBC
journalists covering Europe feel there has been an “abrogation of
responsibility”. They argue that too often they are left feeling like
evangelists, instead of just doing an objective job. And where, they
ask, is the Reithian ethos, challenging and provoking rather than
cultivating deepseated prejudices?
It’s not a new problem. David
Walter, former BBC and ITN presenter, used to also present Radio Four’s
Europhile (later renamed Eurofile before being axed). He felt that
there was always a different news agenda when it came to Europe, as
opposed to Westminster.
This squares with the experiences of
Paola Buonadonna of the BBC’s Politics Show. She has worked for more
than a decade on a dozen BBC programmes on Europe. All of them
Buonadonna argued: “It is like reporting on a cult
really.” From being top of the agenda, in various BBC charters, it has
descended to the level of “clay pigeon shooting at the Olympics”
because the BBC decided Europe did not “draw in the crowds”.
Buonadonna has been left feeling that she is an “evangelist” for Europe.
Baker, who runs a Viennabased production company, making BBC
documentaries, says: “The only show that has survived in my whole
career is Eurotrash (Channel 4) …it is the longest-running programme
that deals with Europe on British television.
There is nothing else. That tells you the level of engagement with Europe.
you are involved with the European Constitution, with laws that are
having an effect, down your street, it is a huge abrogation of
People are being kept in the dark… but the British people want that.”
finds this public ignorance exasperating. “Generally, people want to
know whose side they (Europeans)n were on in the war, who bombed who…
People cannot really handle that countries like France were on both sides, that gets really complicated.”
Wilson inquiry suggested that BBC EU coverage could switch from the
world newsgathering department to home newsgathering. BBC managers
argued this would not help ease concerns that the EU was viewed through
a “domestic or Westminster prism”.
Geoffrey Martin, a former head
of the UK office of the European Commission, argues that the BBC is not
only pandering to public prejudice, but also the tabloid hysteria
He says of his time in office: “The BBC current
affairs programmes, including the Today programme, move backwards and
forwards across a spectrum ranging from scepticism to mild interest.
They were following the headlines of the tabloids, because I was in the
studios answering their charges. Very few people would accept that.”
Martin and other EU civil servants argue their job is to inform. Yet they too are left feeling they were selling Europe.
regularly took the Daily Mail to the Press Complaints Commission over
what he describes as factually inaccurate “EU caricatures”. He lost
Dr Martin Bond is an ex-BBC producer, and former head
of information for the European Parliament. Bond ran information
campaigns before the 1994 and 1999 European elections, including those
concerning the new electoral system.
“There were three or four
BBC stations who contacted us and said sorry, what we need is the other
side, you are pro, we were not pro, we were just trying to say how it
Bond adds that there were too few editors with Brussels
experience. He argues many editors still discarded information from
European institutions, information Bond regarded as objective. He draws
the parallel with the House of Commons issuing information, which would
happily be reported by lobby correspondents.
In its shake-up, the
BBC has appointed Mark Mardell as its Europe editor, a new role aimed
at increasing understanding of the European Union and its institutions.
There are also plans to appoint a Europe institutions reporter and give
staff training on how the EU works.
Yet the EU itself sometimes
compounds the problem. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat European
spokesman, former MEP and studio victim of that Newsnight debacle, is
angry that EU commissioners are expected to sell Europe – often playing
into the hands of the tabloids and their talk of EU propaganda as a
So will Clegg be heard next time over the din of clichÃ©s,
stereotypes and xenophobia? And most importantly will the BBC really
start to inform the British public? We shall see.
Rowinski is a freelance journalist * European coverage; ** Everything
is not great between the BBC and Europe; *** The BBC has been told to
improve its coverage of Europe. But is it doing enough?