Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The BBC Has Never Been a Natural Home for Eurosceptics-Just Ask the Young Michael Gove

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The BBC Has Never Been a Natural Home for Eurosceptics-Just Ask the Young Michael Gove

Article excerpt

The BBC is on a war footing. As soon as the referendum on Europe was confirmed, an email pinged into journalists' in-boxes from James Harding, the director of news, outlining the scale of the challenge in what he called "the heated months to come"--and telling them that they would be given training to get it right. Harding trumpeted the need for impartiality and promised to withstand political pressure. The campaigns have already been to New Broadcasting House to talk about how they will operate and, in the case of those in the Leave contingent, to urge the BBC to refer to "the EU" rather than "Europe", to make it clearer what they don't like and what they do. Such is the ability of politicians to find bias even in innocuous things.

The BBC deployed its multitude of platforms to launch its coverage, scheduling news specials on Radio 4 and BBC2 alongside the live streams. The only blip was when it was scooped by the defector Robert Peston on ITV. He got Boris Johnson's decision to opt for Leave ahead of the papers and 16 hours before his BBC rivals.

Otherwise, it was a confident start. But the truth is that Europe has long been bothersome for the corporation. It is the agreed line that in the past, "The BBC was slow to give appropriate prominence to the growing weight of opinion opposing UK membership of the EU," as one of the BBC Trust's impartiality reviews noted. This is a fault seemingly located in the early 2000s, when I was head of television news. It is true that we were slow to spot the rise of Ukip but not, I think, Tory Euroscepticism: there was a period of pre-eminence on the airwaves for the Maastricht rebels and the John Redwood/Michael Portillo wing of the party. But it may have been a failing caused by the sense that the harder-line Eurosceptics did appear to be eccentric and obsessive.

John Major wasn't alone in hearing the 2. flapping of white coats. I once took a senior executive for lunch with a Tory Europe basher whose monomaniacal tirade made my companion roll his eyes in despair every time the MP looked away. It was a similar experience when colleagues were buttonholed by Lord Pearson of Rannoch, an early supporter of Brexit, and they would emerge from meetings with him grey-faced after a lengthy dissection of their alleged pro-EU bias. The former Today editor Rod Liddle likes to quote one BBC manager who said: "You do realise. Rod, that these people are quite mad?"

The more serious gap for the BBC is in its understanding of the world-view not just of Westminster Eurosceptics but of the voters driving them. The EU and its effects look different on a Doncaster housing estate or in a Lincolnshire village from how they are perceived in the Wi postcode area. Reporting from around the UK has improved but we know that London, where most network journalists are based, is one of the most pro-EU cities; and well-educated younger people, including most BBC staff, are much more In than Out. …

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