Magazine article The Spectator

This Is Not the Time to Knock the BBC, but It Should Carry More News from Europe

Magazine article The Spectator

This Is Not the Time to Knock the BBC, but It Should Carry More News from Europe

Article excerpt

After the Hutton inquiry all fair-minded people should rally to the BBC. It is true that over the years the Corporation has sometimes displayed a bias in favour of New Labour. I remember, for example, how after Peter Mandelson was ejected from the Cabinet for a second time, BBC2's Newsnight brought together various New Labour figures to discuss the event in a sympathetic way. It is also true that the BBC has weakened its raison d'être by its continual dumbing-down. Nonetheless, at a time when the Corporation's very future is in jeopardy and the morale of its staff is low, a spirit of solidarity is in order.

So it is with some trepidation that I pick up a report published by the Centre for Policy Studies which lands a number of well-aimed blows on the BBC. Kathy Gyngell and David Keighley have periodically monitored BBC coverage of the European Union over five years. With heroic endurance they have tracked some 2,000 hours of BBC television and radio programmes. Their conclusion in 'An Outbreak of Narcolepsy' is not that the BBC is automatically pro-European - though it may well be - but that it ignores what is happening in Europe to a remarkable extent.

According to the Cabinet Office website, 'almost half of all major UK laws start off in Europe'. In some areas of policy, such as agriculture, all legislation originates in Brussels. And yet, as Gyngell and Keighley argue very convincingly, the BBC's output does not begin to reflect the importance of the European Union in the lives of ordinary Britons. They say that the proportion of total airtime devoted by the main BBC television news programmes to the European elections in June 1999 was only 2.6 per cent. A major speech by Tony Blair on his vision for a more integrated Europe was virtually ignored by the BBC, while a speech by William Hague ploughing a very different furrow was also scarcely reported.

Possibly the 1999 European elections received even less attention from the BBC than they otherwise would because of the war in Kosovo being fought at that time, which had 20 times as much coverage, according to Gyngell and Keighley. But they show that the lack of interest in European affairs has persisted through important summits and the process of creating a new European constitution. Between September 2002 and June 2003, a period of significant political development in Europe, only 5 per cent of the coverage of the Today programme was given over to Europe. In comparison, home affairs accounted for nearly 50 per cent of Today's airtime and world affairs 33 per cent. Gyngell and Keighley argue that broadsheet newspapers do not display the same degree of indifference to European matters. For example, of the 34 stories covered by the quality press before the Seville summit in 2002, only eight were dealt with by the Today programme. Newsnight betrays no greater interest in the EU, though it was one of its presenters, Jeremy Paxman, who sneeringly described the low turnout in the 1999 European elections as 'an outbreak of narcolepsy'.

Why does the BBC provide relatively skimpy coverage of Europe? Of course, much of what takes place in Brussels and Strasbourg is complex and boring, but one might say the same about a lot of the goings-on at Westminster, which the BBC nonetheless reports faithfully. It is one of the skills of a good journalist to bring alive, and make relevant, something which might appear at first sight difficult to understand. …

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