(This article was first published on News-watch)
Opinion polls at the weekend gave the EU ‘out’ camp the edge. But it has now emerged that supporters of Brexit will be fighting the battle to win hearts and minds as the EU referendum approaches with their hands tied behind their backs.
That’s because new developments at the BBC and the independent sector regulatory body Ofcom mean that complaints about unfair coverage of the EU debate on television – still the most crucial medium in influencing public opinion – don’t have a cat in hell’s chance of succeeding.
It paves the way for a constant barrage of pro-EU propaganda with the opposition neutered and unable to get a fair hearing for their concerns.
The most astonishing development came last Thursday when the Department of Culture, Media and Sport announced that an EU fanatic with little professional experience of broadcasting is to chair the content board of Ofcom, the body ultimately responsible for ensuring impartiality in news coverage across ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News.
Unbelievably, the press release announcing his appointment claimed that he had not been involved in any political activities for the past five years, and therefore (by implication) could be trusted with this crucial role.
But a moment’s investigation on the web reveals that this is utter cobblers. As his self-trumpeting website shows, Bill Emmott, a former editor of The Economist, is fighting an all-out political war on several fronts towards his revered dreams of slaying nationalism, allowing the free movement of peoples and of greater EU integration.
At the core of his campaign is a slickly-produced TV programme called The Great EU Disaster Movie, which his production company Springshot made last year in association with the BBC and Franco-German television channel Arte. It posits the collapse of the world as we know it if, God forbid, nasty nationalist factions such as Ukip have their way and the EU weakens its iron grip on the body politic. Predictably, the programme had its first network airing on the BBC. It has since been established that, disgracefully, the Corporation stealthily took substantial funding from the EU to ensure that it was translated into other languages.
Emmott’s so-called charity, Wake Up Europe - a trustee of which is Richard Sambrook, a former Director of BBC News – is in the midst of a major pro-EU propaganda drive at British Universities with the film at its heart. If that isn’t ‘political activity’, the definition needs changing.
The show’s joint producer has claimed in The Guardian that the programme is a neutral examination of the potential problems that would be caused by the UK’s exit. Her stance cuts to the heart of the entire problem of the Brexit debate in that those who want to remain simply cannot see or even begin to accept that they are biased.
What makes Emmott’s appointment so utterly damaging is that the rest of the Ofcom content board – in step with Quango Land generally are like minds and like spirits; right-on ‘liberals’ to the core. The full list of 10 is here. What leaps out from their CVs is that all but two have worked for significant parts of their careers at the BBC. They write papers about how wonderful and important the BBC is. Many are closely linked to a BBC-favoured propaganda organisation called the (Reuters) Oxford Institute of the Media – which last November held a seminar about ensuring ‘fair’ coverage of the EU. Guess who chaired it? Bill Emmott!
One of the two content board members who has not worked at the BBC is Dr Zahera Harb, who began her career in journalism in the Lebanon, and is now a board member of the worthy-sounding Ethical Journalism Network. Don’t be deceived by such Orwellian double-speak. Its main concerns include attacking the ‘hate speech’ of Donald Trump and ensuring that the Palestinian Authority – along with immigration generally – gets better coverage in the media.
The second important media development was on Friday: the closing date for submissions to a so-called ‘public consultation’ by the BBC Trustees’ in connection with their draft editorial guidelines covering the EU referendum campaign.
Those who favour Brexit should be afraid, very afraid. For all the 16 years that News-watch has monitored the BBC’s EU output, the Corporation has been massively biased against the withdrawal case. It has crudely but pervasively cast EU opponents as racist far-right xenophobes, Conservative Eurosceptics as hopelessly ‘split’, and at the same has totally underplayed or ignored the solid, consistent support for withdrawal from Labour figures such as veteran MPs Kate Hoey and Kelvin Hopkins.
The Trustees’ proposals for ensuring impartiality, which no doubt they will adopt – because such exercises are only fig leaves to accountability – are a farce. The main problem is that as usual, the guidelines put the BBC in the driving seat in terms of what is fair, under their definition of ‘due’ impartiality. That gives them massive leeway, and the proof is that the BBC Trustees have not upheld a single complaint about EU coverage in all their existence.
Even more disturbing, the final judgment on what constitutes bias in the run-up to the referendum will, in effect, be left to the only two Trustees who have any substantial journalistic experience. Both - surprise, surprise - are ex-BBC career journalists.
Step forward Mark Damazer, former Controller of Radio 4, under whose tutelage it was confirmed as the national channel of right-on causes; and Richard Ayre, a former controller of editorial standards who is an ex-chairman of an organisation called Article 19 which is similar to the Ethical Journalism Network mentioned above, with the addition that another of their obsessions is climate alarmism.
The News-watch submission to the BBC – for what it’s worth, because there is no chance that it will be heeded – is in full here.
A remaining question is who sanctioned the Bill Emmott appointment? Eurosceptic John Whittingdale is ostensibly in charge at DCMS. It seems scarcely credible that Emmott would have been his choice. Did David Cameron or George Osborne force the appointment through as part of their frantic drive to stack the cards as highly as possible against an exit vote? They both know that the BBC is firmly already on their side. Now Ofcom is sewn up, too.