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Craig Byers: Only the BBC would recruit Ken Clarke to balance its anti-Brexit bias

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(A version of Craig’s article was first published on his Is the BBC biased? blog)

If Edward Stourton’s Sunday is the most reliable Radio 4 example of ‘liberal BBC bias’ in action, then surely The World This Weekend is the most reliable Radio 4 example of ‘anti-Brexit bias’ in action.

Thus, this – from Mark Mardell’s introduction on Sunday – made me (literally) laugh out loud.

Mark began by reporting that Mrs May’s “aspiration for huge curbs on immigration has been called ‘economically illiterate'”. He then played us two vox pops:

Vox pop 1: So we do need to reduce immigration but hopefully have the best people coming in.

Vox pop 2: If they do put the brakes on people coming in from overseas how am I going to get people to cut 250 tonnes of asparagus? 

And then came the ‘punchline’ (the bit that made me laugh):

We put those points to former Chancellor Ken Clarke. 

After the news, Mark Mardell made it clear than it was George Osborne’s London Evening Standard that had made that ‘economically illiterate’ comment.

He then announced that he’d been to Great Yarmouth, one of the most pro-Brexit places in the UK, and talked to some locals about their votes on immigration.

It was the kind of selection – and presentation – of vox pops that really does raise suspicions.

The first anti-immigration vox pop used a term widely considered racist, saying that immigrants should have been “sent back on the banana boat years ago”. The second one accused immigrants of “having a million babies”.

After Mark had distanced the rest of the world from such odious people (in the following half a sentence)…

…his third vox pop, more articulate and given more time than either of his ‘racist’ predecessors, said that mass immigration is “a myth”, that the numbers seeking benefits are “insignificant”, and that “95 per cent of immigrants “want to work”; vox pop 4 said that the Tories’ “tens of thousands” pledge is “silly”.

Hmm. I’d love to know how many vox pops Mark Mardell actually recorded and what they all said.

We then heard, briefly, from local Ukip and Labour politicians taking opposing sides on the immigration issue. A local Conservative politician, just as briefly, stood somewhere in between. Then it was onto a farmer – the asparagus guy – who got the longest interview in the report.

He’s “a very worried man”, worried about immigration, especially European immigration, being reduced. “I am frightened, I am frightened by it”, he said. He thinks his business will have to close down. And Mark even put that George Osborne “economically illiterate” quote to him. “I would totally agree”, he said. He’s a Tory who’s questioning whether to vote Tory as a result.

Then came a shorter interview with a tech entrepreneur who, again, argued the benefits of immigration. Immigrants are the “best possible talent” for him, rather than “local people”, But he does want some controls on immigration, though “fears…closing the doors completely”.

Report over, Mark said:

We did ask to talk to a minister, any minister, about immigration but none were available. So we’re going much better than that, not some one-job wonder. We’ve got Kenneth Clarke, who’s been Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Justice Secretary, and a few other posts as well.

Of course, they could have gone for anyone other than the most famously pro-EU of Conservatives, say a prominent pro-Leave backbencher, but they didn’t. No, it was straight onto the phone to the only Tory to vote against triggering Article 50, Ken Clarke – who, unsurprisingly, then denounced “right-wing Brexiteers”, “immigration fears”, defended the EU, and so on!

Still, Mark could have asked him plenty of questions from a pro-Brexit, anti-mass-immigration standpoint for the sake of ‘BBC balance’. Did he though?

Well, here are his questions about immigration – and I, for one, don’t think that Mark put any effort whatsoever into putting questions from a contrary ‘devil’s advocate’ viewpoint;

  • Is reducing immigration to the tens of thousands “economically illiterate”? (“It is”, replied Ken). 
  • Well, how do you? (get British people to pick asparagus in all weathers). 
  • And now by Mrs May? (Is she, like “Farage” and  those “right-wing Brexiteers”, also promoting “immigration “fears”)?
  • Indeed, but the worry in places like Great Yarmouth, along the seaside coasts and elsewhere, isabout Eastern Europeans?
  • And Mrs May is saying she wants to get that down to the tens of thousands, immigration generally. If it happened would that be a good thing for the economy?
  • But you can’t then get it down because..

After discussing social care, Mark then turned to Brexit – framing his first question from the usual, gloomy, negative, ‘problem’-related BBC angle:

  • And might one of the problems…One of the problems ahead with probably be the Brexit talks, that are clearly going to be difficult. The manifesto admits that. (Ken duly talked of how people of “common sense” would try, post-election, to “minimise the damage, in my view” of Brexit.
  • No deal better than a bad deal? (“Certainly not. Obviously not”, said Ken).

Classic The World This Weekend. Classic Mark Mardell. Classic BBC bias.

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Craig Byers
Craig Byers is a blogger about the BBC, focusing on the issue of BBC bias while living in Britain's finest traditional seaside resort: Morecambe (the one with the Eric Morecambe statue).

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