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David Keighley: Want to quit the EU? First you have to get round Carolyn Quinn’s biased BBC report


With the campaigns to secure exit from the EU now launched, the BBC knows its Europe coverage is under unprecedented scrutiny.

Before Christmas, Rona Fairhead, the BBC Trust chairman, appeared before the Commons European Scrutiny Committee and swore blind that systems were in place to ensure impartiality in the run-up to the EU referendum.

And – pigs maybe do fly! – the Corporation has now boldly gone into unknown territory, and finally made a programme about what exit for the UK might entail. How to Make a Brexit, compiled and presented by veteran political reporter Carolyn Quinn, was first broadcast on Radio 4 on Tuesday and is repeated this Sunday.

News-watch has been monitoring BBC output for 16 years and this is the first dedicated programme on this subject that has crossed our radar.

So how was it? The transcript is on the News-watch website here and the programme can be heard on YouTube. But don’t hold your breath. The reality is that from beginning to end it was a travesty that showed only that those who work for the Corporation are so pro-EU that they don’t even begin to comprehend the depth of their bias.

Evidence for that is so thick on the ground that it’s almost impossible to know where to start, but a favourite moment was when, close to the beginning, Quinn used an extract from a pro-EU rant on the Now Show to illustrate one of her key points. The tone was thus set.

Quinn’s linking commentary and choice of quotes was framed with only one aim in mind – to tell us how desperately complex a departure would be.  The first quote in this vein from a contributor was:

“This is the largest scale legislation and policy exercise that has possibly been carried out ever”.

Ms Quinn then added: “…as we’ll discover there would be all sorts of things that would need to be finally negotiated.  The trade options alone are staggering and then there’s what to do with EU legislation, citizenship, even devolution.”

Thereafter, almost every element of the programme fitted with the pro-EU propaganda the BBC has been broadcasting for years. It left no room for doubt: leaving the EU is something that only a fool would contemplate.

The most serious and obvious bias was in the treatment of contributors.

The pro-EU speakers who wanted to make exit sound impossibly complex were Charles Grant of the Centre of European Reform – a perennial BBC favourite – and Jean-Claude Piris, a former director of EU legal services. Both EU cronies were afforded clear space to make their respective arguments and were edited to make them sound coherent and persuasive. Their contributions amounted to more than 800 words, and their stance was made crystal clear.

By contrast, ‘Eurosceptic’ contributions, for example from Ruth Lea, the political economist from Business for Britain, and Ukip MEP Diane James, were fragmented and edited in such a way that if they provided Quinn with any clear arguments in favour of exit, they were not obvious to the listener. Negotiating separate trade deals was made to sound impossibly complex.

A word count of contributors shows that the clearly pro-EU side, essentially from three main contributors, amounted to more than 1200 words and those from the Brexit and clearly Eurosceptic sides added up to 800 words – spread across eight speakers. Of these, only Ruth Lea had more than 100 words.

Of course, bias is not solely about numbers but here there was a clear weighting towards the EU perspective and this was compounded by Quinn, whose main editorial intent both in her own contributions and her editing of comments, was to illustrate her central contention that this whole prospect was a fool’s errand.

Other problems? There are legion. Why the choice of Greenland as the peg for the programme? Its experience (a territory with a population of only 57,000) was so long ago as to be almost irrelevant because the rules are now entirely different.

Quinn kept in the programme without challenge – and indeed emphasised them – views from Jean-Claude Piris that suggested that pressing the exit button would mean that British citizens in EU countries would face severe difficulties because their status would change. Others, such as EU expert Richard North, strongly disagree.

Much more than that, however, was the whole tone of the programme. Everything about it emphasised that an EU exit would be problematical. There was no attempt to look at benefits – the Greenland experience of enjoying integrity of its fishing waters was almost totally glossed over.

Of course, a programme featuring such a perspective that is chock-full of genuine supporters of withdrawal allowed to put their case might be somewhere in the BBC pipeline. But don’t count on it. Those campaigning for a Brexit have a mountain to climb in countering such blatant propaganda.

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David Keighley
David Keighley
Former BBC news producer, BBC PR executive and head of corporate relations for TV-am. Director of News-watch.

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