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David Keighley’s BBC Watch: EU funds TV plug for Obama. President plugs EU


As the EU referendum approaches, the BBC knows that its programme output is under special scrutiny for impartiality. All the signs though – as Kathy Gyngell outlined earlier today on TCW – is that it will rely on bluff arrogance to see it through.

Further evidence of this approach is a new four-part series called Inside Obama’s White House, which began its run last Tuesday. Astonishingly, at a time of acute sensitivity of such issues, it is funded partly by the EU – as the end credit in this link shows.

The timing could not be worse because exit campaigners fear that Obama will use his visit to the UK in about a month’s time as a platform to air his widely known pro-EU views and warn against Brexit. But the Corporation clearly does not give a damn.

The subject of EU funding of the BBC is already a very hot potato – it was raised by Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, for example, with the Corporation’s most senior news executives at the Commons European Scrutiny Committee last autumn after it emerged that The Great European Disaster Movie (shown on BBC4 last March), a programme that envisioned dire consequences in the event of Brexit, had received EU funding. It was made by a company jointly owned the arch-Europhile Bill Emmott, the former editor of The Economist.

Regardless of such concerns, the Obama programme, made by independent producer Brook-Lapping in association with the BBC and a raft of other partners on top of the EU, has seemingly been deliberately scheduled to juxtapose with the Presidential visit.

What of the programme? On one level, it’s decent television – a fast-paced narrative designed to show that although American presidents have choices, they are constrained by the structures of American constitution.

But the main intent of the opening episode seemed to be designed to paint Obama in glowing light – its main thrust was that he has succeeded against formidable odds and complexity in reaching deals during the financial crash of 2009 and at the Copenhagen climate change ‘summit’. It’s not quite hagiography – but not far short.

The pro-Obama partisanship is compounded by the problems of both the EU funding and the timing. How on earth does the BBC feel it is OK to show it in the build-up to a presidential visit just as the EU referendum campaign approaches its final stages?

There can, after all, be no doubt of Obama’s views on the referendum. He told the BBC last year, for example:

“Having the UK in the EU gives us much greater confidence about the strength of the transatlantic union, and is part of the cornerstone of the institutions built after [the second world war] that has made the world safer and more prosperous. We want to make sure that the United Kingdom continues to have that influence.”

It’s abundantly clear, too, that many of those who support leaving the EU, have warned against the president peddling those views in April. A cross-party group of leading politicians supporting exit have written to him demanding that he should not discuss issues of British sovereignty at such a pivotal time.

Does showing this programme at this sensitive time amount to bias? In reality, the EU connection to the programme is relatively limited – the relevant EU Creative Media fund has a cap of 20,000 euros to each production.

But that’s not the point. The most important factor about the BBC in this referendum is perception – it must be seen to be scrupulously impartial. In showing this EU-funded pro-Obama hagiography, it looks as if the Corporation are promoting the president and all he stands for. The series could easily have been held until after the referendum.

It’s not certain yet, of course, that Obama will utter any expressly pro-EU messages during his UK visit, but David Cameron is using every weapon in his arsenal to curry favour for the remain camp, and it is extremely unlikely that he will miss out on the chance to milk Obama’s unqualified pro-EU stance in every way he can.

The BBC’s 200-strong press office is paid to sniff out potential trouble in advance. There is no doubt that they will have discussed this issue at length. Their calculation must be that this issue is not a problem. Evidence, yet again, that the Corporation is trapped in its own bubble – and is so certain of its own rectitude that it does not care what those on the outside think.

During the referendum, News-watch is monitoring almost all of the BBC’s news output for pro-EU bias. If you spot any examples, you can register them at a special website:

News-watch research is at

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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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