Mark Mardell was the BBC’s first ‘Europe’ editor, appointed to the role back in 2006.
The circumstances are very relevant to the EU referendum now underway.
Back then, the EU was trying to foist on the member states the so-called EU Constitution and many governments – including that of Tony Blair, as well as those in Ireland and France – promised referendums before it was adopted.
The BBC was facing – then, as now – strong criticism that its relevant coverage was strongly pro-EU. In response, acting BBC Chairman, the Conservative peer Lord Ryder decided to appoint former cabinet secretary Lord Wilson of Dinton to undertake a review.
History shows that this enquiry was unique in BBC history because it was genuinely independent, made up of Lord Wilson himself, plus two Eurosceptics and two Europhiles, although back then ‘Eurosceptic’ did not include a definite supporter of withdrawal.
The report can still be read on the former BBC governors’ archive. It was strongly scathing of the Corporation’s output on numerous grounds, and especially to the extent there was ‘bias by omission’, a failure to cover EU affairs sufficiently.
Mardell’s appointment was made by the BBC executive in response. It was a specially-created senior editorial post with the specific brief of ensuring that EU-related affairs were properly incorporated into BBC reporting.
Ten years on – in his relatively new role as presenter of The World This Weekend (TWTW) – his coverage of the EU referendum can thus be regarded as a particularly important indicator of how fair is the BBC reporting of the referendum campaign. Surely, of all the BBC staff, he would be expected to achieve balanced coverage?
News-watch has completed analysis of the 15 editions of programmes since January 24. The answer is a resounding ‘No’.
Three editions stand out as being particularly biased: one from Portugal on February 7, in which 11 pro-EU guests were ranged against Leave.EU funder, the business man Richard Tice; the second from Lake Como in Italy (10/4), in which Mardell carefully assembled a cast of impressive-sounding Remain fanatics, who denounced the idea of the referendum as ‘stupid’; and the third on the weekend of President Obama’s ‘back of the queue’ message (24/4). On this occasion, Mardell crowed about how popular and influential a figure the president was and how he had taken a ‘wrecking ball’ to the Brexit case.
There is not the space here to detail all of this failure of impartiality. But a couple more examples illustrate further the range of problems. One edition led on a warning from the UK’s sole European Commissioner Lord Hill that agriculture and farmers would be heavily caned by ‘exit’ (20/4). The programme on this occasion reinforced that message with extensive tweeting. Another programme, earlier in the year, before David Cameron’s so-called ‘deal’ had been reached, explored how the ‘British contagion’ was triggering ‘populist’ and ‘anti-immigrant’ reactions across Europe, concluding with a dire prediction from the lefty former Greek minister Yanis Varoufakis (now, predictably a firm BBC favourite commentator) that unless there was greater integration in the EU, the consequences would be the collapse of the EU itself, followed by 1930s-style turmoil and recession (28/2).
The overall point is that Mardell has been relentlessly keen to cover the EU referendum. It has figured in the majority of editions. The analysis shows that throughout, he has worked especially hard to promote the benefits of ‘Remain’, and to seek out polished contributors who can articulate that case. Their claims about the dire consequences of exit have been heavily prominent, and, indeed, have dominated many editions.
Conversely, there has been no programme since January 24 in which claims by the ‘Exit’ side have led the programme and have been projected editorially with equal vigour to the editions where the ‘Remain’ case has dominated. An example of the Brexit side treatment was in the edition from Portugal – Richard Tice was given less than half the time of ‘Remain’ supporter Sir Mike Rake, the former CBI chairman.
In parallel with this, when supporters of ‘Out’ have appeared, they have been given a much harder time than their ‘Remain’ equivalents.
No edition has set out with claims from the ‘Exit’ side on the ascendant, or has sought as its main editorial thrust to push the ‘Remain’ side to justify their stance.
Another frequent editorial approach has also been the investigation of divisions over the EU within the Conservative party. There has been no equivalent exploration within Labour of issues such as the impact on the working class vote of the parliamentary party’s strong support of EU immigration policies.
All this boils down to that one of the BBC’s most experienced observers of the EU over the past decade seems to be working hardest to project the ‘Remain’ case, and on the occasions he looks at the Brexit side, to make special efforts to expose its weaknesses.
The Lord Wilson of Dinton report, with clinical precision, drew attention to the BBC’s failings in the reporting of ‘Europe’. A decade on, the man appointed to fix those issues seems be Carrying on Regardless. The central problem is that he and his colleagues seemingly love the EU as much as ever, and are almost entirely blind to their own journalistic shortcomings in reporting its true nature.
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: www.bbccomplaints.com.
News-watch research is at www.news-watch.co.uk.