Have I got news for you! The perfectly balanced and impartial James Naughtie is moving on from the Today programme in January. But before you cheer the departure of this arch eurosceptic hater, steel yourself for where he’s moving to. He’s to be a special correspondent – wait for it – with responsibility for the BBC’s EU referendum coverage.
To describe this as a provocative appointment is to understate the case. In view of his interview with the Conservative Eurosceptic MP Bernard Jenkin on Monday’s Today programme, when he set out his stall with a vengeance, you’d be forgiven for interpreting it as two fingers to the No campaign
Loud and clear it came over: he would brook no criticism of the BBC’s EU coverage.
Forget any faint hope you might have nurtured that in the run up to the referendum, the BBC might put up or shut up in their denials that they are pro EU.
There is no one more skeptical about BBC claims to impartiality than me. But this interview at 6.41 am was quite a wake up call. It can be heard in full here – James Naughtie telling Bernard Jenkin in no uncertain terms that he was ‘wrong’ for having the temerity to claim that the BBC was biased in its EU-related business coverage.
Everything about Naughtie’s tone was condescending and sharp. His fit of pique at Jenkin’s criticism included numerous terse interruptions, rustling papers, and at times an angry, if not a menacing, tone of voice, and an insulting declaration that Jenkin was being ‘tedious’ in wanting to raise the subject at all.
What prompted his ire was that the truly commendable Mr Jenkin did something no politician has done before. He took the Today programme on, on air, live (and very effectively) over their pro-EU bias.
And he caught Naughtie right off his guard.
Jenkin did not allow him to get away with the normal Today approach to Eurosceptic MPs (on the rare occasions when they are invited in at all) which is to focus on the ‘Tory Party split’ angle. This was clearly Naughtie’s main intent this time.
Our hero Jenkin, however, had different ideas. Off his own bat, he told Naughtie that it was an issue of concern across all political parties: to ensure a fair vote in the EU referendum because of the strong perception that the media – and especially the BBC – was not neutral in its reporting.
How I cheered. I have been waiting for the day. Take the bastards on, on air, live, I have always said to any MP who’d listen to me. Shame them!
Mr Jenkin did. He referred back to the findings of the critical independent Wilson report of 2005 into BBC EU bias :
BJ: … And, and there’s the other problem, I mean, Jim, you know the history of the BBC’s coverage of the European Union question. There was the . . .
JN: (exhales audibly)
BJ: . . . report commissioned in 2005 . . .
BJ: under the chairmanship of Lord Wilson of Dinton, the former cabinet secretary, that found that, um, and I quote, ‘We have found that there is widespread perception that it is . . . that the BBC suffers from certain forms of cultural and unintentional bias . . .
JN: (speaking over, slowly) ‘A widespread perception’
BJ: . . . in its coverage of EU matters.’ Yes, but I mean, the BBC governors accepted that . . .
BJ: . . . and um, and um, and we know that um . . . I mean, the Today programme basically got the presentation of the euro . . .
JN: (interrupting) Oh . . .
BJ: . . . wrong, we know that . . .
JN: Look . . .
BJ: . . . that’s now been accepted . . .
JN: . . . can we get back to the issue . . .
BJ: (speaking over) And um . . .
JN: . . . issue, I mean . . .
BJ: (interrupting) Well, no, this is an important point, Jim, because, you know, every morning, we have somebody on the (fragments of words, unclear) Today programme from, from business . . .
JN: (loudly , speaking over ) If you’re saying, you . . .
BJ: . . . from business . . .
JN: (interrupting) You . . .
BJ: . . . from business and they’re always asked the question, ‘So what’, you know, ‘Do you think you should stay in the EU, how would that (word unclear, due to speaking over, ‘help’?) . . .
JN: (speaking over) Um . . .
BJ: . . . business?’ But you, but you, but you tend to choose people . . .
JN: Look . . .
BJ: . . . from a certain sector of business who are going to say what they think the establishment wants to hear.
JN: (speaking over) Well let’s say . . . sorry, we want to get back to the point, but just . . . can I just tell you that that’s simply not true.
BJ: (speaking over) This is an important issue, I hope you will address it in a future programme.
JN: Finally. Do you think the fact that the government was beaten last night on this indicates that particularly on European questions, but on a whole host of things, the truth is that the Prime Minister is skating on very thin ice?
BJ: Well, I think this question actually indicates part of the unintentional cultural bias at the BBC . . .
JN: (interrupting) Oh, for goodness sake!
BJ: This was, this is – no listen, let me just explain that. This is . . .
JN: (interrupting) This really is tedious.
BJ: . . . this was a cross-party . . . dispassionate discussion about how to create a fair referendum, if there is to be a new politics, it’s this kind of politics, where a Select Committee on a cross-party basis makes recommendations, and the Opposition, in a rather nonpartisan way I have to say, er, supports that case. That’s what happened last night, and your question wants to see it through the lens of the party politics, the party game at Westminster, and who’s in and who’s out, and whether the Prime Minister is weaker or stronger . . .
JN: (fragment of word, or word unclear, rustling papers)
BJ: . . . that’s not what this was about, this was about (words unclear due to speaking over)
Not only did Jenkin insist that the rafts of pro-EU business leaders appearing on the Today business slot and given the opportunity to expound their one-sided opinion about the EU was a clear example of bias. He also took on the Today programme’s historic biased editorial angle.
I do not know where Jenkin got his information from – but his claim echoes very closely the conclusions of the most recent News-watch survey, which analysed how the main BBC News programmes covered the general election. A core finding was:
….(in the business slot) the Today programme interviewed only four guests who spoke in favour of the Conservative referendum policy, or who more broadly supported EU reform, and 18 speakers who saw the proposed referendum as a threat or a worry to business. There was not a single contribution from any speaker who believed that withdrawal from the EU would benefit British business. This frequent one-sided reporting amplified the suggestion that there was strong opposition to both the referendum and withdrawal.
James Naughtie’s lowest-common-denominator response illustrated vividly what Jenkin claimed – that on these matters, the BBC cannot be trusted to offer balanced reporting because (as the Wilson report found) there is an ‘institutional bias’ in favour of the EU – evidenced again by Naughtie’s ignorant but stout denial..
Clearly enfuriated by this ‘upstart’ MP having the temerity to criticise his great self, Naughtie rose to the bait. His arrogant response was line for line how the Corporation treats most formal complaints of bias from those it sees as right wing. Only this time the BBC’s arrogance was broadcast to the nation. It has not gone down well.
A poll in the Telegraph, linked to their coverage of the James Naughtie/Jenkin interview, asked whether readers thought BBC coverage of the EU was biased. They did with a vengeance, 81 per cent agreeing when I last looked.
For years, there have been thoroughly researched reports showing how the Corporation’s EU coverage is biased, to which the BBC’s consistent response has been to ignore or state ‘rubbish’ without offering a shred of solid evidence to the contrary. Naughtie’s tetchy cry of ‘tedious’ was exactly in line with this.
Jenkin’s interview came the morning after the Commons defeat for the Government over the spending and procedural rules in the EU referendum vote – known as the ‘purdah’ rule the Government had been set on breaking. The Tory critics had no chance without cross party support
Naughtie could not have been more wrong. Far from it being won by a Tory faction the debate revealed strong concern from Labour too about the need for balanced reporting – with figures like the veteran left-wing Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins taking part.
Naughtie’s aim to diminish Jenkins and to leave the impression with listeners that Jenkin was talking rubbish backfired. It was our future special correspondent on EU matters who diminished himself with his temper outburst and his shoddy analysis exposed.