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Why the Beeb is dancing to the Brexiteers’ tune

Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: PA Wire/PA Images. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The New European’s Editor-at-Large, Alastair Campbell, on the reasons the BBC is dancing to the tune of Brexit…

For fairly obvious historical reasons, I tend to avoid whacking the BBC too hard. Added to which, it continues to provide huge amounts of good programming, and is an important part of Britain’s cultural strength and global soft power.

For younger readers, a brief recap on the historical reasons… a Today programme report 14 years ago which resulted in the words ‘sexed-up’ and ‘dodgy dossier’ becoming part of the political lexicon and, sadly and more significantly, the suicide of government weapons expert David Kelly.

Hearing the news of his death was the lowest of a fair few low points along the way in Downing Street, and the moment I realised it really was time to get out, not least because I had become something of a symbol of the disintegration of politics-media relations more generally.

Several inquiries have cleared me of the allegations made at the time, but that has done little to change the tone of reporting whenever these events are revisited.

Of course, given we failed to find Weapons of Mass Destruction after the fall of Saddam Hussein, critics feel justified in saying the BBC reporter was correct. He was not. He did not say there were no WMD, but that we – and specifically I – exaggerated the intelligence, and knowingly inserted false evidence into the report Tony Blair presented to Parliament. Not true then, not true now. Never will be.

Why is this suddenly front of mind now? Because of Brexit, and what happens when the BBC appears to have a ‘line to take’.

One of the most shocking sensations at the time was the extent to which, once the situation moved from being a war of words over one report, to a full-blown inquiry into the death of a public servant, the BBC lost sight of its role as an impartial broadcaster. It began to have an agenda, which was to use its outlets to frame and reflect the outcomes it wanted, namely the government to be found to have lied, the BBC reporting and management of complaints to have been professionally done. Being on the receiving end of it finally made sense of the Kafka novels I had studied at university; as when Andrew Marr, then political editor, began to state as fact that the original allegation was that we had given ‘undue prominence’ to one piece of intelligence. No, it wasn’t. It was that we made it up and inserted it into the dossier against the wishes of the intelligence services. History lesson over.

The BBC is not institutionally pro-Brexit in the same way that in 2003 it was pro-BBC, and therefore pro-anything that reflected well on them in relation to our dispute, and badly on us. I am guessing that if the BBC had been its own polling district in 2016, Remain would have won. Indeed it may be this which has led them to the current tone of their reporting, which is set and framed by the Brexiteers.

This is where the organised weight of the right-wing media is at its most influential; not necessarily in shifting the way people vote – or else why did Theresa May do so badly in the election? – but in shaping the terms of debate, and making the BBC feel it must be in line with those terms.

Two recent BBC programmes bear witness to this. If like me you are not a regular listener of the Today programme, I recommend going onto the iPlayer to listen to John Humphrys’ interview with Tony Blair last Thursday. Even by Humphrys’ standards, the interrupting, hectoring and the ‘what I believe’ lapsing into personal opinion was off the scale. Then listen to his soft, sugary interview with Norman Lamont, a Leaver, shortly afterwards.

With Blair, the general tenor amounted to ‘who the hell are you to challenge this process?’ The answer is a three-term Prime Minister with vast experience and who that day had published a significant piece of work – cue glib ‘dodgy dossier’ jibe on Brexit Central from Labour Leaver Kate Hoey – providing a factual basis for his assertion that as we know more about the Brexit process, and the deal we are likely to get, then people are entitled to think again if they don’t like it.

Humphrys appeared to have real difficulty with this notion of people changing their minds as part of a democratic debate. Then came his assertion that contrary to Blair’s claim that Brexit was impacting negatively on nurse recruitment in the NHS, the Royal College of Nursing had made clear this was all about tougher language tests. In fact the RCN was clear there was no data to prove language tests are the reason for EU nurses leaving the NHS, and also said a third of EU nurses leaving the UK, in a very large survey, specifically chose Brexit as their reason for going.

As for economic impact, this was dismissed by the BBC man as ‘just claim and counter-claim’. But the report he seemed reluctant to debate (as opposed to deride) was based on a direct quote from the Office for Budget Responsibility, namely that ‘the renewed weakness of productivity growth over the first half of 2017 will almost certainly have been exacerbated by the Brexit vote’.

Of course we can all pick and choose the data we want to focus on to highlight our side of an argument, and that approach is ever more common in the polarised era of Brexit, Trump and social media, but the role of the BBC is to question all sides rigorously and robustly. Which is why I recommend you also listen to the interview with Lamont. General tenor – ‘anything negative you would like to say about Blair’s intervention, my Lord?’

A few days later, with Theresa May being interviewed on Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning show, I felt I should watch. I wish I hadn’t. There was another interesting ‘compare and contrast’ which merits a second visit to the BBC iPlayer. Ahead of May came Labour health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth who got a far tougher interrogation for something for which he is not directly responsible – healthcare in Wales – than she did for those things for which she is directly responsible.

I am not sure it is the job of BBC interviewers to tell a Prime Minister that she is ‘now in a stronger position’; it is certainly not their role either to tell the Prime Minister she is ‘always on the side of the victims’ of crime; nor to offer up a full toss about a planned new forest without broader debate on the environment (unless you count them agreeing that Blue Planet was a superb BBC programme); nor to suggest that NHS winter crises were annual events under both Labour – not so – and Tory governments; and it certainly is his job to push back when she makes the remarkable statement that they had been better prepared for winter than ever and ‘operations postponed – that was part of the plan’.

But it was the Brexit discussion that really took the breath away… he really might as well have asked ‘is there anything you would like to tell the grateful nation?’ The first full toss – ‘let’s move onto Brexit; do you think we are going to get a deal this year?’ – was met with a monologue. But it was all of a piece with the revealing little line in his intro to the programme, when he said 2018 was the year we would decide ‘how’ we leave the European Union. Not for him, not for anyone on the BBC payroll, the thought that there might be the need for a rethink, should the evidence mount that is what the public want. Not for him, either, any real challenge as she waltzed through the kind of deal she wants, without saying how she intends to get it, or how it will work; ‘frictionless and tariff free’ trade indeed, with no mention by either of them of the still unresolved Northern Ireland border issue.

I just watched it back to make sure I am not being too harsh, which I’m not. And I noticed that the words she uttered before they chummily ‘moved onto Brexit’ were these – ‘My job is not just what I think about something but what the view of the country is…’

But this was about fox-hunting, and she was explaining why having proposed a fresh Parliamentary vote on the issue, she was not having one. The electorate spoke, you see, and as with their policies on schools, housing, tuition fees, she got the message that the electorate had not been overly impressed.

‘So what you saying, Prime Minister,’ Marr might have asked, ‘is that you have changed course because you took your failure to get a majority as a rejection of those policies. But when it comes to Brexit, you having specifically stated the election was about getting a mandate for the Hard Brexit set out in your Lancaster House speech, it doesn’t matter how bad the deal, how great the costs, your job is to insist that the view of the country can never, ever change?’

But he didn’t. He was running out of time, and needed to cover Toby Young, so that May could condemn the serial attention-seeker’s misogynist tweets, but say she was not going to block his appointment to a quango, putting the Brextremist pal of Johnson and Gove in that select little elite that likes to have its cake and eat it … until wiser heads in the Tory Party forced him to see sense.

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