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Reforming the European Scrutiny System in the House of Commons - European Scrutiny Committee Contents


8  The visibility of scrutiny and the media

247.  One of the aspects of this inquiry which is different to those of our predecessors in 1996 and 2002 is the emphasis we have placed on the public face of the Committee's work. This reflects wider concerns both about the lack of knowledge about the scrutiny system, voiced for example by the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Committee who referred to it as "too hidden";[253] and about the level of public debate about EU matters in the UK, with Dr Julie Smith, for example, describing the "depth of ignorance rather than the depth of interest".[254]

248.  We therefore took evidence from the BBC; ITV and Sky; and David Keighley of the organisation Newswatch. We also spoke to journalists during our visit to Brussels. We have drawn on the points made by witnesses throughout this Report — for example relating to the work of European Committees and debates on the floor of the House. But as well as drawing directly on this experience, we also questioned our witnesses on how the media reports on the EU question, such as the definition of impartiality.

The role of the media

249.  Whether and how the media tells the public what this Committee does is a critical factor in whether we have any public profile at all and whether the public is properly informed as to the impact of EU legislation. For example, our recent Report on the JHA Block opt-out[255] received virtually no attention or comment despite its vital importance. As Dr Katrin Auel noted, media coverage is where most people get their information from.[256] Gisela Stuart MP commented that there was a particular role for better journalism relating to the EU across the media: "if the journalists themselves do not understand it — and I would suggest quite a number of them do not — then they cannot distil a complex message in a way that is understandable, which ought to be their trade."[257] John McAndrew, Associate Editor of Sky News, neatly made the point:

What we should do is give it due prominence when there is a story in or around Europe that is going to affect the lives of people who watch our television channel or consume our output in other ways. If you take the horsemeat scandal, the euro crisis, Cyprus, various EU summits of late — where we have been a heavy presence in Brussels — we can explain to people why these things are current, why they matter to them and what the consequences might be for people in this country.[258]

250.  We had a particular set of questions for the BBC, given its unique position as the publicly-funded, public sector broadcaster and also as an organisation which has been the subject of several independent reviews assessing its EU coverage. David Keighley of Newswatch commented to us that "Most broadcasters think that coverage of EU affairs is quite difficult ... I would not say that the BBC is particularly worse or better than others in that respect ... Lord Wilson drew attention to ... [the fact] that the BBC has that special responsibility."[259] His written evidence expressed concerns that "Euroscepticism, including the case for withdrawal, is supported by MPs and Peers in both the Conservative and Labour parties, and by large sections of the public, but has been disturbingly under-reported by the BBC."[260] His later evidence stated:

In my view, it is clearly incumbent upon the BBC to report such matters not only in the specialist Parliamentary output but also on mainstream news and current affairs programmes. That they do not shows a cultural assumption and editorial mind-set that the EU is inevitably a good thing, which doesn't deserve any detailed or critical scrutiny. Wilson was very precise in what he expected the BBC to do. Eight years on, they stubbornly refuse to implement his recommendations. [261]

251.  The Wilson review referred to by David Keighley was an independent review of the BBC's news coverage of the European Union, which reported in January 2005.[262] The review was chaired by Lord Wilson of Dinton, the former Cabinet Secretary, and found that "[I]n short ... the BBC's coverage of EU news needs to be improved and to be made more demonstrably impartial".[263] A series of commitments and initiatives were made and taken by the BBC in the light of the review, including the appointment of a Europe Editor based in Brussels,[264] a renewed focus on training "to improve BBC journalists' understanding of the complexities of Europe"[265] and new arrangements to "involve programme editors in regular discussions about the BBC's coverage of Europe".[266]

252.  We questioned a group of witnesses from the BBC about events since the Wilson Review. They stated that the appointment of the Europe Editor was "The biggest single thing, which made a real impact on air";[267] and added that there had also been significant improvements in the training for journalists.[268]

253.  Following this evidence session we asked the BBC a series of further questions in writing, on broadcasting decisions, complexity and explanation, the Wilson Report and Prebble Review and its Charter Obligations. These questions, and the BBC's replies, are published in full as evidence on our website. The BBC explained "a number of measures were implemented in response to the Wilson report. A Europe editor was appointed. New training resources were provided and all journalists were required to take a course on reporting Europe. Coverage of European issues is reviewed regularly at BBC News's Editorial Board. Coverage of European issues was widened to look beyond the Westminster prism and all output ensured a wide range of interviewees."[269] In a further letter the Controller of BBC Parliament refuted any suggestion that the BBC thought Europe "too complicated" for its viewers, concluding "we do not think that Europe is either boring or too difficult."[270]

254.  Given these comments we also followed during the course of our inquiry a separate "impartiality review of the breadth of opinion reflected in BBC output" launched by the BBC Trust in 2012. The review paid particular attention to coverage of immigration, religion and ethics and the UK's relationship to the EU and was conducted by former broadcasting executive Stuart Prebble. We were particularly interested that the BBC was returning to this issue, given the tone of the Wilson Report.

255.  The Prebble review reported in July 2013. It concluded that:

What this adds up to is that with a complex subject in a complex world, as is the EU, the average viewer and listener is unlikely to find as much breadth of opinion as is available merely by watching and listening to the mainstream bulletins. Even the Today programme, with its three hours of discussion time available, cannot do justice to the full range of information and opinion which deserves an airing. However, if the viewer and listener is prepared to meet the BBC halfway—to do a bit of digging—only the very unreasonable would argue that the BBC is not providing a suitable breadth of views and opinion on the subject of Europe. It is there if you want to find it.[271]

256.  The BBC Trust generally welcomed the review's conclusions and noted "Stuart Prebble's description of a slowness in the past in accommodating opinion on immigration and the EU which politicians were uncomfortable in voicing." [272] It concluded that:

On Europe, the Trust notes that, in the snapshot of programmes it examined, the content analysis indicated the EU was more often treated as a problem in BBC content than otherwise and that this applied both to 2007 and to 2012. In both years much of the coverage could be characterised as relatively narrow and procedural and there was little substantive information about what the EU actually does and how much it actually costs. Interesting and informing the public on the UK and the European Union is a continuing challenge for the BBC. The Trust draws the Executive's attention to the audience research which suggested that audiences are aware they may have a referendum on the EU and expressed an interest in reliable economic views, and to the European Commission's submission to this review, which said the issue it thought needed be addressed most vigorously was ensuring journalists had the requisite knowledge and information. The Trust considers the EU is an area where it may be particularly valuable for the BBC Executive to consider Stuart Prebble's recommendation that finding new voices become a routine part of the job in relevant roles within the BBC ... and considers BBC management should feel encouraged in its efforts to develop a range of new voices and opinions.[273]

257.  The Trust's response later builds on this final point, stating that "The Trust believes that deciding how much space to afford Westminster politicians is a particular challenge for BBC News" and invited the Director of News "to consider how BBC journalists can broaden both the range of people who comment on stories and the range of stories itself."[274]

258.  Following publication of the Prebble Review, which was itself commissioned by the BBC Trust, we invited Lord Patten of Barnes, Chairman of the BBC Trust, to give oral evidence to us. He twice declined our invitation, following which we resolved unanimously that he "ought to appear" before us at the end of November. Just before we agreed this Report, Lord Patten wrote to us for a third time. He, again, refused to appear before us, stating:

I have consulted my colleagues on the BBC Trust and this letter reflects our collective and unanimous view. It is incumbent upon the Trust under the terms of the Royal Charter to stand up for the independence of the BBC and in particular its editorial independence. We are bound to weigh this as of paramount importance when viewed against a request to appear before your Committee which we believe to be inappropriate. Accordingly, I must decline your request.

As part of our role I and my colleagues appear quite properly in front of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, and neither attempts to engage with us - as you are proposing to do - on the editorial decisions of the BBC. Since becoming BBC Trust Chairman in May 2011, I myself have appeared before these two committees a total of six times. In this context I should add that, notwithstanding the implication of your letter, I have never sought to argue that my membership of the House of Lords should be a bar to appearing before Select Committees of the House of Commons.

We wonder if you have considered that the result of you asserting your right to call me before your committee on this issue is that BBC Trustees could in future be required to appear before any select committee to discuss the coverage of the BBC in its particular area of responsibility.

It is not therefore beyond the bounds of possibility to conceive that in quite short order we could be expected to answer to say the Home Affairs Committee on the BBC's coverage of that area, or the Foreign Affairs Committee on international stories. We can't believe that is what was intended when the Royal Charter was drafted and we do not believe that it is consistent with the ideal of an independent Trust protecting the BBC from undue political interference.

We would also point out that the BBC has already appeared in front of your Committee as part of this particular inquiry, with evidence provided by Ric Bailey, Mary Hockaday and Peter Knowles as senior Executives responsible for the areas under review. We have also made—and now repeat—an offer of a briefing from the BBC Trust on our responsibilities for editorial issues, including the handling of editorial complaints.[275]

259.  We conclude that given the possibility of some form of EU referendum—either on membership or following treaty change—over the next ten years, the media, particularly (given its role) the BBC, needs to ask itself difficult questions about how it deals with EU issues. We are not convinced that the Prebble Review and the responses from the BBC Executive and BBC Trust have sufficiently asked, let alone answered, these questions. Some issues highlighted in the review (such as apathy, which is described in the Prebble review as "the main enemy") are not, in our view, best addressed by measures such as the "cross-promotion of BBC services"; something more profound and strategic is necessary. We are disappointed, in this respect, that the section at the back of the BBC Trust's response which lists the areas in which an update is required from the BBC's Editorial Director in summer 2014 makes two specific references to religion and ethics but no specific mention of EU coverage. It is unacceptable that we have not had the opportunity to resolve these outstanding points because the Chairman of the BBC Trust, which commissioned the Prebble Report, has refused to appear before us for a public oral evidence session.

260.  We reject the assertion in Lord Patten's letter that our invitation to him to give oral evidence was "inappropriate". We fully respect the editorial independence of the BBC. But that does not mean that the BBC Trust is above Parliament, and should pick and choose its interlocutors here.

261.  The role of the BBC Trust, under the Charter, as it applied to this inquiry, was to be our focus in this session. We have already set out points on which we were seeking further evidence from the BBC Trust, particularly in the light of the Prebble Review (which was commissioned by the Trust). Supplementary written evidence from the BBC quoted Lord Patten as stating, with regard to the particular subjects to be covered by the Prebble review—religion, Europe and immigration—that "we've been criticised in those areas and we think it's very important to listen to that criticism, not necessarily because it's right but because it reflects real and interesting concerns."

262.  We publish our exchanges of letters with Lord Patten alongside this Report. We do not see why it is "inappropriate" to question—in public—a publicly-funded organisation on a review it has conducted, and what it will be doing to follow up that review. The BBC Trust's defensiveness on this point is deeply disappointing and the broad-brush nature of the refusal will be of interest to all Select Committees. We invite, as part of the follow-up to this inquiry, the BBC (including the Chairman of the BBC Trust), to give oral evidence in the spring of 2014, to set out what follow-up actions have been taken in the light of the Prebble Review, and to take forward the points raised in correspondence and in our supplementary questions, on such key matters as broadcasting decisions, complexity and explanation, the Prebble Review and Charter Obligations.

Reform of European Scrutiny Committee working practices

263.  We set out below a series of measures we are taking to reform our working practices in the light of this inquiry, and also set out important areas of activity which we intend to continue and enhance. Some measures we have taken already, for example publishing meeting summaries. We are pleased to note that good feedback has been received from journalists and stakeholders to our initiatives so far, and we hope that this will translate into more and better reporting of European scrutiny in the House of Commons, and a better understanding of our work among the public.

DOCUMENTS AND REPORTS

264.  As well as reporting on individual documents, we will continue to conduct a limited number of more detailed inquiries into documents, groups of documents, or related issues, as permitted in our Standing Orders. We will continue to strike a balance between broad scrutiny and in-depth scrutiny, also taking into account the fact that we have no wish to duplicate the policy analysis conducted by Departmental Select Committees.

265.  Several recommendations in this Report, particularly those relating to document deposit, could increase the workload associated with document scrutiny, and therefore mean that our existing staff team would need to be expanded. We will keep this under review.

ENGAGEMENT WITH THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT

266.  Witnesses raised with us the importance of engaging with the European Parliament. Such engagement does already occur through the NPO and through regular tripartite meetings of this Committee with colleagues in the House of Lords and United Kingdom MEPs (indeed, the House of Commons is hosting the next such meeting in December 2013), as well as engagement at sectoral inter-parliamentary meetings and COSAC. The memorandum we received from the European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament referred to such contacts as a way of upstreaming;[276] Gisela Stuart MP commented that there is currently "a kind of dialogue where a major partner is missing".[277] The importance of engagement with MEPs was also emphasised by Chris Heaton-Harris MP and Richard Bacon MP, [278] Sir Jon Cunliffe[279] and the Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP.[280]

267.  We have previously noted the importance we attach to upstream engagement, and we welcome greater engagement between Members of the European Parliament and MPs, including attendance at various events and meetings. However, it is also right to note — in the context of the discussions on democratic legitimacy — that there can be something of a tension between the roles of the two institutions, and the sensible approach is therefore to approach co-operation in a pragmatic and practical way, which is what we encourage our colleagues on Departmental Select Committees to do, particularly in relation to attendance at sectoral inter-parliamentary meetings.

THE COMMITTEE'S INFORMAL MEETINGS

268.  We will continue to take full advantage of the opportunities given to us to discuss scrutiny issues with colleagues in the House of Lords, across the UK and across Europe, at the meetings of the EC-UK forum (the Chairs of the European Affairs, or equivalent, Committees of the House of Commons and House of Lords, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales), the tripartite (the Scrutiny Committees of the House of Commons and the House of Lords and UK MEPs) and COSAC.

TRANSPARENCY

269.  Meeting in public was mentioned by some witnesses as a way of increasing transparency, for example Chris Heaton-Harris MP.[281] We remain of the opinion that the experience of sitting in public to deliberate in 2008 was not a successful one, and we do not recommend that it be repeated. Quite simply we think it right to continue the normal select committee process of taking evidence in public and deliberating in private. However, there is much that can be done to communicate the Committee's work in a more effective way. The fact that the Committee publishes weekly reports on documents, putting its views on the record and in the public domain, already contributes to transparency and, indeed, Dr Auel rated the House of Commons system "quite highly, or very highly, on the transparency of its proceedings in the Committee and in European Committees."[282]

270.  Since the beginning of the 2013-14 Session we have produced public meeting summaries, which are usually on our website the day of or the day after the meeting. These have been widely welcomed. We recognise that more could be done to develop our communications and our website—particularly by making it easier to navigate—and we will be taking this forward over the coming year. Until 2010 most Select Committees (including the European Scrutiny Committee) produced an Annual Report. This practice has now ceased, but it has become clear during the course of this inquiry that so many of the issues we consider recur over time that we should re-establish this practice with effect from the end of the 2013-14 Session.

PRE-APPOINTMENT HEARINGS

271.  One option we discussed with witnesses was the possibility of us holding a pre-appointment hearing with the next head of UKRep. Even if conducted on an informal basis, giving the opportunity to potential holders of this key post to explain the approach they intended to take would in our view enhance the scrutiny process. The then Head of UKRep, Sir Jon Cunliffe, told us that this was "a question for Parliament and for the Government, I work within the system that we have and I am sure Ministers would be happy to answer on that."[283]

272.  Professor Simon Hix noted that other Ambassadors' posts were not subject to such hearings but took the view:

From the Foreign Office's point of view, UKRep is like the Ambassador to Washington, the Ambassador to Moscow and the Ambassador to Beijing. Then there is the Ambassador in Brussels. It is all part of the moving of chairs. I think UKRep is qualitatively different, because UKRep is doing something different. UKRep is negotiating legislation. It is doing something fundamentally different. There is a reasonable argument to say that this is a different process. This is a person who is a representative of the British legislature in Brussels.[284]

273.  The Minister's response when we asked him the question was as follows:

It is certainly a very important role, but the Permanent Representative is an official who acts in line with policies that have been agreed by Ministers. In that sense, he is in the same position as the British Ambassador to Washington, Beijing or Berlin, or our Permanent Representative at the United Nations. No, the constitutional distinction that officials follow ministerial mandate, and it is Ministers who are accountable to Parliament for their officials, is the right one to maintain.[285]

274.  He continued that:

I do not want to hold out any real hope, this morning, that the Government is likely to agree to the sort of pre-appointment hearing that you have in mind.[286]

275.  Press reports appeared in early August 2013 that Ivan Rogers, then the Prime Minister's Adviser on European and Global Issues, was shortly to be confirmed as the new Head of UKRep. In the light of this development, the Chairman wrote to the Prime Minister asking for the opportunity to hold an oral evidence hearing with the prospective holder of this important post. He confirmed that we would make our best efforts to make time available for such a hearing in the first or second sitting week in September.

276.  We received a reply to our letter from the Foreign Secretary on 3 September. While he sought to assure us that he attached "the utmost importance to the accountability of the Civil Service, including UKRep", he stated that he did "not agree that diplomatic posts should be subject to pre-appointment hearings."[287] However, the reply did not directly address our point about the quasi-legislative nature of the post, so in further correspondence we asked the Foreign Secretary for a specific answer to this, who replied:

I agree this is certainly a very important role, but the Permanent Representative is an official who acts in line with policies that have been agreed by Ministers and does not have quasi-legislative powers. The UK Permanent Representative does not make rules and regulations, it is Ministers who agree proposals and legislation at a Council of Ministers. The constitutional distinction therefore that officials follow ministerial mandates, and it is Ministers who are accountable to Parliament for their officials, should be maintained.

277.  We agree with the evidence of Professor Simon Hix that the legislative nature of the UKRep position makes it different in nature to other Ambassadorial appointments. While we note the position of the Government, we believe that prospective holders of this post should make themselves available to give oral evidence to Committees of this House. We deeply regret the fact that the Government did not permit this in the case of the new Head of UKRep, and will take this forward through the Liaison Committee.


253   Ev w19, para 5(f) Back

254   Q 118 Back

255   Twenty-first Report of Session 2013-14, The UK's block opt-out of pre-Lisbon criminal law and policing measures, HC 683 Back

256   Q 148 Back

257   Q 274 Back

258   Q 360 Back

259   Q 325 Back

260   Ev w28, para 8 Back

261   Ev w36. See also the article by Roger Mosey, a senior former BBC executive, in The Times, 8 November 2013, in which he commented that "On the BBC's own admission, in recent years it did not, with the virtue of hindsight, give enough space to anti-immigration views or to EU-withdrawalists", and the book by Robin Aitken, Can we trust the BBC? Back

262   BBC News Coverage of the European Union, Independent Panel Report, January 2005 (available via the BBC Trust website) Back

263   BBC News Coverage of the European Union, Independent Panel Report, January 2005 (available via the BBC Trust website), p 3 Back

264   Currently Gavin Hewitt, who has also published a book The Lost Continent: Europe's darkest hour since World War II. Back

265   As respects the training of journalists, we note reports that a charity called BBC Media Action is in receipt of £4.5 million from the EU (see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10423013/BBC-faces-new-bias-row-over-charity-given-millions-by-EU.html) Back

266   BBC, The European Union - perceptions of the BBC's reporting: management response: statement by the BBC Board of Governors Back

267   Q 226 Back

268   Q 229 Back

269   Ev w31 Back

270   Ev w36 [Peter Knowles] Back

271   BBC, A BBC Trust Review of the breadth of opinion reflected in the BBC's output, July 2013, p 48 Back

272   As above, p 2 Back

273   As before, pp 9-10 Back

274   As before, p 11 Back

275   Ev w47. The references in para 259 are to p 12 and p 13 of the Prebble Review. Back

276   Ev w2 Back

277   Q 245 Back

278   Q 312 Back

279   Q 421 Back

280   Q 154 Back

281   Q 307 Back

282   Q 116 Back

283   Q 406 Back

284   Q 475 Back

285   Q 534 Back

286   Q 537 Back

287   Ev w43 Back


 
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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 28 November 2013