European Scrutiny CommitteeSupplementary written evidence from David Keighley, Managing Director, Newswatch (ESI 14)

The BBC & “Europe”

1. In my appearance before the Select Committee on 13th March, I was asked by the Chair and Stephen Phillips (Qs 341 and 342) whether I could advise the Committee on how to make its output more readily digestible to the BBC and the public. Having looked more fully at the volume of high quality material which you produce, I have to say that it gives ample opportunity for the BBC to “educate, inform and entertain” the public, if it chose to do so.

2. I am aware that I cannot change my evidence but by way of clarification, I qualified my answer to Q336 when you asked if the culture at the BBC is that “the EU is good for you and suggestions that it is not are simply not part of the culture” because I felt I could not judge the BBC as a whole. That is because, as I made clear, Newswatch monitoring does not encompass all BBC programmes. My judgments are carefully framed on the output analysis we do carry out. What I wanted to say, but in the heat of the moment did not, was that with regard to the “withdrawal argument” on Today—which our monitoring has covered in depth—it is very clear that the BBC do not consider alternatives to the idea that the EU is good for you. Reporting withdrawal properly is absolutely not part of their editorial approach. In turn, because withdrawal is a very important subject, this is clear evidence that the BBC is not meeting its obligations and has a mind-set against this. Our research has established there is without doubt a long-term, systematic avoidance.

3. In this respect, as I said in my written submission, our research shows, that the BBC has not fulfilled any of the four promises it made after the Wilson Enquiry, particularly perhaps the first: “To offer our audiences across all platforms clear, accurate and accessible information about the way EU institutions work and their impact on UK laws and life.”

4. I don’t need to tell your committee, but here, for the record, I mean particularly the EU system of making law; with the Commission’s monopoly to propose new laws, which are nationally negotiated in COREPER, all in camera; the roles of the EU Parliament and Council; the inability of national Parliaments to change what emerges (the “yellow card system”?); then the Commission’s other role as sole Executive, supported by the Luxembourg court, against which there is not appeal. I know that opinions differ as to what proportion of our national law is imposed by this system, but it is substantial, and it is clearly central to the BBC’s fulfilment of its Charter and Guidelines to explain it to the British people. And it need not be boring—what about a series of “Yes Commissioner”? (The first programme in UK Gold’s recent new series of “Yes Prime Minister” shows how entertaining that can be, complete with Sir Humphrey spelling out exactly how the EU system works, except he said the Commission is elected, so even Anthony Jay got that wrong.)

5. Your committee has examined in depth Sovereignty in relation to the European Parliament, but the reporting of this crucial area has been minimal. 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.

Prepared 28th November 2013