Robin Aitken was a BBC journalist for 25 years, and is the author of Can We Still Trust the BBC?
Throughout the 1980s, the 1990s and well into the new century the BBC was, in contravention of its commitment to impartiality, wholeheartedly and unashamedly pro-EU. I say this not because I am a dyed-in-the-wool Exit man (I’m not) but because I was a BBC reporter throughout that period and I know whereof I speak. But – and here is the great irony – it is my belief that BBC bias in favour of the Europhile case has been counter-productive. I will go further: the BBC’s pro-EU bias is one of the main reasons why the Brexit camp now has the wind in its sails.
Firstly some (partly personal) history. I joined the BBC in 1978 and – like most of the rest of the country – I watched with some astonishment as Mrs Thatcher turned politics upside down. When I began to understand what she was trying to achieve I found myself approving both her aims and the courage she displayed. As the ’80s progressed, and as one after another Mrs Thatcher’s domestic aims were achieved and opponents vanquished, the EEC (as it then was) became The Last Enemy: collectivist, bureaucratic, undemocratic and corrupted. She, I think, came to see it as the embodiment of everything she was against.
Throughout Mrs Thatcher’s time the BBC firmly opposed her political project; not officially and explicitly of course, but at the level of individual BBC journalists. In the early ’80s when an enfeebled Labour could offer only token opposition, many in the Corporation took that duty upon themselves. Within BBC newsrooms there were no Thatcherites – or at least so few of us as not to count. Programme makers – editors, producers, reporters – hammered away at the edifice of Thatcherism and particularly the lady’s hostility to ‘Europe’. During those years I worked in BBC Scotland, and then in London before doing a stint on The Money Programme. Everywhere it was the same story: Thatcher – and all her works – were abominated.
BBC people would, anyway, always have been predisposed towards the European project (the BBC is an organisation, remember which has inscribed above its front door ‘Nation shall speak peace unto Nation’ – internationalism is bred the Corporation’s bones); but with Europe there was more to it than this ingrained attitude – it was a case of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. The BBC believed Thatcher was vulnerable on Europe (they were right about that) and so, by extension, Brussels was beyond reproach.
That attitude carried through into the ’90s and the BBC reserved particular contempt for the growing legion of Eurosceptics. I vividly remember an argument with a senior BBC editor in which I asserted that the sceptics’ argument was about democratic legitimacy. Eurosceptics, he told me, were xenophobes and Little Englanders, actually clinically mad in his view. It was attitudes like his that mean you will search the archives of BBC News and Current Affairs in vain for examples of stories critical of the EU in that period.
Then along came Blair, in his first incarnation as Sun King, and the BBC rejoiced; at the dawn of New Labour to be at the BBC was to be in very heaven. Not the least of Blair’s appeal to BBC journalists was his fervent pro-Europeanism; the Corporation acted as happy cheerleader for every surrender to Brussels. Meanwhile outside in the real world the voters were starting to smell a rat.
In a healthy democracy it is necessary, however inconvenient, occasionally to allow people to have a vote about the way they’re governed. But over the past 35 years the Europhiles have strenuously fought to avoid just that. Remember how Blair funked out of joining the Euro currency for fear of a referendum? The contortions over the Constitution-that-never-was, once again because he didn’t want to give people that vote? His fear of a vote betokened his lack of confidence in getting the answer he wanted.
In a revealing interview given to the BBC programme Document in 2000 Roy Hattersley, a committed Europhile, spoke of his regret at the way in which his side of the argument had opted for spin over substantive argument. This is what he said: “What we did throughout all those years, all the Europeans would say ‘let’s not risk trying to make fundamental changes by telling the whole truth, let’s do it through PR, rather than real proselytizing.”
I think that lack of intellectual courage was down to a deep-seated fear that the voters would reject the pro-EU case. In their hearts they doubted their ability to win the argument. In Mrs Thatcher’s words, they were ‘frit’. My charge against the BBC is that they aided and abetted the campaign to prevent the issue coming to the decisive point. By protecting the Europhile case from hostile journalistic scrutiny they did it a great disservice. But even the BBC could not stave off the evil day forever.
Now a vote is coming, inexorably, and there is uncertainty about the outcome. But had the BBC aired the debate properly – as it should have done – and given a hearing to those arguing for the need to refresh the democratic mandate for British membership it might all have been very different. The vote could have been held years ago at a more propitious moment from the point of view of the ‘Remain’ camp.
As it is this vote will be held against the backdrop of a chronic Eurozone crisis and – very probably – an ongoing migrant emergency. So that is why I say that if it comes to pass that Britain votes to leave the EU it will in no small measure be due to the BBC having stifled the debate about a referendum.
The point about the BBC is this: if it gets behind an idea it can exert almost irresistible pressure on a government. If BBC journalists had been in favour (themselves) of a referendum collectively they could have made it happen. But, almost to a woman, they set themselves against a vote throughout the ’90s and into the new century; indeed they still endlessly repeat the trope that the referendum was forced on the government by Eurosceptic Tories – ignoring the polling evidence which shows the electorate has long wanted to have its say.
The consequence of that determination to avoid a referendum might very well be the very outcome they most wished to avoid.