Sir Andrew Green is Chairman of Migrationwatch UK.
Last Sunday, Nick Robinson, the BBC’s Political Editor, told the media that the senior management of the BBC deliberately suppressed discussion on immigration in the early 2000s for fear of an extremely negative public reaction. If true, this would be an astonishing indictment of a publicly funded body that is supposedly committed to impartiality.
By Monday, he had popped up in the Today’s programme top slot assuring us that he had meant no more than previous admissions by senior staff that the BBC had been “slow on the immigration story”.
As the only organisation making the case at that time against rising levels of immigration, Migrationwatch is in a unique position to judge what the BBC were up to. Certainly, they were absurdly timorous. For a year or two after we launched in 2001 they would not even use the ‘I’ word. Instead they referred to “in-migration”. For the next five years, on the relatively few occasions that I was interviewed by the BBC, the first question was “Is it racist to talk about immigration?” This continued long after the Prime Minister and Home Secretary of the day, as well as Trevor Phillips, had declared that it was not racist.
There were, however, a few senior executives, notably Helen Boaden and Stephen Mitchell, who tried hard to uphold the BBC’s traditional values of balance and impartiality. They largely failed because of the BBC’s doctrine of independence for its editors. This may have its own justification but it permitted a collective failure – whether because of a loss of nerve or an instinctive “liberal” bias is hard to say. The result, however, is clear. In the autumn of 2005, for example, official figures showed that net migration had risen by 65 per cent in one year. This was not even mentioned on the BBC.
This history, Nick Robinsons’ mea culpa, and the extraordinary trailing of his programme “The Truth about Immigration” on Tuesday evening may have led listeners to imagine that a major corrective effort was on its way.
If that was ever the intention, it certainly failed. The programme started with the ridiculous cliché that “we are a nation of immigrants”. In 1901, only 1.5 percent of the population were foreign-born. In just ten years from 2001 to 2011 the foreign-born population increased by nearly three million, bringing it to 13 percent. The programme failed to appreciate that this massive acceleration of immigration is what lies at the heart of public concern.
Then, as usual with the BBC, the focus was almost entirely on European immigration, although two thirds of net migration under Labour has been from outside the European Union. Great attention, too, was paid to the decision not to impose conditions on the Poles and others in 2004 – yet a glance at the immigration statistics would have revealed that the explosion in numbers occurred in 1998 when net migration nearly trebled to 140,000.
The thrust throughout was the economic benefit of immigration, with several speakers in that vein. There was nobody to point out that all serious studies have found that the impact of immigration on GDP per head is minimal – slightly positive, but minimal. Nor was there any mention of the massive impact on population and the resultant pressure on housing, infrastructure and public services. We are now heading for a population of 70 million in 13 years time and 80 million in 2060, yet England, with Holland, is already the most crowded country in Europe.
These are absolutely elementary points which should have been included in any half-serious attempt to address the immigration issue. Also missing was a fundamental question. Starting from the premise, which must surely be widely agreed, that some immigration is essential for an open economy and society, just how much do we want and how do we achieve that level?
There are only two conclusions to be drawn from the outcome of this much-trumpeted programme. Either there is extensive ignorance within the BBC about the basic parameters of the problem, or there was a deliberate decision that any such programme must trot out the usual “positive” genuflections towards immigration, with no suggestion of limits. Either answer, or even a combination of the two, weakens the authority and, crucially, the credibility of the BBC.
Jack Straw remarked on the programme that his government’s handling of immigration had “undermined trust in government”. He was right. Exactly the same applies to the BBC. The sooner its governance is removed from the stumbling BBC Trust and transferred to an outside body such as Ofcom, the better it will be for us all, including the BBC itself.