Richard North, 04/07/2018  
 


The Guardian's Nick Cohen has been sounding off about what he now believes to be the BBC's pro-Brexit bias, although he has been less than enthusiastic about discussing with me the nature of that bias.

Oddly, pre-referendum and for decades reaching back to the 1975 referendum, it has been an article of faith amongst Eurosceptics that the BBC has been irreconcilably pro-EU, so much so that it had acquired the soubriquet the Brussels Broadcasting Company.

Now, supposedly turning on an old-fashioned sixpence, Cohen would have it that it has cast its lot in with the "leavers", adopting Nigel Farage as one of its own and opening its airwaves to leaver propaganda with the same level of enthusiasm that it once embraced the holy scriptures from Brussels.

But, while Cohen along with Andrew Adonis and many others think they are seeing a remarkable transformation, the explanation for this apparent change of heart may be far more prosaic than they will allow.  What we are seeing, I would aver, is substantially the result of accumulated ignorance on the part of its journalists, who have never fully understood the nature of the EU. Now, with Brexit thrust into the limelight, they are simply incapable of effective reporting or analysis.

Hampered by their limited knowledge, BBC staff retreat to the comfort zone of personality politics. Seeking out high-profile individuals, they invent biff-bam confrontations and, as far as they can, they shoe-horn every issue to fit that paradigm.

This in turn distorts the narratives and it is these distortions which are perceived as bias – with the perceptions filtered through the prejudices of the observers, to be interpreted as Mr Cohen's bias. But, at the heart of this "bias" is incompetence - the lack of in-depth knowledge of the EU and Brexit.

This combines with an overweening arrogance, which locks in institutional narratives and inhibits any of the journalists acknowledging their own ignorance. It also prevents them from learning. After all, since they already know everything, they cannot possibly recognise their deficiencies or improve their knowledge of the basics.

Thus, the deeper we get into Brexit, the further and further away from reality the BBC gets. Their journalists are doing little more than spread unicorn dust in their bulletins, but what they do cannot be dismissed as bias. They don't know enough about the subjects on which they report to be biased.

As regards the likes of Cohen, they share the intensity of the ignorance of their BBC rivals and colleagues, but with different gaps and misconceptions, tainting their perception and distorting their reporting in different ways. This again is not so much deliberate bias as distortion arising from ignorance and inadequate analysis.

Each group is prey to its own particular distortions, but in other groups they interpret this as conscious levels of bias. Viewed from outside the collective though, this is just the blind leading the blind in different directions, accusing each other of not knowing the way.

A classic example of this is ITV's Robert Peston, exuding self-importance as he interprets what "well-placed sources" tell him "are the main elements of the Prime Minister's Brexit plan - which will be put to her cabinet for approval on Friday".

For all the hyperventilation, this turns out to be an iteration of the soggy Open Europe plan, which we looked at a little while back. Coming to the fore (not that obvious at the time the plan was launched), though, is the infamous "Single Market in goods" which supposedly solves the Irish border question and is to become the basis for the UK's post-Brexit relationship with the EU. And says Peston of this "cunning plan":
… since the PM has pledged to impose new controls on the free movement of people from the rest of the EU, she accepts that the EU will insist on some new restrictions on the sale of British services in its marketplace.
Yet, without him even beginning to realise it, this is issue-illiteracy writ large. Neither Peston nor the bulk of the chatterati, nor even the UK government, seem to be able to grasp the concept that the "restrictions" on the sale of services, etc., already exist.

As a member of the European Union, and with it the Single Market, the UK – along with all EU/EEA members has been exempt from these restrictions. But, when we leave, the UK assumes the status of a third country and will become subject to them. The essential thing to understand here is that the EU will not be imposing and restrictions, new or otherwise. They already exist.

Peston, therefore, has completely misinterpreted what he believes is the situation. He should not be talking about the EU imposing "new restrictions". Rather, this is a question of the UK expecting the EU selectively to remove some of its pre-existing restrictions on the sale of goods, thereby splitting the Single Market legislative package as between goods and services.

But, as we have remarked several times now, this very difficult – if not impossible - to do practically. There is no neat division between goods and services. There is no market in goods, and another in services. From a legislative perspective, there is only one Single Market - more correctly termed the "internal market".

However, even if the EU could separate goods and services, for it to do so would drive a cart and horse through the indivisibility of the Single Market. Its integrity would be seriously compromised. And that is something the EU will never allow.

Thus, the very idea that the UK apparently thinks it might be persuaded to do this stems from the fundamental misunderstanding of the very nature of the Single Market, the application of its regulatory union, and the relative impacts on EU/EEA members and third countries.

This is an extraordinary failure, where journalists such as Peston haven't even got to grips with the basics. No wonder they are unable properly to report on or analyse Brexit in a coherent fashion.

Amazingly, the simple concepts thus embodied also seem to evade academic David Collins. Unequivocally demonstrating, once again, that "professor" is a job title and not an academic qualification, he asserts that any new UK-EU non-tariff barriers would be illegal under WTO rules immediately after exit, even in a no-deal scenario. He too thus fails to understand that the barriers to which the UK would be exposed would not be new.

Collins also wrongly argues a case on border inspections on goods such as meat and meat products. "Since the UK does not intend to implement a wholesale change to its regulatory standards immediately after Brexit", he says, "the EU cannot treat products from the UK differently than they did before Brexit".

This is a foolish argument and, while Collins may claim expertise in WTO matters, he clearly knows next to nothing about EU procedures. As I write here, official controls are applied to EU/EEA members and third countries without discrimination.

However, because EU institutions have formal jurisdiction over Member State operations, they can supervise them through the chain and enforce sanctions in the event of default. Thus they rely on checks at points during production and processing. But lacking jurisdiction in third countries, for third country produce, the EU resorts to applying the same checks but as the products enter the jurisdiction of EU Member States – i.e., at the borders.

Again, therefore, we see – but at a different level – a failure to grasp crucial details, with academics also lacking an appreciation of the basics. In this case, we see an academic stepping outside his area of expertise yet still claiming the authority of an expert. He should know that knowledge of the WTO does not automatically confer wisdom on EU matters. 

Returning to the progenitors of the mad plan that has so enthused Peston, one sees the same dynamic. The director of Open Europe is in full flow in Conservative Home, but only succeeds in demonstrating that he is unable to understand the depths of his own stupidity.

"Imagine", writes Henry Newman, "that by some fluke of plate tectonics the world’s fifth biggest economy floated across the globe and landed on the edge of the Euroasian plate". And, if that was not enough, we should also imagine that the government of this this fictitious country offers "broadly" to follow EU rules on goods, in return for allowing goods to trade freely.

Even better, Newman dribbles, "imagine that this country would buy more EU goods than it would trade the other way, ensuring a substantial market for Continental products". Logically, he thus concludes, with not a scintilla of logic, "this would not be a bad deal for the EU to then agree".

Despite so many straw men marching to the drumbeat of this man's stupidity, though, it is not hard to understand that trade is not simply a matter of goods. The economy of this fictitious country, Newman fails to inform us, constitutes 80 percent services. Furthermore, the country relies on services to sustain its international trade and has a positive balance with the EU.

Thus, even within the framing set by Newman, we are supposed to accept that we buy into an arrangements on goods which favours the EU and eschew one on services, where the balance is to our advantage, all to promote an agreement where separation is not on offer. And, to make things worse, mutual recognition is still on the table.

One hesitates to believe that Mrs May herself could entertain this mad idea – much less put it to her cabinet on Friday. But if both happen, the effort expended will be futile. It is simply not possible for the EU to accept this proposal. Any attempt to convince the EU otherwise will waste time we haven't got, bringing the prospect of a "no deal" Brexit that much closer.

And while currently, the likes of Nick Cohen are questioning the BBC's output, future historians are likely to find themselves asking whether it could possibly be true that so many people could be in the grip of the delusion that has got us to this sorry state.






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