EU Referendum

EU Referendum: BBC – the bias of institutional incompetence


In a programme entitled, "How to make a Brexit", on Tuesday's Radio 4 at 8pm, Carolyn Quinn explored "the practical process by which Britain would exit the EU if UK voters opt to leave, and looks at the experience of Greenland, which quit the EEC in 1985".

"We'll be travelling into the future to imagine what might happen should the majority of voters in the forthcoming referendum decide they want to leave the EU", she said in the programme. "How would the days, the weeks, the months after the result shape up? How would Britain go about the process of unwinding a trading and political relationship what has lasted for four decades? In essence, how exactly would Britain make a Brexit?"

Sadly, by the end of the programme, we were not much the wiser. But right from the start, when the narrative cut to Ruth Lea, we are able to see why this was going to be. At this early point, she was unidentified, but she was used to set the tone for programme. Quinn – insofar as she felt obliged to deal with these messy things called "eurosceptics" - dealt only with the "aristocracy", the guardians of the SW1 orthodoxy who have done so much to keep the movement in the doldrums.

Thus it is was the voice of Lea who shrieked out at us to create an atmosphere of crisis which doubtless fitted exactly with the BBC playbook: "Given a leave vote or whatever it is", said Lea, "then the British government will, it'll be all hands to the pump. Let's be honest about this. They'll have to get on with it".

Then a male voice, also unidentified at this stage, loomed out at us to reinforce the crisis meme. "This is the largest scale legislation and policy exercise that has possibly been carried out ever", it said. And yet another voice followed: "I think of this like a couple who've been married. This is sorting out your divorce".

There we have it – the BBC "take" on leaving the EU – framing the programme as a crisis, together with the pejorative vision of a couple sorting out their divorce.

In the programme, there were so many things which could have been said, such as the idea that, properly handled, the exit process could be remarkably uneventful. The day after leaving need not be very different, in practical terms, from the day before. And far from being case of an "old" couple – as we find out later – organising a divorce, Brexit could have been portrayed in a much more positive light. It could have been be seen for what it is, the chance to correct a historic mistake, breaking away from "little Europe" to rejoin the world. 

We would, of course, not expect the BBC to propagandise for the "leavers". But nor should it do so for the remainers, which is exactly what it has done. From the very start, the framing supported the "remain" side, casting Brexit in a negative or crisis mould.

With this framing so cast, Carolyn Quinn claimed that the BBC would "attempt to map a route though a tangled web of treaties, laws and directives which currently bind us to the European Union".

At this point, one might expect a neutral guide, and from the BBC were are entitled to get one. But to be that, Quinn would have had to pick out the most pressing issues, in order of magnitude – where the cost or political effect was greatest. But she did not do that. Instead, to start with, she picked out a singular minority issue, but one of potentially damaging to the "leavers", telling us that: "I'll ask what Brexit would mean for EU citizens in Britain and UK nationals in other EU member states".

Then, although far from relevant, she told us she would look at how our ministers in the European Council, our Commission and elected members of the European Parliament would spend their remaining time in office.

Starting "at the beginning" we were invited to imagine that the UK had voted to leave the EU. "What happens next?" Quinn asked. And oh dear me. We were exposed to a clip from some ghastly "comedy" programme, the "Now Show", which addressed the completely different question: "Can we actually leave?"

This, it would appear, was the BBC's patronising idea of introducing to Article 50 to us, wrongly identified as in the "Treaty of Lisbon" – despite its numbering being drawn from the Consolidated Treaty of the European Union. If you're not happy with your membership, some fatuous woman trilled to a background of equally fatuous music, "just return it to Brussels and with two year's notice, we'll cancel it with no questions asked".

And this, said Quinn, "is not quite as much of a parody as you might imagine". Jean-Claude Piris, former director general of legal services of the Council of the European Union, is our guide on this. He was introduced by Quinn to tell us what would happen if Article 50 was to be invoked.

Piris introduces the procedure, starting with a letter sent to the president of the European Council. Unfortunately, quite unnecessarily, Quinn then took us to Europhile Charles Grant, who added to his explanation the gratuitous caveat, "if all goes well".

"If all goes well", echoed Quinn lovingly, seemingly relishing in the doom-laden scenario to come. What came over was that this was what she wanted to hear. "As we will discover", she said, "There'll be all sorts of things which would need to be finally negotiated. The trade options alone are staggering and there's what to do with EU legislation, citizenship and even devolution".

Just in case you hadn't noticed, here again was that poisonous little barb on "citizenship". That was the second reference, along with EU legislation. We'll hear more.

It's was at this point that we got a journey into irrelevance, with an expensive trip to Greenland to tell us so little that one wonder why our license fees were wasted so freely. Pre-Article 50, the Greenland experience has so little to tell us that one struggles to understand how it helps at all, particularly Quinn's fascination with a drum made from reindeer stomach. This was valuable time wasted.

It was twelve minutes-plus into the programme before we got back, briefly, to Westminster and the SW1 bubble. The task was to look for a "model" for a post-referendum new relationship the government "would like to build". For that, we were taken to another member of the eurosceptic "aristocracy", Martin Howe – described as a "constitutional QC". He expressed his "fear" on waking up on the day after that referendum.

There will not, he opined, have been the preparation that should have been done in Whitehall. You'll find the civil service running round "like headless chicken wondering what to do". Thus did Quinn build on her artfully crafted sense of crisis.

Howe's belief was that, "whatever the government's view on the result of the referendum … it really ought to be doing some serious contingency work on what would happen if there's a 'leave' vote". Quinn then asserted that Howe had "given a lot of thought as to how we would leave" - albeit that that has not been particularly evident elsewhere. 

Gus O'Donnell, former head of the civil service, was then called in to ask whether Howe's fears were justified. "Obviously, every civil servant will be thinking 'what if?' What are the different possibilities, the different scenarios? I will be absolutely sure that they will be hoovering up all of the work that's been done by the outside world", O'Donnell said.

"Headless chickens" is not a fair representation, he said. The civil servants will be thinking through the scenarios. There is time for the government to decide when the Article 50 clock starts ticking, he told Quinn, leaving her to observe that leaving is far more complex than it was when Greenland left.

As to Brexit, there has, she said, been an attempt (implying that there had been only one such attempt) to anticipate what might happen – at which point we waited expectantly he hear of the detail. Instead, though, we were introduced to Stephen Booth of the Europhile Open Europe, and his "war gaming" exercise.

Strangely bereft of detail, the got the impression that Quinn got what she wanted. It is a "hugely complicated process", she said. And so the meme continued to develop, including another reference to the citizenship "problem" – the third reference so far – one of the many issues making up a "huge in-tray" for any British government faced with finding its way to Brexit.

One of the most pressing issues, said Quinn, was sorting out trade relationships with our soon to be ex-EU partners. And for advice on this, she goes again to Europhile Charles Grant, the man who does not want the UK to leave the EU.

"All the different options", he explained, "whether it's European Economic Area, Switzerland's bilateral agreements, the free trade agreement, the World Trade Organisation rules - there's a basic trade-off that Britain will face. If Britain wants to have significant access to the Single Market, it has to accept the rules and standards of that market, without having a vote on them, which is the Norwegian option".

"If it wants to maintain regulatory sovereignty and not have to adopt all the rules and standards of the EU - that's the WTO option - that's fine but then it has much less access to the Single Market. So there is a trade-off that Britain will have to decide upon when it leaves the EU, if it does, which is how much access do you want to the market and if so how much are you prepared to accept all the rules and regulations made by the EU without having a vote on them".

This is a carefully disingenuous statement by Grant, who avoided the "no influence" meme, and restricted himself to the technically accurate "no vote" claim – even though it was still thoroughly misleading. In fact, Norway has a vote on most of the rules when they are made, which most often is at global or regional level, before they get anywhere near the EU. We we got nothing of that from either Grant or Quinn.

You would have thought Quinn might have got a whiff of this point, as it has been circulated far and wide. But she was happy to take the Europhile at face value on this crucial point, without even the slightest question. This was clear bias at its most transparent.

Instead of pursuing this core issues, she lamely asked: "So could the UK manage without an EU trade agreement", referring to Ruth Lea for an answer – a lady described as an economist working for Business for Britain.

The trend was becoming clear. This was a perpetuation of the SW1"bubble" argument, totally London-centric, with no interlopers allowed into the debate. This was how the BBC played it.

Predictably, we got waffle from Lea on the WTO - familiar to many of us and much of it completely wrong, including the totally incorrect claim that China operates [entirely] within the WTO rules. But if what Lea was saying was controversial, we got no hint of that from Quinn. She imbibed it as the "reasonable option". Here only concession was that the arguments will range far and wide between the various trade options, asking Lea how she thought EU and UK negotiators would pick their way through the options. 

This forced Lea to concede that the negotiators would very likely sit down and conclude some kind of trade deal, if for no other reason than to prevent tariffs being applied to the car industry. From her, there was no mention, of course, of non tariff barriers. From Lea, there never is, and Quinn didn't have the knowledge to ask about this vital subject.

Cue again Charles Grant, the Europhile to give us something else to worry about. "Something that all these options have in common, which is very important for the British", he said, "none of these options, Norway, WTO, Switzerland, whatever, keep the Britain in the free trade agreement that the EU has negotiated with other parts of the world".

According to Grant, "there are some 200 trade agreements". But at this point, he secreted a direct lie: "but from the day we leave the EU, these trade agreements no longer apply to the United Kingdom", he claimed, "so Britain would have to start from scratch to negotiate separate bilateral agreements with other countries like South Korea, Canada, Singapore, whatever, to catch up and maintain the access that it enjoys".

The point here is that, as with the Czech-Slovak "velvet divorce", the UK can rely on the "presumption of continuity" embodied in international law. All the UK has to do is notify the signatories, for them to agree to continue with their trade agreements. There is absolutely no automatic need to start from scratch. To declare so is to perpetrate an outright lie. But not content with that, Grant went on to embellish the lie, saying:
There's a very important practical element here. Since 1973 when we joined the EU (he means the EEC), we haven't had any trade negotiators. We handed over that competence to the European Union and the European Commission, so Whitehall doesn't have any. And I can tell you, they're gonna have to negotiate dozens and dozens and dozens very, very quickly. So they're gonna be in the market for people who know how to do a trade deal. They’re gonna have to hire people from other member states, they'll use the consultancies, maybe they'll get some old men out of retirement to help. It'll be difficult.
Had she broken out of the SW1 bubble, Quinn might have been discovered that she was not being told the truth, but instead she referred back to Ruth Lea who was "not worried about that". She thought we could hire the expertise, not in any way understanding that Grant was misleading his audience – and with absolutely no conception of how long de novo negotiations would take.

Nevertheless, that was good enough for Quinn, who delved back into her "imaginary scenario" and the "increasingly crowded agenda" to take a journey to Brussels to meet Piris. He was used to point out one of the other big considerations besides trade.

But what we actually got was another lie. Piris told us that, "A big problem will be for Britons living, which are about two millions, in countries of the European Union now. So they will be not any more EU citizens, hence they will lose their citizenship of the EU which gives the right to move, to establish, who have a lot of benefits and so on".

"Then, if the UK tried to negotiate with the EU on that, will the UK accept that Eastern Europeans will have free access?" he asked, rhetorically answering: "I don't think so, because that's one of the problems. And if there are some barriers to this movement, the same would be applied to Britons going to the EU countries. So there will be a lot of problems for EU citizens living in the UK as well, because you have two millions living there, working and living and studying in the UK".

Thus said Quinn, "Immigration and movement of citizens then are among the host of issue that would need to be unravelled". She should have known better or found out, on such an important point. The fact is that acquired right under international law means that moat of the problems raised by Piris simply do not exist. But Quinn seemed to have got the problem she wanted, and was not going to weaken her case. Very far from that, she insisted on going further, to explore yet another problem.

"But we mustn't forget about legislation", she said. "What would happen to the mass of EU regulations, the thousands of directives which have been incorporated into UK law since 1973?" 

For her answer, SW1 again spoke to SW1. The guide here was Daniel Greenburg, "a parliamentary lawyer heavily involved in a number of EU-related Bills. He drafted the amendment act which brought the Lisbon Treaty into UK law in 2008".

"This is the largest scale legislation and policy exercise that has possibly been carried out ever", he said. "It's certainly bigger than the exercise that had to be carried out in 1972 when we joined because it's more complicated unravelling 40 years of combined European and domestic policy and literally every one of those thousands of pieces of our law that rests on European Union law will have to be examined to see how you unpick it, how much you want to throw away, how much you want to keep and for different reasons, and the extent of the exercise is just staggering".

This, though, was just one view – the most problematic of all scenarios. But once again it gave Quinn the answer she appeared to want. She did not trouble to delve further. Never mind that we might stay in the EEA and adopt the entire acquis, as well as repatriating laws outside the EEA. In that scenario, on the day after we leave, nothing changes. Like India and Ireland on independence, we could take our time, expending such energies as we felt necessary, so much so that India still has laws on its statute book that were drafted in Whitehall during the days of the Raj.

Quinn, though, quite clearly wanted the problems to mount up. "And it wouldn't just be Whitehall civil servants and policymakers affected", she said with barely suppressed glee. With that, we were back to Martin Howe, who assumed that we would not repatriate the CAP and CFP. Thus, he obliged Quinn with a new set of problems which have "implications for the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well". He told her:
You have a common agricultural policy which is very tightly controlled at European Union level but within the United Kingdom agriculture is divided – in England it's between the Westminster that controls it and in Scotland it's the Scottish Parliament and government that controls it, so you'd need to replace the Common Agricultural Policy with a UK Common Agricultural Policy. You wouldn't want to have, say, Scotland subsidising beef farmers who then undercut English beef farmers, etc. So you'd have to have a degree of central policy but within that you'd obviously retain the existing characteristics of the devolved legislatures and governments that have their own local powers and their local implementation of the policy.
With yet another problem bubbling away, and with "the policymakers and law makers set to work at Westminster and in the devolved governments", Quinn wanted to know what happened to the people working within the institutions of the EU.

Piris was quite helpful on one aspect of this, killing a myth promulgated by both sides. The situation would continue exactly as before, he said. The UK remains a full member of the EU. Ministers and officials continue to participate except that they don't participate on the EU's side for the negotiations with the UK, "of course".

A time-wasting digression into the European Parliament then took Quinn to a discussion of whether or not Article 50 was final – which need not detain us, especially as that takes us back to Greenland to add detail which was of no value, and an equally fruitless discussion as to whether Greenland should seek to join the EU. Other than to act as subtle, pro-EU propaganda, the diversions were completely irrelevant.

Back in Westminster, there would be "so many questions to answer" said Quinn, including the question of compensation for the UK's departure, or whether the judgements of the ECJ would still he heeded during the exit process.

Even then, there were, according to Quinn, "two final hurdles to cross". Any withdrawal treaty would have to be approved by Parliament "here in Westminster" as well as in Brussels. "So would a two or possibly three-year negotiating timetable really be enough to sort this all out", she asked.

"I think the problem is that once you start extending time like that, all the extra time will then get used up in opt-out negotiations", said Martin Howe. "Experience shows that the only way you achieve a result on negotiations is when they're up against a deadline".

Howe, said Quinn, believes there are sound, practical reasons why the UK should be prepared to walk away without a deal after two years - without in any way hinting at the consequences.

If the referendum were in 2017, he said, then the two-year time limit would allow the negotiation process to be completed and concluded within the current parliament, whereas if it's extended you're then going across into a new parliament with a general election in the meantime, in which there might be a change of government or, at a minimum, the negotiation process gets tangled up in the general election campaign.

We were then left with the thought of Gus O’Donnell seeing Britain as an old married couple who'd decided to go their separate ways – finishing with the theme introduced at the beginning. It doesn't have to be messy, Quinn said.

"When you trigger the Article 50, you then start the negotiations", said O'Donnell:
Then I think of this as a couple who have been married. This is sorting out your divorce – you know, the splitting of assets, because there'll be liabilities that'll need to be shared out, all sorts of things like that. That is one set of negotiations. The other set is of course life post-divorce. How are you going to live together? And there are various ways you could live together. You know, you're going to be sharing the same global trading world. Are we gonna be sharing it more like a Norway or a Switzerland, or a New Zealand or a Japan. So there are lots of different scenarios. But once you've got through the divorce proceedings, let's hope that they can be done in a nice, amicable way, so we have an amicable, friendly divorce and then we get on to, as it were, co-habitation and how we're going to live together in this world, and trade together in this world.
And that's how the programme was left. This was the SW1 view of Brexit – shallow, alarmist and heavily weighted with Europhiles who were keen, with the eurosceptic aristocracy, to share their ignorance with us, bolstered by uncorrected lies.

Obviously, this was what the BBC thought was high-quality broadcasting. But, as an attempt at impartiality, it was irredeemably flawed. So subtle was the bias, though, that not everyone recognised it for what it was. This was bias by ignorance, bias by omission. Quinn the ignorant chose – with her producer and researchers – from a tiny gene pool of "prestigious" voices who simply do not have the knowledge to inform us on crucial questions. Others were prepared to lie about the subject, in a way that Quinn was quite unable to detect.

One could not accuse Quinn and the BBC of bias in the ordinary sense. They are too ignorant of the subject to know how to be biased. This was institutional incompetence speaking from the bubble, a new type of scenario where the ignorant see fit to preach to their fellow man.

We need to complain long and loud to the BBC on this. The combination of ignorance and lies, and the obsessive, London-centric reliance on prestigious figures made this programme a low-grade, distorted pastiche. If there is to be a free and fair debate, we need far better from the BBC. And this is a point that must be made.