Why the BBC has to say ‘Non!’ to EU funding

Neil Clark
Neil Clark is a journalist, writer, broadcaster and blogger. He has written for many newspapers and magazines in the UK and other countries including The Guardian, Morning Star, Daily and Sunday Express, Mail on Sunday, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, The Spectator, The Week, and The American Conservative. He is a regular pundit on RT and has also appeared on BBC TV and radio, Sky News, Press TV and the Voice of Russia. He is the co-founder of the Campaign For Public Ownership @PublicOwnership. His award winning blog can be found at www.neilclark66.blogspot.com. He tweets on politics and world affairs @NeilClark66
People arrive and depart from Broadcasting House, the headquarters of the BBC, in London © Paul Hackett
Suppose I told you I was setting up my own broadcasting company - NCBC- the Neil Clark Broadcasting Corporation. And that NCBC and an NCBC-owned affiliate had received over £37m in funding from the European Union.

Would you trust NCBC’s coverage of the forthcoming in-out British EU referendum to be totally impartial- even if I assured you that the EU money was not going to be spent on program related to the referendum- and that most of the money had gone to an ‘offshoot unit‘? At the very least, I’m sure you’d have some doubts. He who pays the piper calls the tune, as the old saying goes.

If NCBC was too critical of the EU- then its unlikely there’d be too many more checks coming in from Brussels. But this is no hypothetical example. The BBC, Britain’s national broadcaster, and its ‘offshoot’ unit Media Action, have received over £37m from the EU over the past decade and want us to believe this won’t affect their coverage.

Now you don’t have to be Nigel Farage or a paid-up member of UKIP- or even an EU-skeptic, to be seriously concerned about these developments.

It’s not as if the BBC really needs Brussels’ money. It already gets £3.37bn a year from the license fee, as British MP Andrew Bridgen has pointed out.  If more money is needed for programming then the BBC should be looking at cutting the obscene salaries paid to its top earners. 

It should certainly not be taking money from a political body like the European Union, especially before a critically important referendum.

The importance of the European vote, which could be held as early as next summer, can’t be overstated. A UK withdrawal would be a huge blow to the EU elite, and to the US, which desperately wants Britain to stay in to push the US line at meetings. We know that the CIA supported Britain staying in the EEC [European Economic Community] in the 1975 referendum, and partially funded the ’Yes’ campaign and they’re likely to want a similar result in 2016. 

The stakes are high all right, and with the polls close, it could be the BBC’s coverage which swings it. While the rise of RT and other news channels continues to chip away at its audience, the BBC remains very much the British people's first source of news. If you live in the UK, it’s hard to avoid listening to or watching a BBC News bulletin or seeing the news when you check out the BBC website for the weather forecast or the football scores.

Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain's anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) © Stefan Wermuth

But while some right-wing critics of the BBC overstate their case, it’s sadly true that the old impartiality that the broadcaster was once famous for has gone.

We have seen plenty of evidence of BBC bias in recent political events. The Indy Ref [Independence Referendum] in Scotland in 2014 was a close run thing, and arguably it was the BBC’s pro-Union coverage which made the difference. “Whatever happens on Thursday, skewed media performance on Scottish independence,  in particular, from the BBC - has helped huge numbers of people see ever more clearly the deep bias in corporate news media,” wrote the media monitoring organization Media Lens

“Media manipulation was exposed in stark form when Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, was rumbled by viewers able to compare his highly selective editing of an Alex Salmond press conference last Thursday with what had actually transpired,” Media Lens noted.

Then there was the coverage of the 2015 Labour leadership campaign, which was heavily biased against the non-Establishment challenger Jeremy Corbyn.

Even after Corbyn was elected, BBC’s current affairs programmers have been keen to give priority to the new leader’s Blairite critics, ignoring that fact that almost 60 percent of Labor members and supporters voted for him. It’s fairly obvious that the anti-war MP for Islington North was not the Labour leader that the BBC wanted.

The BBC’s coverage of the conflict in Syria has also lacked impartiality. We’re left in no doubt when we watch BBC reports that the conflict is primarily the fault of official enemy Bashar-al-Assad, with the Russians playing a malevolent role too. While the Western powers are portrayed as benign actors only wishing to do the best for Syria and its people, the Russians are there to prop up the Assad regime and protect their interests; the rotten swines!

I noted in my OpEdge last week how the BBC’s flagship current affairs program Newsnight was still asserting that the terrible chemical weapons attack in Ghouta in August 2013 was carried out by the Assad government, as if it was all 100 percent proven.   

We shouldn‘t be too surprised at the way the BBC reports Syria, after all, its current head of news and current affairs, on a salary of £340,000 a year, is James Harding, a neocon and former editor of the pro-war Times newspaper. 

Pro-Iraq war neocons and Blairite ‘liberal interventionists’ who should be thoroughly disgraced after Iraq and Libya are still the mainstay on BBC current affairs programs such as the aforementioned Newsnight, while those who were proved right on Iraq and Libya rarely get bookings (In fact, you’ve got to tune in to RT to watch them).

On Europe too, you don’t have to watch or listen to BBC News for too long to realize that the Corporation is fairly strongly pro-EU.

Don’t be fooled by the regular appearances of Nigel Farage on Question Time; the BBC may like to give Farage a platform because let’s face it, he’s nearly always entertaining and, like George Galloway, boosts audience ratings, but they don’t share his views on Brexit.

Euro-skeptics already had legitimate grievances against the BBC, and now knowing that the Corporation has received funding from the EU, only makes things worse.

So what is to be done? The answer is obvious, the BBC must return all the money it and its ‘offshoot unit’ has received from the EU. That is an essential first step if public trust in the BBC is to be restored.

In addition, there also needs to be a new grassroots ‘Reclaim our BBC’ movement to try and get the state broadcaster back to the higher standards of impartiality, and indeed great program making, it had thirty and forty years ago.

As I highlighted here, the subjugation of the BBC by government began with the removal of the independently-minded Director-General Alasdair Milne in January 1987. Since then, the BBC has been gradually been brought into line, so that today it merely parrots whatever is the official government view on a wide range of issues. As the UK government line shifts so does the BBC’s. Over the past few years, much of its foreign news coverage might as well have been produced straight from the FCO.  

To add insult to injury, some political journalists at the BBC, instead of looking at their own role within a state propaganda system and challenging the way things have gone at the ‘Beeb’, have the nerve to sneer at RT, joining in with relentless neocon attacks on the station.

Of course, RT has an agenda, to present the news from a Russian perspective, but to pretend that the BBC doesn’t have an agenda too is palpably absurd. The old saying that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones comes readily to mind. 

With its current charter set to expire at the end of next year, the BBC urgently needs to regain popular support if it is to survive as a public sector broadcaster in a far more competitive media world than it has ever experienced.

Taking money from the EU before a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership is most certainly not the way to go about it.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.