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Letter to Michael Grade, chairman of the BBC
Anyone who knows me, knows that I can get very upset about the failure of the British media to properly inform the nation about EU affairs. I understand why most of the newspapers consistently undermine the country's relationship with the EU (since they are owned by non-Europeans), but I do not understand why the BBC has to slavishly follow the agenda set by the newspapers, and why it cannot recall that it has a duty to provide the British public with unbiased and relevant information.
Michael Grade, Chairman
BBC, Broadcasting House
London W1 1AA
10 April 2004
Dear Mr Grade
The BBC is a great institution. It is a remarkable provider of excellent entertainment, and superb educational programmes. It is also the most authoritative and reliable news service upon which, one way or another, everyone in this country depends. This very importance of the BBC news gives it such a huge responsibility, one wonders sometimes whether it can shoulder the weight.
There is one major problem in the way the BBC approaches the news, it is a hole in your coverage which is so big that no-one dare mention it - like the emperor's clothes. The BBC is not alone since the same problem affects all UK news providers, but whereas the commercial newspapers have their own agendas, largely opposed to the EU for various reasons, the BBC should surely aim to reflect the world around it accurately, certainly more accurately than the newspapers. Unfortunately, the BBC news programmes regularly take their leads from the British newspapers rather than setting their own agenda.
I am not a politically-biased person, and this is most definitely not a political letter. Yet the consequences of the way the BBC chooses to cover European Union affairs - i.e. by not giving them anything like the proper weight - has immense political consequences.
The BBC gives us 'Yesterday in Parliament' every day; but, do we ever hear a summary report on the monthly plenary sessions of the European Parliament (which has codecision powers on many important laws)? No. Do we ever hear about the work of the European Parliament committees (where the power of the European Parliament is wielded)? No. Do we hear about the proposed legislation put out by the Commission nearly every week, and sometimes more often? No. Do we hear summary reports of the many meetings of ministers that take place in the Council of Ministers? No.
Do any of your presenters, even on Radio 4, actually properly understand the way laws are made in the EU? the way some of them are enacted directly, and the way others, many others, are transposed into British legislation a year or more down the line? I don't think so. I ask this, because their questions to UK politicians about EU subjects very often sound naive (if not inaccurate) compared to those about UK affairs, which are deft and skillful. If your presenters do not understand this, how on earth are the British public to learn and assume a basic knowledge of our position and responsibilities within the European Union.
This is the key point: probably half all UK legislation originates in Brussels (this figure suggested by Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat MEP); more specifically, 80-90% of all environmental laws originate in Brussels (a figure provided by the leading environmental organisations in Europe). Yet BBC news and news programmes never reflect these proportions. I would guess that, proportionally, UK news outweighs EU news by 50 to 1. This is such a big failure, it's as though no-one dare acknowledge it. (I am sure we hear more about US legislation, even though it has no direct impact on UK law - how is this serving the UK people.)
Consider national news: reporters and presenters are at pains to tease out the very slightest change in government or opposition policy. We are given endless analysis of issues, often by MPs without much influence. Yet, the BBC ignores many major policy proposals in Brussels, which, down the line, will have very important impacts on British policies. And, although we hear about every slight meander in the legislative process of a UK law, we hear nothing about the progress of EU laws through the EU legislative process (laws which will, eventually, set the major parameters for UK legislation). We hear nothing except about the very biggest issues, which are picked out, in the same way that other foreign news is selected. BBC News seems only able to deal with European Union developments one at a time, like foreign news, when there is a major conflict.
But surely the BBC has a duty to inform the British public about what the EU is doing, in exactly the same way that it informs the British public about British draft laws, white papers, policy developments. Why does the BBC continue to fail the British people in this way.
As I am sure you can appreciate, this failure has highly significant consequences for the way the UK public views the EU, its achievements, failures and difficulties. By not providing a decent and basic level of information you are actually deciding - in a political way - to undermine what the European Union is doing. Who gave the BBC the right to do this.
Yours very sincerely,
Paul K. Lyons
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