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The battle of the airwaves

Posted by Richard Monday, February 07, 2005

The Times this morning carries an extraordinary tale recording that the egregious Peter Mandelson has launched an attack on John Humphrys, the Today programme presenter, complaining to the BBC of his "virulently anti-European" views and claiming that the "anti-European bias" of some BBC presenters is a "problem".

This follows on from the report of the independent review panel published at the end of last month which found, in effect, that the BBC was is that the BBC is "institutionally biased" when it came to EU coverage – with the BBC Today programme often cited as a main culprit by critics of the BBC.

Mandelson was responding on European Commission paper to give his views on the review, but had asked the BBC to keep it confidential.

In what is described as a "stinging letter" to Michael Grade, the BBC Chairman, which the The Times has somehow "obtained", Mandelson has accused the BBC of failing in its charter obligation to promote "understanding" of European affairs and declared: "I do not think the present BBC coverage is good enough."

He suggests that the Today programme, presented by Mr Humphrys, used to be "biased in a marked Eurosceptic direction", but was now generally less Eurosceptic under its new editor Kevin Marsh. But he insisted: "There is still, however, a specific problem with the anti-European bias of some presenters, objective presenters to the public but who have many times committed themselves in print to virulently anti-European positions."

He is also reporting as saying that the BBC gave too much coverage to moderate Eurosceptics and should instead give more coverage to extreme Eurosceptics such as UKIP, who wanted to take Britain out of the EU altogether.

He disagreed with complaints from Eurosceptics that the BBC was institutionally pro-EU, saying: "From a pro-European perspective, I have never discerned any BBC tendency to over-represent our viewpoint or present our views as the consensus that all men and women of goodwill support. If there ever was such a tendency in the 1970s, it is long gone."

Humphrys has dismissed the criticism as political opportunism. "It’s delightful for once to be accused of being Eurosceptic when we’re usually accused at the Today programme of being Europhiles," he says, adding: "It’s interesting that Peter Mandelson has any idea of what my views on the subject are. I’m sure we’ll have more of this kind of thing from him in the run-up to the election."

A"leading moderate Eurosceptic" is cited as saying that the complaint that "UKIP views are… under-represented" is seen as a cynical ploy. "It just shows how cynical the Government is, wanting to make all Eurosceptics seem like loonies," the unnamed source says.

This is undoubtedly a "spoiler" by Mandelson, who undoubtedly correctly assesses that if he can engineer a complaint against the BBC, its corporate tendency is to suggest that, if it is getting complaints from both sides, then its coverage must be about right - even though the review panel rejected this suggestion.

But this also harks back to the 1975 campaign where the BBC deliberately gave most coverage to anti-EEC campaigners like Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, who then had "negative" profiles with the public, with the a view to discrediting the "no" campaign.

Mandelson almost certainly feels that giving UKIP speakers more coverage would have a similar effect, especially if it chooses representatives like Godfrey Bloom, who is the Europhile's ideal "anti-European". There is also a possibility that the BBC will attempt to use Kilroy to perform a similar role, with its emphasis on presenting his views as "extreme".

In the battle of the airwaves, therefore, with the BBC being closely monitored to ensure that its output is "balanced", the issue will not only be the amount of time allocated to each side but also the style of coverage and the speakers chosen to represent each case.

Mandelson, with his known tactical skills, is obviously making an early attempt to tilt the coverage in favour of the "yes" campaign.