Wednesday, July 04, 2007

It can't be accidental

Returning to last Monday's House of Commons debate on the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system, we have now a superb example of the BBC at its Europhile best, "spinning" for all it is worth to put the best gloss possible on this disastrous project. As a case study of hidden propaganda and pro-EU bias, it takes some beating.

The report (on the website only) is headed, "UK presses private Galileo role", with the strap line stating: "The UK says it still believes the private sector should share the risk and the cost of developing Europe's satellite-navigation system, Galileo."

As always, this conditions the piece, setting the framing for the subsequent report, which declares:

The multi-billion-euro project has been beset with delays and a budget overrun. And in May, the European Commission abandoned negotiations with a private consortium to help it build the system. But new UK transport minister Rosie Winterton said the commercial sector should still have a role in developing the new sat-nav service.
However, it is not the case that the Commission has "abandoned negotiations with a private consortium". Rather, the consortium – which the EU itself set up - refused to accept the terms of the deal presented by the commission without definite financial guarantees, on the basis that the commercial case on which the commission was relying had collapsed. But all the BBC will allow, later in its own report, is that negotiations "floundered".

That the government declares that it still thinks the commercial sector should have a role (in the financing of the project) is, in any case, whistling in the dark. Not only is it not going to happen, the only proposals on the table are how public money should be used to bail out the scheme – whether through the EU budget or via the European Space Agency.

That much was made very clear in response to the minister’s speech, delivered by outgoing shadow transport minister Owen Paterson, who gave chapter and verse on the finances, and the state of play.

Here though, the BBC spin machine comes into its own. Not a single word from Paterson's speech is quoted. The opposition spokesman is an invisible man. Nothing he says is allowed to tarnish the BBC's "take" on the project.

Even on the detail, the BBC is subtly spinning, telling us that Galileo is a "four-billion-euro (£2.7bn) system", when the latest estimates suggest overall costings are nearer €9-12 billion. It also tells us that the system is "supposed to be functional by the end of 2012", when actually, it was supposed to be functional in 2008 – and the 2012 date is highly optimistic; if it ever takes off, 2014 is more realistic. And yet another "factoid" was the government's estimate of how much it had committed, the BBC reporting €148m, forgetting the correction made by the minister, Rosie Winterton, who added another €142, making €290 million, or slightly more than £200 million (neglecting also to say that that figure only covered the last three financial years).

So, what of the opposition responses? In what was actually a spirited debate, with detailed contributions from a number of MPs, including Bernard Jenkin and Bill Cash, the latter coming up with a robust condemnation of the system:

We are talking about a failed project; that is clear … The project has no useful purpose whatever. It cannot fly and cannot even be described as a duck. It cannot be described as a workable system. The proposal is completely absurd.
But the BBC wasn't allowing that to see the light of day. Instead, it selected an anodyne intervention from back-bencher Tobias Ellwood, who was allowed to say that he, "doubted a commercial case for the project could ever be justified, especially since the American Global Positioning System (GPS) already delivered an excellent service."

It then immediately countered that with a comment from Lib-Dim MP Lembit Opik said increasing dependence on sat-nav demanded there be an alternative to GPS, giving the full measure of his argument:

The aviation business increasingly depends on global positioning system technology, but there is no redundancy … We have no alternative method of positioning, using satellites, so if the system goes down - and it can - it will create a grave danger to aviation. ...the principle of ensuring redundancy in such an essential navigation system must surely be right?
The point, of course, is entirely spurious. There are multiple redundancies within the GPS system, including spare satellites which can be repositioned if any satellites fail. In any case, aircraft carry back-up systems, such as inertial navigation and, in extremis, can rely on dead reckoning and ground radar fixes. (Opik makes another spurious point about blind landing – which the BBC does not air.)

By way of comparison, the only other published report we see is from a specialist magazine, but that is headlined: “Support for Galileo PPP crumbles.” It tells us that, "British politicians are turning against Galileo, the EU's proposed satellite navigation system." It quotes Paterson claiming that the system is "in crisis", and notes his view that:

From a projected profit of €17.8 billion, the maximum is now €1 billion, with a possible loss of €4 billion … The project is now six years behind schedule … soaring costs and plummeting benefits had undermined the financial case for it.
Throughout the long, turgid history of the Galileo project, the corporation has been a leading cheerleader. And now that that EU's treasured project is on its uppers, we are not allowed to know this. The spin from the BBC cannot be accidental.


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