There is no such thing as “No Deal” – and impartial broadcasters should recognise this

There is no such thing as “No Deal” – and impartial broadcasters should recognise this

by Brian Monteith
article from Monday 11, March, 2019

THE NEXT FEW WEEKS are possibly the most important for British democracy since the UK’s referendum on European Union membership was held on 23 June 2016.

It is vitally important that the reporting of the debates and statements of participants is reported and analysed by the media – and especially broadcasters – not only accurately but with a balance that is non-judgemental to the merits of each argument. Only then can readers, viewers and listeners make their own conclusions helped by the information provided.

If you accept that is how BBC, ITV, Sky – and the rest – should conduct themselves then you should be concerned, for in much of the reporting of the Brexit negotiations there is an apparent growth in language that isjudgemental.  Maybe unsurprisingly, the emphasis is biased against those who advocate leaving the EU – while the same disservice is not taken with those advocating the Withdrawal Agreement, revoking our notice to leave or holding a new referendum so that the decision might be reversed.

It should not be too much to ask that broadcasters – and the BBC in Particular (because viewers are coerced by the threat of criminality if they do not pay the licence fee)  – should provide unimpeachable balance through their television, radio and online output.

To achieve this balance all that is required is that those attacking the UK leaving the EU on 29 March 2019 without a comprehensive Withdrawal Agreement are subject to the same level of scrutiny as those who are willing to advocate what is falsely called “No Deal” as a superior option to either supporting the government’s “deal”, extending our period of membership or holding a second referendum.

For avoidance of doubt let me make it plan that the concept of “No Deal” that is bandied about so freely by, for instance, the Director General of the CBI Carolyn Fairbairn, many politicians and BBC reporters – does not even exist. 

If the UK leaves the EU without accepting the proposed Withdrawal Agreement there are many individual deals already set up between the UK and EU – for heavy goods vehicles, border procedures, visitors’ visas, aircraft flights, aircraft wings, nuclear power, financial services – and many more.

These individual deals make the claim of “No Deal” utterly meaningless. Indeed the term has become so redundant that for broadcasters to use it or accept it being said by participants without challenge demonstrates a particular channel has abandoned impartiality and taken a side in the debate.

The BBC, ITV and Sky broadcasters are skilled people and there are many words in the English language they can choose from to describe the options available to our politicians without accepting the deal or no deal analogy.

Conservative MPs and peers that oppose the government’s Withdrawal Agreement because they do not believe it meets the repeated promises given in good faith by the Prime Minister are not arguing for “No Deal” – they are arguing to use the already established facilitation deals; to establish more of such arrangements before the 29 March; and, to benefit from the existence of the World Trade Organisation rules for commerce between the UK, the EU and the wider world.

Indeed the more accurate description is to describe the Prime Minister as having only one solitary deal while those that reject it have many deals they wish to support. 

There is no such thing as “No Deal”

The senior management of broadcasting companies should face up to their responsibility to deliver impartiality by communicating through the many planning meetings, into the studios and out to the journalists and presenters that such biased, pejorative and unfair descriptions should stop with immediate effect. Only then can so our politicians and the public evaluate the pros and cons without what appears to be establishment institutions cheering one side on.

Any participant in programmes using the term “No Deal” should be challenged to make plain what they mean by it when there are many existing deals already available and ask how much they have considered and evaluated them. 

Likewise, broadcasters should subject the notion that leaving on WTO terms will be a catastrophe to the same challenge that its interviewers apply to any pro-leave argument.   

I provide an example below of how pro-EU lobbyists are allowed to get away with falsehoods unchallenged. It is significant that people like the director General of the CBI, Carolyn Fairbairn, no longer cite concrete problems but just resort to lurid adjectives like ‘catastrophic’ or metaphors like ‘wrecking balls’ rather than specifying specific problems.   This is because the principal horrors that were supposed to happen on 29th March have been dealt with: planes will fly, lorries will have licences to cross borders, airbus wings will be certified as safe, the UK’s veterinary systems will be recognised by the EU, etc. Above all the new Transitional Simplified Procedures announced by HMRC will ensure smooth transit through Dover with no additional checks so all the fears of shortages of medicines, food etc are no longer valid.

Our broadcasters have a duty to report with conspicuous impartiality. Our best broadcasters of the past, like Brian Walden and Robin Day and those working today, such as Andrew Neil and Jeremy Paxman won, respect and public appreciation for being tough, thorough and challenging everyone equally. It is time for broadcasters reporting Brexit to do the same.

An Example of differing treatment 

It is time broadcasters subjected pro-EU lobbyists like the CBI as thoroughly as it does supporters of Brexit.  Here are just four examples –

On 27th February Nick Robinson interviewed Carolyn Fairbairn of the CBI on Radio 4’s Today programme.   She was not merely allowed to avoid answering difficult questions but got away with egregious factual errors.

Example 1:  Asked to justify her claim that “No Deal” would be a “wrecking ball on the economy” Ms Fairbairn could not cite anything that would happen post 29th March, only things that have already happened “businesses are spending millions of £s preparing for it – Pfizer £90million – small businesses too are having to waste money.”  

Fact 1: In general, such expenditures will only be “wasted” if the UK leaves with a withdrawal agreement.   If we do leave without an agreement (the premise of the question) those preparations will mean that all these companies are “prepared for it”, so no deal will not after all be a wrecking ball for them.  Taking no deal off the table would not recuperate any of these expenditures.

Fact 2: In particular, Pfizer announced last autumn it was spending £90 million to prepare for Brexit – but this was to prepare for the UK being a third country when we leave and most if not all of it would be necessary even if we do ratify the withdrawal agreement.   Anyway, it means that Pfizer should be ready for trading on WTO terms.

Example 2: When Nick Robinson raised the cost of customs declarations Carolyn Fairbairn replied: “Well it’s not surprising when you look at the kind of checks they will need – we know that the Rules of Origin forms are 12 pages long”.

Fact 3: If the UK leaves with no preferential/free trade deal with the EU, Rules of Origin will not apply to trade between us. No Rules of Origin forms will be required.

Fact 4: Rules of Origin will only apply if the UK and EU agree to continue to trade with zero tariffs (which could be done by mutual agreement under GATT Article 24) in which case fears about tariffs on UK/EU trade are irrelevant.   But the EU is replacing the old electronic certification to which Ms Fairbairn referred by the much simpler REX (Registered Exporter) system.   Under REX, traders do not need to complete these forms – they can simply self-certify that their goods comply with rules of origin. Carolyn Fairbairn (and possibly Nick Robinson) do not understand how trade is facilitated.

Example 3: Nick Robinson asked Ms Fairbairn: “What do you say to politicians who say ‘No business would behave as you’re suggesting?   No business would go into a negotiation and say, don’t worry, I’m staying in the room.  I’ll sign up to whatever comes up because I’m too scared to walk away.”   

Ms Fairbairn simply evaded the question with the usual student union style evasion – “No business would go into a negotiation on a platform which says: ‘If you don’t give me what I want I’m going to shoot myself in the foot’.” The question was not pressed home. Could she name a single company that has ever successfully negotiated on the basis that it could not walk away from negotiations?  Has the Today programme ever pressed a Remainer urging that ‘no deal must be taken off the table’ to answer that question?

Example 4:In comparison, when Peter Lilley  appeared on Today he was first of all interviewed by John Humphreys (fine), then his views were contradicted by the so-called fact-checking “Reality Correspondent” which Lilley then had to correct, then he was criticised in absentia by Evan Davies and Professor Anand Menon on the PM programme later in the day – without them being subject to the fact-checking. How can such disparity be compatible with the BBC’s duty of impartiality?

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