In the summer of 2013, Chris Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, stated that he wanted an independent review into whether the BBC reports on the topics of ‘Immigration, Religion and Europe with impartiality’. Well I have just spent well over a year in the BBC complaints procedure dealing with what is a good example of it’s pro-EU bias. On the morning of the 29th May 2012 the BBC Radio 4 Today programme was reporting the government’s ‘climb down’ on the Pasty Tax, the budget proposal to charge VAT on takeaway pasties. Allegedly the chancellor had decided that we could have our Pasties VAT-free ‘as long as they were cooling down‘. Now I hadn’t really paid a lot of attention to this story, which had been running for a number of weeks by then, but that last statement caught my attention. Why the qualification stating that they must not be kept warm?
Basically the background is:
- VAT is a European Union defined and imposed tax.
- Some national variances in applying VAT have been agreed and are defined in the Directives but the UK must follow exactly what the EU has laid down in its Directives.
- If these EU rules are not followed then the nation is subject to the rulings of the European Court.
- The UK had not been applying VAT uniformly to hot takeaway food (not just to Pasties but also to items like Somosas and hot food from supermarkets). This was brought to a head by the EU Court ruling against a German hot-dog seller called Manfried Bog (in 2011).
- The HMRC initially tried to claim the ruling wouldn’t affect the UK but the UK accountancy profession didn’t agree and advised companies in the UK that might be affected, for example Fish and Chip shops, to start putting in ‘protective claims’ to the Inland Revenue for the repayment of VAT back tax should it turn out that that they had been treated unfairly (e.g. from September 2011),
- The government had to decide whether to take VAT off items like Fish and Chips (which would be very costly) or to add it to those currently inconsistently zero rated (e.g. Pasties). So in the March budget the government elected to add VAT to the Pasties.
- Then, after a lot of political pressure, there came this ‘climb down’. VAT need not be applied to Pasties ‘as long as they were “cooling down” after being removed from the oven‘. Of course this was not a ‘climbdown’, it was just the government realising that if the pasties weren’t kept hot they would fall under a different section of the VAT rules (they were then ‘freshly cooked products‘ not ‘take away food‘) . It could not execute a real climb down as it is completely bound by EU law on this issue.
Now absolutely none of this was covered by the Today programme during any of their bulletins over the weeks this story unfolded. The government motive for this was obvious, it wanted to avoid the damaging political implications of having to admit that it was totally bound by EU rules – something which would not have helped it fight off calls for an EU Referendum that were going on at the time.
My complaint has now gone through all the layers of the BBC complaints process. From the Complaints department to the head of BBC news and then to the BBC Trust on appeal. The initial excuses included (1) the EU VAT side was irrelevant background that they didn’t have time to cover (2) the story was just a domestic political story about an embarrassing climb down on a key budget proposal (3) there was no EU background as it wasn’t being discussed in Brussel’s and the UK Government hadn’t mentioned it there either Well they wouldn’t would they! The UK cannot change one line of EU law without the agreement of all the other members and that wasn’t going to happen.
In November 2012 I had a reply from the BBC Trust Editorial Standards Committee, detailing much of the BBC editorial policy and rejecting the appeal. It stated that It was a domestic political story and ‘the reporting on the Today programme was not out of line with the rest of the media‘. So that’s all right then. If everyone else is being lazy or biased then you can be too!
I finally got to the end of the process, with no further options for escalation or appeal, in July 2013. A reply was received from the BBC Trust stating that ‘there was no evidence to support the allegation that the editorial judgement had been affected by bias‘.
For UKIP to succeed and for any Referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU to be fair then it is of fundamental that the BBC covers EU issues accurately (they have close to 50% market share in the news media in the UK after all). At the moment they obviously are not.