Written by Sir Noel Malcolm
This article was published in ‘Briefings for Brexit’ and we re-publish with their kind permission.
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Sometimes, in the never-ending flow of BBC hostility towards the idea of Brexit in general and a ‘no-deal’ Brexit in particular, it is possible to capture, as if in a scientific experiment, the mechanisms by which BBC news editors achieve their desired result. Here, then, is a little example of how news is made.
The seven o’clock news at the beginning of Radio 4’s Today programme last Saturday (27 July) began with three headline items. The first reported that Donald Trump had said he was eager to do a trade deal with the UK after Brexit, and that he thought trade could be increased thereby, possibly by a factor of five. The second said that Boris Johnson was about to announce a major rail link in the north of England. And the third said that Eliza Manningham-Buller, Chair of the Wellcome Trust (which funds medical research) had written a letter to Boris Johnson, ‘warning that leaving the EU without a deal is a threat to the science sector.’
Six hours later, the one o’clock news put the Prime Minister’s speech (which had by then taken place) about the rail link first in the pecking order. But the positive comments of President Trump about post-Brexit trade disappeared. (Here is a case not only of how news is made, but also of how it is unmade.) So what had been the third item moved up the list, to number two. But what it now said was this: ‘Scientists have warned that the future success of the industry in the UK is not compatible with a no-deal Brexit.’
What had happened in those six hours? Some important developments, apparently. The ‘warning’ was now being given not by a retired MI5 chief who chairs a charity, but by ‘scientists’. And what it warned was not merely that a no-deal Brexit would be a ‘threat’ to ‘the science sector’, but that it would mean the science ‘industry’ could not be successful at all – i.e., it would fail.
What had actually happened was that a BBC reporter, tasked with firming up the Manningham-Buller story, had turned to someone who could be guaranteed to issue dark warnings about a no-deal Brexit, as that is what he has been doing at fairly regular intervals for the last two years: Sir Paul Nurse, Director of the Francis Crick Institute in London. Sir Paul duly obliged, with what the BBC decided were four useable sentences. After the reporter had summarised his view as ‘He warns that belief in continued success is at odds with the idea a no-deal Brexit’, we heard him say the following:
‘When Boris looks at it, he will increasingly be aware, and if he listens to the people who do know about this, that it is not compatible. His speech, to say science is important, was great, we welcome it. What he is trying to do, though, is the complete opposite. He, over the coming months, I think, will learn to recognise that, not only for science but for our economy, and I think he will change his position.’
It’s hard to see what, in this incoherent, off-the-cuff string of sentences, constituted such a weighty pronouncement, or such an incisive analysis, as to merit being run as part of what was now – thanks to this leg-up from Sir Paul – the number two news item of the day.
No reason was given in any of those four sentences for the central claim about incompatibility with a no-deal Brexit. The phrase ‘What he is trying to do’ was completely vague, and very probably prejudicial, given that it is the policy of this Government to seek a deal if possible, and, if not, to mitigate in all feasible ways any negative effects of ‘no deal’. And the phrase ‘not only for science but for our economy’ was simply gratuitous, given that Sir Paul’s views on economics are worth no more than those of any other newspaper-reader.
This article will be continued in Part II on Independence Daily.