Friday 27 May 2016

Let's debate the EU -- without the politicians

Don’t you think it would be a good idea to ban all our wretched politicians from the EU referendum debate? It’s far too important to be left to them, so I suggest we lock them in a cupboard and keep them there until after 23 June.

Alas, no chance. But together with a former BBC colleague, I’ve done the next best thing. We’ve produced a series of referendum podcasts and made them politician-free zones. We got together a handful of experts, and a citizens’ jury of 10 men and women from all walks of life, and, guess what, not an insult or a snide remark passed between them.  You can download the podcasts here, free of charge, and listen to them at your leisure. In the car, in the kitchen, on your bike or in bed. Wherever, and whenever, suits you best. We’ve even included a link to the government’s voter registration page, just in case you haven’t registered yet. The deadline is 7 June.

We recorded four podcasts over a blisteringly hot weekend a couple of weeks ago, and it was an exercise that produced some fascinating exchanges. Each podcast tackles a separate issue – the economy, immigration, laws and regulations, and sovereignty and national identity – and after the jurors had a chance to question each of the experts, they discussed the issues among themselves.

Did they come to a common view? They did not. Did they end up yelling at each other? Likewise. It was good-tempered, thoughtful and makes for a compelling listen. It was the kind of thing that broadcasters should be doing much more often but tend not to, for fear of being boring.

That’s why we did it on our own. No one paid us, no one backed us, and there was no one behind the scenes trying to steer us in any particular direction. We didn’t take a vote at the end because it wasn’t that kind of discussion, but several jurors said they had changed their minds as a result of the weekend’s debates. Who knows? Perhaps you will too, if you get a chance to listen to them.

So why have the broadcasters’ referendum debates and discussions so far been so singularly unhelpful? Mainly, I think, because they insist on including politicians, and for politicians, the referendum is all about winners and losers: will B Johnson emerge in a stronger position than G Osborne? Is D Cameron ever going to talk to M Gove again? Will anyone ever talk to N Farage again?

They call it positioning, and for a politician, it matters far more than such insignificant issues as the future prosperity of the UK and its relations with its closest neighbours.

Towards the end of our podcast about sovereignty and national identity, I asked our jurors the question that seems to me to be at the heart of the whole referendum debate: Is the UK more likely to be the sort of country you want it to be as a member of the EU, or outside it?

When people tell me that they want more facts about the EU, I think they risk misunderstanding the nature of the question we’re being asked to answer. Of course, the facts matter – and I find it deeply depressing that so many politicians seem perfectly happy to twist, mis-state or simply ignore the facts. But on 23 June, we’re being asked to make a judgement about the future, and facts about the future, by their very nature, are hard to come by.

If you do want more facts, however, I can recommend the excellent website And a reminder: if you are not yet on the electoral roll, there is still time to register: you can do it online here, and the deadline is midnight on 7 June.

Oh, did I mention? Our EUTheJury podcasts are available here. I hope you get a chance to listen to them, and to pass them on to as many people as possible. They are guaranteed suitable for anyone with a politician allergy.

Friday 20 May 2016

Has the EU really saved Europe from war?

Which pro-EU fanatic do you think said this? ‘Brexit is a dangerous gamble which could trigger a gradual disentanglement of the EU and jeopardise the peace and stability created following the end of the second world war.’

Clearly, it was someone who has never heard of NATO. Except it wasn’t. It was Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who happens to be a former secretary-general of NATO and presumably is well aware of the respective roles that the two organisations have played in keeping the peace in Europe.

Pro-Leave campaigners complained loudly when David Cameron made a similar point 10 days ago. ‘Of this I am completely sure,’ he said. ‘The European Union has helped reconcile countries which were at each other’s throats for decades.’

As you may recall, he was roundly mocked for this claim by that renowned historian and wanna-be prime minister Boris Johnson: ‘I think all this talk of World War Three and bubonic plague is totally demented frankly.’ Which is exactly the opposite of what this arch-disciple of consistency said in his biography of Winston Churchill: ‘Together with NATO (another institution for which [Churchill] can claim joint credit) the European Community, now Union, has helped to deliver a period of peace and prosperity for its people as long as any since the days of the Antonine emperors.’

(Note for non-classicists: ‘The Nerva–Antonine dynasty was a dynasty of seven Roman emperors who ruled over the Roman Empire from 96 AD to 192 AD.’ – Wikipedia)

So let’s play a game of make believe. Let’s pretend that there was no European Union (as it then wasn’t) when the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991. Let’s pretend that the Communist dictatorships of central and eastern Europe imploded and that, as usually happens when decades of authoritarianism give way to a more pluralistic political system, a period of chaos ensued. Without the offer of EU membership, conditional on the post-Communists adopting a long list of democratic values, the so-called Copenhagen criteria, it is more than possible that the almost painless transition to democracy would have been a great deal bumpier.

It is impossible to prove a negative. But a quick look at what has happened in the Arab world in countries where authoritarian regimes have been overthrown suggests that there is nothing automatic about peaceful transitions. It is also worth noting that, as in the Arab world, in central and eastern Europe, with only a few exceptions, there was no real tradition of democracy, most countries having been ruled variously by the Russians, Germans or Ottomans for much of their recent history.

Now consider the fate of the Balkans. When Yugoslavia imploded in 1990, the EU was left floundering. You could even argue with some justification that, if anything, it made things worse by being too ready to recognise the self-declared independent republic of Croatia. It eventually took NATO intervention (ie US involvement) in first Bosnia and then Kosovo to halt the horrors of ethnic cleansing, but it was then the EU that encouraged the emergence of new leaders in both Croatia and Serbia who put the past behind them in the hope of being admitted to the Brussels club. (Croatia joined in 2013, and Serbia is currently negotiating the terms of its entry.)

Would Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić have been arrested without pressure from the EU?  Quite possibly not, thus strengthening the argument that the EU has been, largely, a force for good in the most turbulent corner of Europe. I assume no one needs reminding where the conflagration that became the First World War had its origins.

Fine. So what does any of this have to do with the UK referendum next month? Pro-Leave campaigners say the EU is welcome to continue along its merry way, but without the UK on board. Except that an EU without the UK will be a weaker EU, and a pro-Leave vote may even, as Anders Fogh Rasmussen suggested, lead to the gradual unravelling of the entire project.

Bottom line: a vote for the UK to leave the EU would have the potential to destabilise Europe and increase the likelihood of future conflicts. It would also be likely to encourage the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to start threatening the security of the Baltic states, all of them members of both the EU and NATO, if he thought Europe’s pan-national institutions were showing signs of metal fatigue.

The EU has already been buffeted by the Eurozone and migration crises; one more major shock to the system could well mark the beginning of the end. In the words of David Cameron: ‘Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt?’ Like the prime minister, I would never be so rash as to make that assumption.

If you’re still uncertain how to vote in the referendum, you may be interested in a series of four podcasts I’ve been making, bringing together a citizens’ jury of 10 voters and different experts to discuss some of the main issues. The podcasts are called EUTheJury and they’ll be available online next week at I’ll have more details for you in the next few days.


Thursday 12 May 2016

BBC White Paper: too soon to celebrate

If you have been busy campaigning to save the BBC from its enemies, well done. If you wrote to your MP, signed a petition, or contributed to the government’s consultation exercise (which 192,564 of you did, apparently), you did not labour in vain.

Job done? Fraid not. Get out your magnifying glass, apply a cold compress to your forehead, and start ploughing through the small print. It’s not exactly fun, but someone has to do it.

Like most White Papers, this one starts off all soft and cuddly. The BBC, it says, is ‘a revered national institution, and familiar treasured companion. It is a cultural, economic and diplomatic force that touches the lives of almost all of those who live in the UK and hundreds of millions beyond these shores.’

Eighty per cent of the people who responded to the government’s consultation exercise said they think the BBC serves its audiences either well or very well. Seventy-four per cent of British voters believe it delivers ‘fresh and new’ programming. The government disagrees, and insists that it needs to keep bashing the BBC over the head to persuade it to ‘focus its creative energy on high quality distinctive content.’ Like Wolf Hall, presumably, or W1A, or Planet Earth, or Bake Off, or Dr Who, or The Night Manager, or … do I really need to go on?

The White Paper is a perfect example of a government trying to fix something that ain’t broke. How often does it need saying: the BBC is far from perfect, but it is one of the few British institutions of which we can be justifiably proud. (And no, I don’t say that just because I used to earn my living by working for it.)

So here’s the BBC’s new mission: ‘To act in the public interest, serving all audiences with impartial, high-quality and distinctive media content and services that inform, educate and entertain.’ Achieving this, says the White Paper, ‘will require a change of culture within parts of the BBC’, which is nonsense. What on earth do ministers think it’s been trying to do all these years? Sometimes it fails, admittedly, but I defy anyone to prove that it’s not been trying.

John Whittingdale, who has never made any secret of the fact that he doesn’t really see why we need a BBC at all, has had to accept that, unlike him, the great British public have a deep affection for it. He has had to accept, through gritted teeth, that there is no alternative, at least for the next decade, to the licence fee, and, much as he would love to, he’s not going to be allowed to write the BBC’s schedules to give its commercial rivals a free run at peak-time viewing.

For all of which, I suspect, we owe the director-general, Tony Hall, a vote of thanks and a round of applause at a largely successful behind-the-scenes lobbying operation. When Tory MPs start voicing concern that their own government is being too hostile to the BBC, you know there has been some serious chatting going on in the places that matter.

I won’t mourn the death of the BBC Trust, which I described after the Savile debacle in 2012 as ‘an ugly, hybrid beast, neither regulator nor board of directors, [that] should be put out of its misery.’ But I urge you to look very carefully at the terms of reference being proposed for the new regulator, Ofcom.

It will ‘regulate editorial standards’ (p.14), and ‘investigate any aspect of BBC services, including where minor changes have over time combined to have notable impact, with proportionate powers to sanction’ (p.15). What that means is that if Ofcom suspects that the BBC’s programming is potentially eating into the profits of its competitors, it will have the power to step in.

As my former colleague Robert Peston, now political editor of ITV, put it: ‘There is a high probability that the BBC's activities will be much more severely circumscribed by an Ofcom highly sensitive to the impact of the BBC on the likes of ITV and Sky. In practice, the BBC's ability to make highly popular programmes, or invest in important new technologies, may be reined in.’

And when you finally get to page 54 of the White Paper, you find this: ‘The new regime should be moved towards a more clearly regulatory approach with a greater focus on measurable quantitative obligations that specify desired outputs and outcomes rather than the more qualitative approach of the existing service licences.’ In other words, measure the impact of BBC programming on its competitors, and take action accordingly. Never mind if the programmes are popular with the audience.

Even more ominously, ‘the new licensing regime will … require the licensing of the BBC to include content requirements that provide a set of measurable outputs to which the BBC can be held, the majority of which will be at service level. The BBC will be obliged to report against these content requirements, and the regulator will enforce against them, ultimately with the ability to sanction the BBC if required.’

And who will set out the content requirements? Surprise, surprise, it’s spelt out on page 55: ‘The government (my emphasis) will provide guidance to the regulator on content requirements and performance metrics to set clear policy parameters for the creation of this new regime.’

Disaster averted? Not quite. As they say when you buy something online, always read the terms and conditions. You may need to write to your MP again.