The BBC’s failings
Like Mark Damazer, I am a fervent supporter of public service broadcasting and the role of the BBC; but his essay on Brexit coverage (“How Brexit broke the BBC,” April) is quietly devastating about some of the corporation’s deficiencies. I differ from Mark in that I believe the rot started with the referendum coverage when BBC correspondents’ obsession with political process—and who’s up and who’s down—obscured the vital issues.I do not worry about the BBC’s impartiality. But I sense a lack of editorial grip that results in poor prioritisation of what matters and inadequate analysis. This is the most crucial moment in post-war politics, and the corporation has not shone in the way its supporters would have liked.
Roger Mosey, former editorial director of the BBC
The BBC is held to a higher standard of journalism than commercial media. I mean, imagine the fuss if the BBC had published an article about Brexit coverage that concluded “I do not think the BBC betrayed its principal public purpose” and “the BBC is far from failing,” but under the headline: “How Brexit broke the BBC.”
Charles Miller, London
A “Children’s Vote”
Thank you for the “Duel” on private schools (“Are private schools a blight on English society?” April). I especially enjoyed the reference to Brexit as a battle “lost on the playing fields of Eton.” Leaving aside the Bullingdon Brexit, (as readers will remember, “Buller” members would trash restaurants in Oxford, leaving others to clear up, which seems a close analogy of the referendum) I have one conclusion reached from personal experience.
Middle-class parents should stop to ask their children before they make the sacrifice of school fees. Would they prefer a private education or help saving for a grad pad?
I would have been thrilled to send my children to the local comprehensive rather than spend many hundreds of thousands of pounds on private education. Instead of arguing over Britain’s apartheid education system, parents should allow it to wither on the vine via a “Children’s Vote.”
Rachel Johnson, journalist
Simon Heffer displays his ignorance of VAT by stating that if value-added tax were imposed on fees “schools would lose the VAT exemption on all the products they buy in.”
In fact if VAT were imposed on school fees (“output tax”) the schools would be entitled to offset the VAT they pay on supplies (“input tax”) against that, as it is one of the fundamental principles of VAT that the net amount payable to the Treasury is the difference between output tax and input tax.
Ian Arnott, Former HM Customs and Excise VAT Officer
Speaking out Your “Portrait” (“The leading man,” April) examined the pro-active approach John Bercow has taken to rebalancing the interests of parliament and government. Sadly, the fact that he “declined to delve any further into the bullying furore” will increase fear among House staff that he might be content for the key recommendation of the Cox inquiry into bullying—that MPs should have no role in the determination of allegations against their peers—to be ignored.
The speaker’s credibility to lead cultural change has been undermined by outstanding allegations against him personally. It is welcome that the Commons decided in January to remove the statute of limitations which previously prevented historic allegations from being investigated.
Hannah White, Deputy Director at the Institute for Government and former Commons clerk
Bercow seeks to cast himself as “the backbenchers’ speaker,” as James Graham suggests. But the speaker’s role is also to ensure order in the Commons, and in this he is increasingly disruptive.
Until recently, Bercow was respected for championing MPs through established devices, extending PMQs, routinely granting Urgent Questions and ensuring ministers were hauled before the Commons. However, recent decisions have ignored convention and clerks’ advice, creating uncertainty not only for the government but for smaller parties.
Established rules created a level playing field but now the system requires the currying of favour. Bercow’s behaviour is similar to that of a parent who lovingly indulges a child’s every whim—requests steadily escalate, leading to damage that is difficult to undo.
Nikki da Costa, ex-director of legislative affairs at No 10
Level the playing field
Sarah O’Connor (“The minimum wage is pointless if we don’t enforce it,” March) is right that decent employers “support the idea of better and more targeted enforcement” of the minimum wage. Enforcement benefits the Treasury as well as the labour market and society.
However, we must also create a culture where is it unacceptable to pay less. For businesses, fair wages show commitment to helping staff thrive. For workers, a fair wage, alongside other good employment practices, fosters loyalty and improves productivity.
In higher performing parts of Europe such as Sweden, unions and employers’ organisations set and enforce standards with little government involvement. Post- Brexit, businesses, workers and unions must work together for an even playing field in pay.
Margaret Prosser, chair, the Commission on Collective Voice and former President of the TUC
Rein in big tech
While James Ball is broadly right to be sceptical that anti-trust law has answers to the big data problem (“How to cut big tech down to size,” March), this law has one clear deficiency—the scope of merger control—that could be overcome.
The deficiency is that all merger control jurisdictions have been unable to lay a glove on big data’s systematic, defensive acquisitions of upstart technology companies that could threaten its position, as big data itself threatened the positions of Microsoft and IBM.
There is some evidence that this penny has dropped with policy makers—at least in Germany. A future Democratic administration in the US will need to take up the challenge of reforming merger control; for Ball is essentially right to say that some control of market concentration is in the US’s own best interests.
Stephen Hornsby, EU and competition lawyer at Goodman Derrick LLP
We are sorry that Philip Ball did not like our new book on creativity, but has he actually read it? (“Machine Mozarts,” April) So far from being “curiously old fashioned,” it is instead forward-looking in the stand it takes for idiosyncratic human values, against the pernicious megadata and algorithms that enamour him so.
Meanwhile Jonathan Ive, who designs the machines so many people use to access the internet, is the son of a silversmith and puts handicraft at the centre of his practice as Chief Design Officer of Apple. That makes a point. Curiously old-fashioned values are our bet for the future.
Stephen Bayley and Roger Mavity, authors of “How to Steal Fire”
Rée of light
So Paul Rée was a friend of Friedrich Nietzsche who opened the philosopher’s eyes to “the challenges of English utilitarianism” and “the allure of French style.” Jonathan Rée then adds he was also “some relation of mine” (“Tricky Friedrich,” March).
Paul Rée is clearly someone who deserves to be rescued from obscurity by one of the few people who has heard of him.
Ivor Morgan, Lincoln
I enjoyed Kate Williams’s piece on queens in film (“Queens of all our hearts,” April). One reason we’re seeing so many screen queens is likely the result of a knee-jerk reaction to the #MeToo movement. It’s an easy way to give women lead roles without having to write an entirely new character. (This was surely the impetus behind the recent Mary Queen of Scots film, which explored the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth. Two for the price of one!) In this sense the writers can pretend to be revolutionary, while in fact tapping into a safe, nostalgic place.
Lucinda Smyth, critic, London
Mark Damazer’s defence of BBC coverage of Brexit is an interesting insider’s account with many fair points. Like Damazer I started as a graduate news trainee in the BBC and remain devoted to its public service ethos. But I do think the BBC badly lost its way on Brexit as listed below.
No historical context. Brexit did not come out of the blue or begin in 2016. It was a culmination of a change of political culture, the rise of identity politics, Tory uncertainty after failing to win a majority in four successive elections, and the open embrace of Europhobe themes, which mainstreamed into political discourse this century especially on the issue of Europeans working and living here.
Salon anti-Europeanism. One of the Brexit clichés is that metropolitan BBC elites were all Europhile. On the contrary, many journalism elites, like other London elites, seem to have taken their cues from their favourite papers owned by off-shore Europhobe proprietors. It wasn’t just the Telegraph or Spectator though, nor the Mail that was solely to blame. The Guardian had its star anti-EU columnists including Giles Fraser or the anti-Brussels Economics Editor, Larry Elliot.
The Westminsterisation of BBC Brexit coverage. Nearly all BBC reporters and presenters on Brexit are Westminster specialists. They turned the issue into endless mini Punch and Judy shows between different populist MPs. With the election of mayors for major cities, parliaments in Scotland, the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, Britain now has a wider elected political class than just Commons MPs. The excellent Katya Adler and other BBC Brussels reporters were given limited airtime as exotic specialists. They were not given proper interviewing jobs where they would have exposed the level of untruth about the EU, which the mono-lingual BBC London presenters were not knowledgeable enough to challenge.
The voice of Northern Ireland. The BBC did not make enough effort to find voices to balance the homophobic DUP party. The DUP got 26 per cent of the vote in Northern Ireland in 2015. There are other elected Northern Irish politicians, unionist protestant as well as nationalist catholic, who could have spoken for the Northern Irish majority but the BBC virtually ignored them.
Worship of Nigel Farage. Between January 2013 and February 2018, Question Time had 33 appearances by UKIP MEPs but not a single Labour, Lib Dem or Green MEP.
Indifference to factual truth. Factual errors were made about the EU that would be unthinkable when it comes to the Beeb’s UK or US political coverage. It felt as though anyone could state as a fact “the EU is driving towards a federal super-state”—when 99 per cent of all UK public spending is determined inside Britain by the government. Pro-Brexit MPs said there were no border controls between Switzerland and its EU neighbours. BBC presenters allowed such untruths to go out unchallenged far too frequently.
Coverage of outside interference in Brexit. It surely ought to be a cause of concern that the BBC’s 2,000 journalists failed to uncover the details of dubious financial practices by those who financed the Leave campaign, while the much fewer number of Channel Four News journalists led the way.
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former minister for Europe. His next book Brexeternity will be published soon