The government’s humiliating defeat on purdah is the first major victory for Eurosceptics in the battle on how the EU referendum is fought. Bernard Jenkin, one of the lead Tory rebels, appeared on the Today programme to explain why his gang took on the government last night:
‘They initially wanted to abolish the purdah rules altogether, which would mean going to back to the kind of referendum that Wales had in 1997 which was so roundly criticised by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, where the government was spending money and ministers were being deployed by the civil service to conduct the campaign. In the general election and local election, there is a very strong tradition that that should not happen.’
Jenkin said his concerns were not about long policy papers but the government machine spinning on behalf of the ‘In’ campaign during the final 28 days of the referendum — something he described as ‘absolutely outrageous and that would not be on’.
This led to a terse exchange between Jenkin and presenter James Naughtie over the role of the BBC in the referendum campaign. Listen below:
Jenkin: There is the other problem. Jim, you know the history of the BBC’s coverage of the European Union question. There was the report commissioned in 2005 under chairmanship of Lord Wilson of Dinton, the former cabinet secretary, that found that and I quote “we have found there is widespread perception that the BBC suffers from certain forms of cultural and unintentional bias”.
Naughtie: A widespread perception?
Jenkin: The BBC governance accepted that and we know that the Today programme basically got the presentation of the Euro wrong. We know that, that’s now been accepted.
Naughtie: Can we get back to the issue?
Jenkin: This is an important point Jim because every morning we have someone on the Today programme from business and they’re always asked the question “do you think we should stay in the EU?” but you tend to choose people from a certain sector of business who are going to say what they think the establishment wants to hear.
Naughtie: Sorry, we want to get back to the point but can I just tell you that is simply not true.
Jenkin: It’s an important issue and I hope you will address it in a future programme.
Naughtie: Finally, do you think that the fact the government was beaten last night on this indicates that particularly on European questions but on a whole host of things, the Prime Minister is skating on very thin ice?
Jenkin: Well, I think this question actually indicates part of the unintentional cultural bias of the BBC.
Naughtie: Oh for goodness sake.
Jenkin: No listen, let me just explain that.
Naughtie: This really is tedious.
Jenkin: This was a cross party dispassionate discussion about how to create a fair referendum. If there is to be a new politics, it’s this kind of politics where a select committee on cross-party basis makes recommendations and the opposition in a rather non-partisan way I have to say supports that case. That’s what happen last night and your question wants to see it through the lens of party politics, the party game at Westminster and who’s in and who’s out and whether the Prime Minister is weaker or stronger. That’s not what this was about, it was about a fairer referendum…
Naughtie: …a game you have never participated in…
Jenkin: …we’ve got a step closer to a fairer referendum, which is the kind of thing the British people want.
Jenkin’s concerns about the BBC are ones we can expect to hear again as the debate about how the referendum is held goes on. Eurosceptics are genuinely concerned that the the national broadcaster is biased — knowingly or otherwise — and this will make it much harder for their voices to be heard. With the BBC Charter renewal rumbling on, Auntie is already on a cautious footing and Eurosceptics will exert as much pressure as possible to ensure they receive due prominence during the referendum.