Cropped OutThe Curious Tale of the BBC, Brexit and our Missing Vegetables
Former BBC journalist and producer Patrick Howse explores why the BBC’s reluctance to tell us when we are being lied to is well past its sell by date
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The shortage of vegetables in the UK has been noticed in Europe, with serious newspapers publishing articles about how Britain’s supermarkets are limiting the number of peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes that customers can buy and featuring photos of the extensive gaps on their shelves.
Germany’s Der Spiegel, for example, ran a long article about the shortages. Noting the bad weather in Spain and Morocco, the article cited the National Farmers Union’s view that “increased costs, trade barriers caused by Brexit and a lack of staff” were to blame (and, of course, the staff shortages are also at least partly a consequence of Brexit).
I live in Germany, and there’s no obvious shortage of vegetables here. The supermarkets near my home in Munich are fully stocked, though I have noticed that prices have risen. And this is something that Der Spiegel also picked up on – German traders say there has been a rise in prices and more are likely.
But there are no actual shortages in Germany, or apparently anywhere else in Europe.
As an illustration of this, Lindsey Hilsum, Channel 4 News’ war correspondent, tweeted a picture of supermarket shelves full of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, and wrote: “No tomato shortage here, but I’m in Kherson, a frontline Ukrainian city that gets shelled by the Russians daily, not a British supermarket.”
The whole of Europe has had to cope with the consequences of bad weather – but only the UK has had the effects of Brexit on top; and only Britain has empty shelves.
So, how has the BBC reported on this fall-out from Brexit? By not mentioning Brexit.
The BBC News website, for example, seems to have settled on a stock phrase: “Bad weather has disrupted supplies of fresh fruit and veg which we rely on from overseas at this time of the year. And British growers have been planting fewer crops like tomatoes and cucumbers because of the huge heating costs for greenhouses. They’ve also struggled to find seasonal labour to pick them.”
And when guests try to introduce the word ‘Brexit’ into the equation, they are closed down. An exchange on the business segment of Radio 4’s Today programme this week was illustrative. Throwing to the business presenter, Nick Robinson asked “what’s going on?” The answer, we were told, was “this is after harvests in southern Europe and northern Africa were badly hit”.
This led into an interview with a former chief executive of Sainsbury’s, Justin King, who agreed there had been “terrible weather” but added “to understand the problem you have to go back further – this is a sector that has been significantly disrupted by Brexit”.
He went on to talk about the huge British grower of vegetables, the Kent-based Thanet Earth, and how the lack of Government help over fuel costs had also been a significant factor as the company had not been able to afford to heat its greenhouses. The business presenter, though, was insistent: “But, as you say, this is down to global pressures… so that’s the primary issue here rather than Brexit.”
The BBC’s got a huge problem.
It doesn’t believe it is its job to tell its audience when it is being lied to by the Government. I’ve written about this in these pages many times and it is fair to say that Laura Kuenssberg often comes up in this context. I’m afraid she is about to once again.
On her flagship Sunday morning politics discussion programme, Kuenssberg interviewed the Scottish National Party’s Westminster Leader, MP Stephen Flynn, who observed that Boris Johnson had lied. “That’s quite a charge,” she interrupted.
By any realistic assessment, calling Johnson a liar is not “a charge” – it is a statement of demonstrable fact.
Leaving aside the lies he told navigating the wreckage of his marriages and affairs, Johnson has been sacked twice for lying. He lied his way through the Brexit campaign, and he lied his way through the ‘Partygate’ scandal. And, as Flynn pointed out, he lied about the Northern Ireland Protocol and his “oven-ready deal”.
But, for Kuenssberg, the jury is still out.
People who are familiar with her work will not be surprised by this intervention. Kuenssberg spent her time as the BBC’s Political Editor repeating and amplifying everything she was told by Downing Street, without ever seeing the need to find out if what she was being told was actually true. What mattered for her was to get the line and get it out to her audiences as quickly as possible.
At the heart of this is the BBC’s conviction that it is not its job to tell its audiences when they are being lied to. Instead, it confines itself to ‘balance’ – ‘he says this but she says that’ narratives that often leave viewers and listeners confused and inclined to believe that all sides are as bad as each other.
This strategy wore thin a long time ago.
Meanwhile, BBC Chairman Richard Sharp’s cosy relationship with Johnson – brokering a £800,000 loan from a Canadian businessman for him while he was in the process of applying for the corporation’s top job – makes the BBC’s reluctance to call a liar a liar deeply suspicious.
Sharp has taken an active role in senior editorial appointments and remains in post despite the loan scandal. The calls from Jonathan Dimbleby and others for him to resign for the good of the BBC have been ignored. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Sharp doesn’t actually care about the BBC’s reputation.
Sir Robbie Gibb – who former BBC presenter Emily Maitlis suggested is an “active agent of the Conservative Party” – is also still in place on the BBC’s Board, where he sees lecturing Newsnight staff about impartiality as an important part of his role.
The BBC’s pursuit of an illusion of balance when reporting domestic politics has badly damaged it in the age of Brexit. Its obvious fear of telling British people the truth about what has been done to them, and falling back on the cowardly reporting of contradictory opinions rather than hard facts, has seriously undermined its credibility – and continues to do so.