UKIP provided 33 out of 35 MEP appearances between 2013 and 2018 - despite having one of the lowest attendance records among MEPs.
Pro-EU members of the European Parliament are set to meet a senior BBC news executive next week, in the wake of growing concerns over potential pro-Brexit bias.
The cross-party meeting with Fran Unsworth – the BBC’s Director of News and Current Affairs – is due to be held next Wednesday in Brussels, Left Foot Forward can reveal.
A Brussels source told this site that pro-EU MEPs will try and convince the BBC figure to put one of their number for the BBC’s flagship Question Time programme, following claims from Lib Dem MEP Catherine Bearder that not a single pro-EU MEP had ever been on the show:
There has never been a pro-EU MEP on Question Time. People just assume MEPs are like Farage: shouting but ultimately doing no legislative work. It’s far from the truth and I think it’s time the public got to hear from an MEP like @SebDance what really happens in Brussels. https://t.co/XIKX2R0B7O
— Catherine Bearder (@catherinemep) October 7, 2018
Bearder’s tweet was backed up by analysis showing not a single pro-EU MEP had been invited on the BBC’s flagship Question Time programme between 2013 and 2018 – instead UKIP provided 33 out of 35 MEP appearances, despite them having one of the lowest attendance records among MEPs:
— JP Cherrington #FBPE (@JPCherr) October 7, 2018
The BBC appeared to confirm the findings by responding on Twitter:
“MEPs are not the only political panellists on BBC Question Time -since 2000 there have been more than 2100 political panellist appearances, guided by the national level of electoral support for their parties…
“The parties on
#bbcqt are there because people vote for them in elections – not just Westminster ones. So sometimes parties will be represented by MEPs, MSPs, AMs etc. It’s not just about how many MPs they have but about broader electoral support.
“#bbcqt isn’t a single-issue programme. During the formal referendum period QT ensured a balance between Brexit remainers & leavers. Since then the arguments are less binary so we don’t categorise panellists like that but we do aim to reflect a range of views over time.”
But the imbalance in representation has sparked outrage from MEPs and campaigners:
Labour’s leader in the European Parliament – LFF contributor Richard Corbett said the BBC’s rebuttal ‘misses the point’:
The @BBCNewsPR misses the point. It’s not about OVERALL balance, it’s that whenever the public sees an MEP on #bbcqt, it’s almost always a Brexiter, usually UKIP, leading to perception that UK MEPs are overwhelmingly hostile to EU. And those who know about EP are all on one side.
— Richard Corbett (@RCorbettMEP) October 9, 2018
Green MEP Keith Taylor told LFF the finding was ‘shocking’:
“It is no wonder that the [EU referendum] debate was defined by such a lack of balanced insight into the actual workings of the European Parliament and the UK’s influence in the EU…
“It’s clear the BBC’s concept of balance urgently needs updating. It is indefensible that viewers were served such a distorted view of the debate.
“The BBC Press Team’s response to the chart which sparked the latest concerns is so lacking in awareness of the actual issue that it is not credible. There has to be a more nuanced understanding of the concept ‘balance’.
Now MEPs are hoping to question the BBC’s head of news in person.
Scottish National Party MEP Alyn Smith told Left Foot Forward:
“I have never been invited on Question Time but I’ll confess have not watched it in years unless a mate is on it. I have friends in the BBC and there’s a lot of quality journalists in there trying hard to make a decent shift of it.
“My concern is that many of those in charge are either recycled political hacks with far too much influence over editorial line, or lightweights who care little for policy or politics and are only interested in sensation.”
Commenting on the planned meeting, the Liberal Democrats’ Catherine Bearder MEP told this site:
“We’ve invited the BBC to the European Parliament have an honest discussion about Brexit and how our main public broadcaster covers news relating to the EU.
“The BBC have been really constructive and positive by accepting our invitation and we look forward to meeting them.”
There is reportedly frustration among MEPs that BBC presenters have been unable to shut down incorrect claims by pro-Brexit figures, due to a lack of knowledge about the workings of the EU.
“The EU has always been a pariah they don’t touch” – arguably a factor behind pro-Brexit sentiment, a Brussels source told LFF.
Allegations of imbalance on BBC Question Time are long-standing: three years ago pro-European MEPs raised complaints with the corporation’s then-head of political output, Robbie Gibb, during the referendum campaign.
A Plaid Cymru spokesperson said they are not aware of ever receiving a bid for Jill Evans MEP to appear on the show.
Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter.
URGENT APPEAL: We need to raise £10,000 in the next few weeks to keep Left Foot Forward going. Help us hold the right to account and back the crowdfunder for a better media here.