The BBC World Service is launching a new series of debates, called World Questions, with the first episode being recorded at the Royal Library of Belgium in Brussels. EURACTIV interviewed veteran BBC presenter Jonathan Dimbleby ahead of the show, for his view on Britain, the BBC and the EU referendum.
First of all, what is World Questions and why is it coming to Brussels?
World Questions is, if you like, a cousin, of the very long-standing Any Questions programme on Radio 4 of the BBC. The World Service wants to engage in open debate using the standards of debate which are characteristic of the BBC – impartially chaired, open, provocative in the sense that you provoke ideas and thought, where you get a cut-and-thrust of to-and-fro between individuals across a spectrum of opinion. And, because Europe as we know, at the moment is our first choice – we’re going to be doing four programmes in Europe, because A. Europe is going through a period of transition, and B. now as we know a period of very considerable concern, if not crisis.
You mentioned there the duty of impartiality – perhaps for our non-British readers you could explain how that works in terms of the forthcoming EU referendum?
The BBC is founded on a significant number of values, and one of which is that it is fair and impartial in its journalism, and this – essentially – is broadcast journalism. So we’re realising that, we hope, by inviting (we don’t select scientifically our audience for these programmes. We invite those who want to come, so it is also transparent and democratic, in that sense. Anyone who wants to come to the programme, anyone who wants to pose questions, can do so.) The structure of the programme is that the audience poses questions to four individuals who have either power, or influence, in public life. In this case in this first programme, it is a writer, and three leading politicians. And they respond to those questions, I debate with them what they’ve said, pick up from one to another, they debate with one another, and I bring in the audience, individuals who want to have their say, who want to pick up the politicians, pick up the panellists, and say what they think, and cross-examine them as well.
So it’s an open forum for public debate. And that is a long-standing tradition, a proud tradition in Britain which is always under threat, everywhere, because free speech needs permanent defence and this, I hope, is an example of how free speech can be valuable, instructive, stimulating and enjoyable.
Does it mean between now and the referendum date that everytime the BBC has two minutes of the ‘pro-EU’ campaign, it has to have exactly two minutes of the ‘anti-‘ or the ‘out’ campaign?
It is not like in every single moment of the day if anyone utters a pro-European word, you have to have an anti-European word. Over time, there has to be a balance. In our case, in my domestic programme, Any Questions, we don’t always, every week, discuss Europe. It’s likely to come up this week. We try our best to balance the pro-European and the anti-European view. As you get closer to the whenever the referendum is going to be, there will be no doubt that that will become an intense obligation to ensure that no one on either side is short-changed. And that those who are maybe in the middle, who haven’t made up their minds, are not short-changed either.
We don’t know when it’s going to take place, we don’t know how people are going to vote, so you have to provide an environment for everyone to feel that they’re not being short-changed. That they’re getting value.
We don’t know when it’s going to take place, we know it’s by the end of 2017…
We know the end date. We know the latest. We don’t know whether it’s going to be anytime …no one I know thinks it’s going to be before the end of this year, there are those who think it’s going to be in the early or middle part of next year, it could go on into 2017, right up to the end.
The only recent referendum in Britain was last year’s Scottish referendum. Do you think the BBC has learnt from the experience of covering that, because it was a bit bruising at times?
It was bruising for the BBC because one or two individuals, I think, behaved rather poorly in criticising the BBC, because the BBC wasn’t siding, as they saw it, or giving enough attention, to their point of view. If you look back – and we were, in the case of my own programme, and I know the other programmes – scrupulously attentive to balance. Now there’s also – that’s in discussion, right, in interviews and the amount of time that you give and the amount of weight that you give each side in the argument – but there’s also a proper role for that journalism, within that framework, that offers interpretation and comment from specialist expert journalists. Now, sometimes people are not going to like what they hear, because it isn’t a little echo voice of what they would like the truth to be. So you get complaints. Now that is par for the course in any election, in any referendum, of any kind. The political parties in this country, as I’m sure happens elsewhere, are liable to try to persuade the broadcaster to try and see it their way. And sometimes that can be quite a brutal, tough, bullying of broadcasters. To which the broadcaster has to be robust…has an obligation to the electorate, which is a different kind of obligation from the party that is seeking to persuade the electorate that they should be the winner, or the point of view, the party’s point of view, should be the winner. Our obligation is to be fair, to be attached, to be informed, illuminatingly, on the landscape.
The current migration crisis across Europe is undoubtedly an issue that’s going to come up at your World Questions show, I’d have thought, but is there not a danger that the British EU referendum could end up being a referendum on migration – rather than about the EU per se?
I think – if you ask me as a commentator, and I’m very happy to answer – there is no question in my mind that the issue of migration and refugees and asylum and borders is a very, very, important factor in the way in which people are at the moment looking at options that they have when the referendum comes. There’s no doubt about that. And the opinion polls tell us so. And the opinion polls reflect an anxiety in this country, as in other countries, about the migration crisis which Europe is facing.
And in terms of – you would know this better than I – but in terms of British knowledge about the EU, do you think most of the British public really know who Jean-Claude Juncker is, or Donald Tusk, or Martin Schulz…
Personal view, and you’re very at liberty to print this, I think the British public is woefully under-informed about the structure, organisation and leadership of the European Union.
And I think that is in part the failure of the communicators, not excluding even the BBC, that tries its level-best, but doesn’t always succeed. But there is a relentless media debate, which either deliberately, sometimes, or by default, offers a distorted image of Europe.
That’s to say, it has a strong view, there are parts of the media – this does not apply to the BBC – which are strongly anti-European Union, and so they cover the European Union in ways that reflect that attitude.
I wonder if there’s also difficulty in which my experience of the British political class in terms of the politicians is that they’re very obsessed with US politics, with Washington. Labour goes out and copies what the Democrats do, and the Conservatives the same with the Republicans, and they don’t really go to Berlin or Paris and copy what Merkel’s CDU is doing, or Hollande. Do you think that’s always been the case with British politics?
I think there is a much – and I think there are good, long-standing historical reasons for this – there’s a much greater fascination with what is happening in the Republican race, for instance, at the moment, in the United States, than there is in what particular party may or may not be thinking in this or that European Union country.
The relationship between Britain and the United States, described so-often as the ‘special relationship’ is one – whether that is correct or not – is one in which the British look to America on the whole, in political terms, before they look to Europe. That is certainly true.
One last question – again, speaking as an individual or commentator rather than for the BBC…
Although what I say about the programme is within the context of my role as a presenter for the programme, I am absolutely myself in other areas, and I would be horrified if you weren’t free, and I know I’m not supposed to say anything dramatic at the moment, I’d be horrified if you didn’t feel completely free to write what you want about my views…I believe in freedom of expression. Powerfully.
But give me a prediction, this far out, of what you think will be the result of the EU referendum.
I think only a fantastist would give a prediction at this point. What we do know is, the polls have been tightening. And for a long time, the polls had demonstrated a large majority in favour of remaining within the European Union. That has tightened. And there are now some polls that suggest that there is a majority in favour of leaving the European Union, in favour of Brexit.
My own instinct is that it is a very volatile environment and that therefore to predict is an act of folly.
There will be, I think, as the debate unfolds, there will be those who ideologically wish to remain in, and ideologically to get out. There will be those who believe that for economic and strategic and political reasons it is vital to stay in. There are those who believe we would be better off out, for the same reasons.
And that’s why, when you have Europe going through an acute set of questions now over the migration, over borders, over whether or not Schengen will survive, over the issues of the economy and of bail-outs, you have a much more volatile environment in which this debate is going to be settled, between those who don’t have an absolute clear commitment one way or the other than you had several months ago.
One final, final question. I just wonder if a narrow result either way will actually settle it for a generation, in the way that the Scottish referendum hasn’t really closed that issue down.
That’s a very good question.
I would be astonished, however, because the complexity of re-introducing a referendum is so great in relation to Europe I would be astonished if it didn’t settle the matter.