The Great European Disaster Movie was meant to stimulate robust debate on Europe’s future. What we got was a theological war


By Bill Emmott

The furore that preceded and followed the broadcast of "The Great European Disaster Movie", the documentary by Annalisa Piras, which I exec produced, transmitted by BBC Four last Sunday night has left me, a seasoned journalist, almost speechless. Almost, but not quite.

So, as someone who was not only heavily involved in the making of the documentary but had a ring side seat on the mob scene that followed it, on both traditional and social media, let me share my impressions with you.

The most powerful feeling this experience has given me is one of sadness. Sadness at the damage done to knowledge, to debate and to strategic thinking in Britain by the fact that the topic of what is happening in the European Union – and our place in it - has become so toxic as to breed, in my view a kind of conspiracy against understanding.

We should have known from the initial response.

I became increasingly clear during the development of the film throughout 2014 that the BBC News and Current Affairs department were nervous about the subject matter. In the end, they consigned the film to a quiet corner of Auntie’s output, the Storyville strand on BBC Four.

It is a fine strand, and we were proud to be part of it, but the implication was clear: the topic of what happens in our own continent, the Union of which the UK has been a member for 42 years and in which we do more than half of our trade, the countries to which millions of Britons go on holiday every year, was too hot for the BBC's main channels to handle.

But the Storyville corner proved not so quiet after all: as broadcast neared, BBC Four itself got the jitters, asking for alterations to a film whose final version it had already approved more than a month earlier, then twice suspending the transmission date while it pondered how to ensure "political balance" so as to meet the Corporation's impartiality rules.

The BBC's answer to that need was to throw yours truly into the lion's den of a special Newsnight debate starring Peter Hitchens of the Mail on Sunday and Mark Reckless of UKIP, with some help from Norman Lamont. The debate, presented by Robert Peston, was pre-recorded a few nights earlier, but broadcast immediately following the film, at 11.20pm that Sunday night.

That discussion, and the Twitterstorm that blew up around it, was quite surreal. Although one issue planned in advance for discussion was immigration, Newsnight itself chose to ignore the fact that the director and principal author of the film under discussion, Annalisa, is herself an "EU migrant", and instead shunned her and invited me, portraying this bearded Briton as the only author and thus the doc as in effect a British film, which it isn't. (It is European, in our view).

The debate was also surreal for its disconnection from reality. Apart from an articulate contribution from Marina Prentoulis of Syriza, it conveyed a series of bizarre and, or, misleading opinions disguised as facts.

First of all it seems the euro is obviously doomed (well, it might still fail, as our film warns, but four new countries have joined it since 2010, and a few days earlier Greece had confirmed its determination to keep it going).

Secondly, the only immigration issue that matters is EU immigration (even though less than half of the UK's immigrant flow in the past decade has come from the EU).

Then the EU was described as the aggressive culprit for the war in Ukraine (hmm, well Boris Nemtsov didn't think that).

Finally, it seems the EU elite is constantly flouting the will of the British public (even though the latest YouGov's poll showing a record lead for those wanting to stay in the EU had come out that very morning).

When challenged about that poll off-camera, Peter Hitchens even claimed that his own paper is pro-EU (as part of a claim that no mainstream British paper has campaigned against the EU, hence the public are poorly informed). It certainly didn't feel that way when on both Sunday and Monday we and the BBC were monstered in the Daily Mail for the film, nor when Toby Young reviewed the film for the Daily Telegraph listing "Nine things The Great European Disaster Movie got wrong", and every single one of his nine claims was false.

And here is the final reflection, well known to followers of British Influence. The real tragedy of the British debate about the European Union is how dominated it has become not by facts or analysis but by a form of theology. Navigating my way through the Twitterstorm following the film's broadcast felt rather like witnessing a debate between rival clerics in Wolf Hall, or those arguing over one of Henry VIII's desired annulments. Facts didn't matter. What mattered was whose side you were on, and what outcome you wished to see, for reasons of power or politics.

What Britain needs is for the debate to move from the Wolf Hall era to that of the Enlightenment, and fast. Despite a bruising few days, I know this can be done.

Bill Emmott is a former Editor of The Economist and was Executive Producer of The Great European Disaster Movie.

You can watch the film on BBC iPlayer here.