Christopher Booker's notebookTwo faces of Ben Bradshaw
Two contrasting episodes last week highlighted the shambles Britain is making of the EU's common fisheries policy. In Cornwall our fisheries minster, Ben Bradshaw, was so badly caught out by a blunder he had made just before Christmas that, to save his embarrassment, he proposed that Britain should turn a blind eye to the breaking of EC law. Yet in Sussex two Hastings fishermen were prosecuted by Mr Bradshaw's officials and convicted for unwittingly contravening an EC fisheries regulation that no one had ever heard of before.
Cornish fishermen were shocked to learn that for the first three months of this year, under a deal agreed by Mr Bradshaw in December to save cod stocks, they would be barred from their normal fishing grounds off the north Cornish coast, putting their livelihoods at risk. Yet Belgian trawlers had been exempted from the ban.
Mr Bradshaw's initial reply was to say: "You sometimes get details like this which slip through unnoticed." Such was the furore when Padstow fishermen had to stay in port, while Belgian trawlers hauled in huge quantities of fish, including cod, that Mr Bradshaw agreed to meet local MPs and fishermen's representatives.
Although those present at the meeting, including the Lib Dem MPs Paul Tyler and Andrew George, and Labour MP Candy Atherton, were told they must not reveal details of what was discussed, Mr Bradshaw's solution was that the Cornish fishermen should be permitted to continue fishing, while Brussels was asked for "clarification". According to Cornwall's chief fisheries officer, this is an "established strategy" used before, as for instance by France when it refused to lift the EC's ban on British beef exports.
The contrast could not have been greater with the case heard in Lewes Crown Court last week against two Hastings fishermen, Paul Joy and Graeme Bosom. In October 2003 Joy was told by a local ministry official that he had broken his licence conditions by catching more cod in the month of September than was allowed under EC quota rules.
Joy was astonished because the quota rules do not apply to small inshore boats such as those launched off Hastings beach. These have yearly "allocations" from the ministry – and at that time only 53 per cent of the allocation had been caught. But the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had decided the annual allocation could be subdivided into 12 monthly shares. Without warning, Joy was told that he had broken this new rule.
Last week the judge, Simon Coltart, ruled that Defra was entitled to interpret EC law in this way, and Joy and his colleague were advised by their barristers to plead guilty. I cannot say why the judge came to this conclusion because he barred reporting until he passes sentence this week.
Joy and Bosom face the possibility of fines of up to £50,000. In court they could not say a word in their own defence. That they have been found guilty of breaking EC law is no doubt just as convenient to Defra as Mr Bradshaw's decision that he should allow the law in the seas off Cornwall to be ignored.
A leak suggests that the BBC may be compelled under its new charter to present news in a way which is "balanced and fair". While almost everything the BBC reports these days is shaped by its own partisan agenda, the problem is often not in what it reports but what it leaves out.
A glaring example, I have observed before, was the BBC's coverage of responses to the tsunami disaster. While constantly puffing the ineffectual vapourings of the UN, it managed almost wholly to ignore the dramatically effective intervention of the US Navy, which in Sumatra helped to save many thousands of lives.
Long after this misreporting had been publicised, Newsnight was still claiming that "the Asian tsunami has provided a perfect example of the need for an effective UN under an activist Secretary General. This time Kofi Annan was quick off the mark and America's independent efforts soon looked superfluous."
Last week the BBC went overboard in puffing the launch of the A380 airbus, "a triumph of European co-operation". Yet when the EU insisted that it would only lift its crippling tariffs on Thai prawn exports if Thailand paid out £1.3 billion to buy six of these aircraft, this was ignored by the BBC. Equally unreported was the plea of Thailand's prime minister that his country did not want money from the outside world. What it wants is an end to the EU's discriminatory tariff against the country's main export, which since 1997 has cost its economy £3 billion, twice as much as all the disaster aid offered to the region.
The problem in getting the BBC to report fairly is that its employees are so enthralled by their collective mindset that they cannot see how unprofessional they have become.
The European Commission has launched a secret weapon in its campaign to win ratification for the EU Constitution. Margot Wallstrom, the Commission's Swedish vice-president in charge of improving the EU's image, has launched her own personal web log (or "blog").
Eurosceptics are flocking to read her attempts to give the Commission a "human face", as she gives her hilarious account of how a friend brought her back a present from India. As the former environment commissioner, responsible for a swathe of draconian environmental directives, Miss Wallstrom was so excited by the bag made from recycled newspaper that her friend eventually had to point out that the present was not the paper but the shawl inside it.
Most fascinating of Miss Wallstrom's revelations, however, in a blog entry on the tsunami disaster, is that she and her colleagues are kept so busy that they must transact most of their business over dinners and lunches, which can last "three or four or even more hours". Five days a week of four-hour lunches and dinners must surely put them in danger of breaking the 48-hour week laid down by their working time directive? But if this is how the commission hopes to win over the "people of Europe" to the constitution, how can they lose?
Before Christmas I reported on the plight of a Cornish company which for 30 years has been dredging off Falmouth for the dead remains of maerl, or calcified seaweed, which it sells as a much-prized organic fertiliser. To meet its targets under the EC habitats directive, English Nature (EN) had decided this practice must stop, putting the eight employees of Cornish Calcified Seaweed out of work.
In a pained letter, EN's director of communications, Philip Newby, claims that I was mistaken as to why the maerl deposits were diminishing. Nor had EN threatened legal action against Falmouth's harbour board. He suggested that in future I should consult his senior press officer to ensure that my articles were accurate.
In reply I cited the consultants' report which made clear that much of the removal of maerl could be ascribed to storm and wave action. I also quoted EN's letter of November 2004 to the harbour authorities stating that, unless they withdrew the dredging licence, they would be " vulnerable to legal challenge". I hoped, in conclusion, that Mr Newby could "appreciate why I prefer to rely on primary documentary support rather than on the `guidance' given by press officers."