Alan Gibbons asks important questions of the BBCI would argue that the BBC has never been more partial in its news…
Alan Gibbons asks important questions of the BBC
I would argue that the BBC has never been more partial in its news coverage- and its history is not an impressive one on impartiality. Compare its coverage of allegations of anti-semitism in the Labour Party with the de facto and proven institutional racism of the Conservative party over Windrush, something for which the Tories have fulsomely apologised and which is a substantial national scandal. On the one hand, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made an unguarded tweet in 2012, there are some 74 cases as far as I know before the NEC and there are anti-semitic comments mostly by unidentified individuals on social media. On the other, the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have presided over a climate of hostility towards British citizens, denying them human rights and sent out Go Home vans. You might think the latter example would earn more scrutiny. But no.
Take this morning’s coverage. Sadiq Khan was being interviewed about suffragist Millicent Fawcett’s new statue in Parliament Square. He was asked about anti-semitism. David Lammy was interviewed about Windrush. He was asked about anti-semitism. Please forward examples if you have them, but I don’t remember any fierce questioning by BBC staff at the end of interviews about, say, the NHS in which interviewers have asked: “So on Windrush, does the Conservative party have a problem with racism, Mr Hunt?” In a similar vein, why was Lenny Henry’s powerful speech on Windrush at the Stephen Lawrence service not more prominent in the corporation’s coverage?
From the outset, the BBC has always taken a default position of defending the establishment, exemplified by its stance on the General Strike in 1926. Its founding father, John Reith, refused to broadcast a message from the Archbishop of Canterbury who chose not to condemn the strike as a sin against God, adopting a conciliatory tone between government and unions. In contrast, the more anti-union statement of his Roman Catholic counterpart, the Archbishop of Westminster, was broadcast.
Historian A.J.P Taylor commented that Reith: “managed to preserve the technical independence of the B.B.C… by suppressing news which the government did not want published. This set a pattern for the future: the vaunted independence of the B.B.C, was secure so long as it was not exercised.”
Reith allowed the BBC to be effectively incorporated into the machinery of the state during the General Strike. He recalled that he and a number of other BBC staff moved into the Admiralty, with the Government’s head of PR, J.C.C. Davidson. A study by Scannell and Cardiff concluded that by the Thirties the: “continuous routine contact [that] had built up over the years between senior personnel in Broadcasting House, Whitehall and Westminster meant that they all abided by the same rules and code of conduct. The Corporation had become the shadow of a state bureaucracy; closed, self-protective and secretive.”
Leap forward eighty-odd years and this establishment bias is undeniable in the BBC’s coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Every senior journalist, almost all privately-educated and many with verifiable links to the Conservative Party, either being in the party as students or moving between the BBC and research for Conservative elected members, raised their eyebrows or smirked whenever a pro-Corbyn guest argued that he might do well in the two leadership contests or the General Election. Some would grudgingly admit that they underestimated Corbyn and Labour, but not one would analyse why, or explore what the inbuilt biases were behind their original judgement.
So a narrative is developed in which a relatively few cases of proved anti-semitism among a mass membership of over half a million members, a careless social media comment by the leader and some unsavoury comments on message boards become proof of a major anti-semitism issue when the evidence is rather of something on a different scale, yes, that needs addressing, but is not quite the dagger at the heart of Labour the BBC constantly alleges. Just this morning, in an interview with co-chair of Jewish Voice for Labour Jenny Manson, Victoria Derbyshire did an ‘oh really’ gasp when Jenny said she had never encountered anti-semitism in the Labour Party. Jenny also said she stayed off social media because that is where the problem is. A comparison with the narrative that the Tories’ racism problem is ‘accidental’ or ‘technical’ is illuminating. Nobody suggests that Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd and Theresa May should go an an anti-semitism training course the way the Victoria Derbyshire did with Jeremy Corbyn, for example, twisting Jon Lansmann’s words.
In summary, Labour has an issue with anti-semitism which is being addressed. Implementation of the Chakrabarti report is being speeded up. Labour’s difficulty is not on the scale the BBC makes out. The Conservative party has a rather bigger issue with racism which is not being addressed at all, no inquiry, no meetings with BAME representatives. It is on a far larger scale than the BBC makes out, as a huge list of cases of Tory racism demonstrates. The final question is a big one: does the BBC have a problem with truth?