2018/9 – BBC: Must do better

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Birmingham Press: Steve Beauchampé chides the BBC over its coverage of Labour’s anti-semitism row.

Five friends have told me recently that they have either stopped – or severely curtailed – how much BBC news and current affairs output they digest. All were once avid consumers of such content, none could be described as being on the extremes of political thinking, none would claim that the Corporation is guilty of ‘fake’ news, and none have turned instead to social media or become keyboard warriors or internet trolls to get their views across.

They are, in their different ways, frustrated at the BBC’s failure to adequately reflect their own political beliefs and the lack of balanced debate on issues that matter to them. And they are irritated at some of the Corporation’s presentational tropes and the cheapening of the discourse that often accompanies it.

I never felt this way about our national broadcaster. They have always been my ‘Go To’ media outlet for gaining an understanding and appreciation of world affairs. I’ve used – and contributed to – numerous alternative sources but none to the extent that I have with the BBC. Sure the Corporation wasn’t faultless, it wasn’t always as impartial and independent as I would have wished and it sometimes employed journalists whose reporting and approach to interviewing greatly annoyed me.

But things have changed, and one issue above all has lead me to question my primary allegiance to the BBC’s news and current affairs output. It is the coverage of the Labour Party and anti-semitism.

I have never been a Labour Party member and have no intention of becoming one. But I voted Labour for the first time in thirty years at the 2017 General Election because the social democratic policies they offered resonated with me in a way that the centrist stance of New Labour never did. However, I do not regard Jeremy Corbyn as some Messianic figure (although he is a hugely important part of early 21st century UK political history) and there is no guarantee that I will vote Labour at any future election.

But I cannot recall a senior politician so vilified as Jeremy Corbyn, nor one so slandered, slurred and libelled, so smeared, so wilfully misconstrued and lied about, so despised, so… so hated.

It has been thus since his unexpected rise to prominence in mid-2015, but when it comes to the issue of anti-Semitism then the BBC’s reporting of both Corbyn and the Labour Party has taken things off the scale. The Corporation has been a crucial and extremely willing player in the debate yet in almost every measurable way they have shown immense bias and a failure to investigate and hold to account Corbyn’s critics.

Since early spring – if not longer – the BBC has given the issue copious coverage, likely dwarfed only by that allocated to Brexit. Phrases such as: “It’s a problem that just won’t go away,” and: “Why can’t Labour seem to get over this?” are endlessly and lazily repeated to the backdrop of a lack of understanding of the issue from those asking the questions, or insightful analysis from those answering them.

Repeatedly the tenure and tone of BBC interviews, the terminology of its reportage, have been heavily slanted against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, with air time skewed towards the same coterie of MPs and Jewish community leaders the who consistently rail against the Labour leader and his allies. Corbyn’s opponents habitually receive sympathetic interviews, presenters offering them up free hits devoid of the level of intense scrutiny that those who support the NEC/Corbyn stance are always subjected to.

Corbyn’s critics are simply never challenged over their refusal to acknowledge the party leadership’s attempts at rapprochement or why their language towards Corbyn is always confrontational. Factual inaccuracies pass unchallenged – or are even introduced by interviewers – and quotes taken out of context and myths are allowed to become cemented as truths. Whilst it is hard to disagree that Corbyn’s handling of the issue has left much to be desired, nevertheless you don’t have to be a Jeremy Corbyn supporter to be alarmed at this lack of objectivity.

This is especially important when most UK national newspapers and their online versions are so virulently anti-Labour (and particularly anti-Corbyn) and have long since exempted themselves from much that resembles the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in their coverage of the story. Yet the BBC slavishly reports both the headlines and editorial stances of these papers, using the ‘expertise’ of their journalists and political commentators on news and current affairs programmes, helping to skew the narrative and fuel the story, arguably beyond the level which it merits.

Not that anyone should dispute that racism towards the Jewish community has been an issue for the Labour Party, or that it did not increase substantially in the wake of Corbyn’s election as leader. With a membership numbering around 550,000, including many who share Corbyn’s lifelong support for the Palestinian cause, we should not be surprised that some have proved incapable of distinguishing between legitimate criticism of Israel and unacceptable attacks on Jewish communities.

But the true extent and nature of the problem is harder to judge. When pro-Corbyn Labour activists are given air time (or if one reads their online message boards) there is an overwhelming view that the media grossly exaggerate the scale of the issue, that a range of extensive and effective steps have been taken by the party hierarchy, that self-policing and calling out of racist comments by members are further impacting on the matter. Meanwhile, the numbers facing disciplinary action is comfortably under 300, which maybe helps put the size of the problem into perspective.

Some (perhaps many) of these cases might prove to involve appalling, indefensible behaviour. But those that have been highlighted, the ones that meet with such untrammelled outrage by Corbyn’s critics both inside and out-with the Labour Party, seem largely to fall somewhere between the use of clumsy language or behaviour (usually hastily retracted and apologised for), or historical actions in support of the Palestinian cause which suddenly now engender seemingly tenuous claims of being anti-semitic.

The BBC has let us down badly with its coverage of the issue, and it continues to do so even on the day that I write this. It is hard to ascertain a true understanding of what is going on, and whether Jeremy Corbyn’s most trenchant critics are motivated by anything other than genuine concern about racism against the Jewish community, when the BBC has failed to delve below the surface or ask basic questions. The Corporation has been keen to treat the issue with great significance.

Sadly, it has consistently failed to imbue its coverage with the unerring impartiality and quality of journalism that such a profile deserves and its charter demands. And if they can’t do that, then who can any of us turn to when all we want is an even-handed and balanced account of such a major news story?

Birmingham Press / 6 September, 2018

 

 

 

 

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