Why, then, BBC news media editor Amol Rajan chose to announce this week’s edition in the breathless manner of David Walliams reviewing a semi-clad sword swallower, is a question the corporation will likely be asking itself for some time.
“On Saturday, for the first time ever, Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech will be read in full on UK radio,” Rajan gushed in a tweet which – whatever his intentions – promoted this piece of populism as a pleasure to be savoured as opposed to an incitement to racial hatred to be summarily dismissed.
To make matters worse, the actor who is narrating the speech – albeit in chunks, with commentary in between – is Ian McDiarmid, who played the MP for Wolverhampton South-West in a recent play, What Shadows, and has denied Powell was a racist.
Given the clickbait tactics used to launch the programme marking the 50th anniversary of its delivery, last week’s angry backlash was hardly surprising; if I were the academic Dr Shirin Hirsch and had given an interview in good faith, I too would have been furious with the way in which the subject had been trivialised (although the withdrawal of her contribution may end up being counterproductive).
Even beyond the inappropriateness of Rajan’s approach, there is something amiss with the BBC’s decision to focus on Powell’s infamous polemic at a time when a fear of immigrants is once again being stoked.
Already under fire for giving a platform to figures such as psychology professor Jordan Peterson and English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson, the programme will validate critics’ assessment of the corporation as fixated with (and willing to help drive) the rise of the far-right.
This is not the BBC’s first offence. Ten years ago, as part of its White season, it showed Denys Blakeway’s Rivers Of Blood – a documentary later criticised for attempting to rehabilitate Powell’s reputation.
By the time this column is published, the Archive On 4 programme will already have been aired and listeners will have been able to weigh up for themselves the degree to which it was useful or whether it gave licence to apologists of racism to eulogise about Powell’s prescience or courage.
But so far, it’s not looking good. Even as commentators such as David Aaronovitch were defending the recital and criticising protesters as illiberal, many bigots were endorsing and promoting Powell’s opinions. “Oswald Mosley was right. Enoch Powell was right. Nick Griffin was right,” wrote one fairly typical commentator. “They all wanted to put OUR people first and were destroyed by the mass media.”
At the same time, the Leave.EU campaign posted a tweet in which Powell was shown going head to head with Labour peer Andrew Adonis, who wanted the programme withdrawn. On Powell’s side, they wrote: “Elected to the Commons 10 times, WWII brigadier, poet, professor, knew 12 languages”; on Adonis’s: “Put in Lords by his mate Blair. Whinges on Twitter all day.”
You see, today’s Rivers of Blood row is a case of plus ça change. Because, although Powell’s rant against the Labour Party’s Race Relations Act 1968 and the influx of immigrants from Commonwealth countries appalled many of those in the establishment – the Times called it evil and Powell was sacked as defence secretary the following day – it resonated with the majority of the population and led to a spike of race hate crimes across the country.
Most of Powell’s predictions did not come true. By 2000, non-whites did indeed account for one in ten of the population; but the black man did not “have the whip-hand over the white man”, as the MP insisted one of his constituents had warned. The Tiber did not foam with blood.
But we do find ourselves once more in a febrile period for race relations. Right-wing rabble-rousers from the Leave campaign in the UK and the Trump camp in the US have fostered a climate in which immigrants again fear for their safety and stability.
Last week, we learned Michael Braithwaite, a special needs teacher who travelled to the UK from the Caribbean in 1961 at the age of nine, had lost his job because the HR department at his school ran an immigration check and discovered he didn’t have an up-to-date identity document. Having arrived from a Commonwealth country before 1970, he has automatic permanent right to remain, yet, despite this, he and many others have become caught up in the “hostile environment” policy which requires employers, the NHS and landlords to run rigorous immigration checks involving up to four pieces of documentation for every year the person has lived here. What a way to treat anyone, but particularly the Windrush generation: those first arrivals from Jamaica in 1948 who contributed so much to post-war Britain.
Elsewhere, a Spanish woman had her hair pulled and face scratched by fellow travellers who screamed at her to “speak English”. This is what Brexit has done to us with rhetoric uncannily similar to that contained within the Rivers of Blood speech.
Like Powell, Farage et al have presented immigrants as a drain on resources, pushing hard-working indigenous Brits out of jobs, schools and the health services as opposed to a net value to the country’s economy. They have conjured up an image of Armageddon so vivid that just before the EU referendum in places like rural Cumbria – where space is plentiful and immigration limited – residents would talk in horror about an anticipated flood of new people from countries like Romania and Bulgaria.
Powell also does that thing so common to those in the Leave campaign; he says we shouldn’t ignore the concerns of working-class communities, while doing his best to fuel them.
Now, unlike then, politicians who – for example – refer to black people as “flag-waving piccaninnies with watermelon smiles” aren’t ostracised by their parties, they are appointed Foreign Secretary. Heck, If Enoch Powell were alive today, he would be turning up every second week on the Question Time panel – all in the interests of balance, y’know.
But the repetition of racist views, even when contextualised or criticised, has the effect of normalising them. There will always be those who hear what they want to hear; who use Powell’s views to legitimise their own.
So – while I defend the right of the BBC to make and air Archive On 4 and am willing to accept it may be well-made and well-intentioned – I hope if a similar opportunity presents itself again, someone in authority has the sense to say “No”. And instead to tell the story of all the ways in which the UK has benefited from immigration.