How the BBC made my blood run cold – Joyce McMillan

The media cannot become passive observers, reporting truth and fiction with equal ‘balance’, writes Joyce McMillan.

Emily Maitlis disappeared from the airwaves briefly after saying Dominic Cummings had broken lockdown rules (Picture: Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

To begin with, a solid statistic. In the US presidential election of 2016, of those African-American citizens who turned out to vote, 88.3 per cent voted for Hillary Clinton, and 8.4 per cent for Donald Trump, a margin of more than ten to one; and it’s perhaps because I had some background awareness of that number that I felt something snap, last Tuesday evening, as I listened to Radio 4’s PM programme, presented by Evan Davis. A clip had just been played from that day’s Philadelphia speech by likely Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, begging Americans not to be defeated by their divisions, to recognise that human beings are called on to “love one another”, and to know that although that is hard work, it is, as Biden put it, “the work of America”; and there was a sense of relief, in that moment, at hearing a presidential candidate use language that carried at least some echoes of Martin Luther King, and of the great tradition of American constitutionalism.

After two-and-a-quarter minutes of Biden, Davis cut cheerfully back in. “Let’s hear a voice from the other side,” he said, and rolled out a four-minute interview with Paris Dennard of Black Voices for Trump, who clearly framed the disorder and looting that had followed some protests as the main problem facing the United States, and spent much of his interview praising the President for “taking action”, and trashing Joe Biden for not condemning the disorder in strong enough terms.

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Now I’m not arguing, here, that the BBC should simply have ignored pro-Trump voices that evening. Yet there was something about this junction – its abruptness, its tone, and the lengths to which the BBC must have gone to find that rare thing in American politics, a black voice willing to defend Donald Trump’s every action – that seemed to me to mark another defining moment in the debate about the concept of “balance” that has been plaguing the BBC and other media for more than a decade now. My own first impulse was to yell at the radio, “No, in this instance, at this moment, let’s just not hear from the other side”; for if black lives matter – and there is now no country on Earth prepared explicitly to maintain that they don’t – then the brutal and undisputed killing of George Floyd by a group of Minneapolis policemen must surely be far more important than any destruction of property.

Yet time and again, the language of the right frames the destruction of property as an outrage that must be stopped immediately, if need be with military force; whereas the killing of George Floyd and all the others – well, yes, dreadful and deplorable, but by no means an emergency of the same urgency and scale. Small wonder that millions of black people are overwhelmed by rage and pain at the endless repetition of this subtly skewed response; one casually reflected by the BBC, when it tries to “balance” a defence of the liberal order on which – among other things – its own very existence depends, with the specious rhetoric of those who would happily bring that order crashing down.

All of which raises one clear and urgent question, for those seeking to report the news with integrity and accuracy; the question of where we now draw the line, when it comes to balancing lies against truth, or racism against anti-racism, or those who clearly despise the supposed founding values of democratic societies, against those who seek to defend these values. The question is sharpened, of course, by the recent advent of governments, in the UK, the US, Brazil, Russia and many other countries, which routinely use false narratives as a tool of policy.

In the United States, for example, journalists face serious decisions about how far and how respectfully they should report the words of the President, when he suggests that imbibing disinfectant might help keep Covid at bay, or that Covid-19 might have been deliberately cooked up in a Wuhan laboratory. And in the UK, this tension between repeating government narratives, and contradicting them in the name of truth, famously lurched to a crisis last week, when Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis opened the programme by baldly stating that Boris Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings had broken lockdown guidelines (the Government maintains that he did not) and that the whole nation knew it. Most people in Britain, at that moment, seemed to feel that she was simply setting out a factual basis for discussion; yet the BBC issued an apology, and Maitlis disappeared from the airwaves for the rest of the week.

Over the past few years, some progress has been made on the truth versus lies front, notably in the area of climate change, where time is now rarely wasted on the arguments of a tiny if well-funded band of professional deniers. The best journalists, now as ever, have always sought to speak truth to power, and to give a voice to the powerless, the poor, the victims of violence and bad government; and the hard reality of the Covid-19 crisis has produced some terrific factual and investigative journalism.

Yet in a world where so many have come to believe that the truth is no longer out there, that objective reality hardly exists, and that it can perfectly well be replaced with narratives designed to support whatever worldview the powerful prefer, it seems we – not only journalists, but also the public too – are often too happy to settle for a mix-tape of those narratives, offered without guidance as to which story, if any, actually connects with reality.

And I suppose it was finally the absence of that guidance, from a mighty broadcaster like the BBC, during such a crisis, that chilled the blood the other night: as if we had suddenly lost all sense of how to defend the basic values of liberty, equality and fraternity that are supposed to underpin our societies, and had instead become mere passive observers, listening to those who try to build and those who seek to destroy, and comforting ourselves with the fatal illusion that there is not much to choose, either way.

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