It’s a bit unnerving when something that’s a bugbear becomes front page news, but that’s what happened a couple of days back when the Mail on Sunday splashed with the farrago surrounding Radio 1 Newsbeat’s embarrassingly soft interview with two BNP members, including criticism from senior Conservatives Jeremy Hunt and John Whittingdale.
The attack by the Mail, which is, let’s be honest, a sworn enemy of the BBC, gave the other papers licence to run a story which hadn’t progressed much further than online discussions, and by Sunday night it emerged that Welsh secretary Peter Hain – a dedicated anti-apartheid campaigner in his youth – had also piled in against the BBC in a comment piece for The Guardian.
If the content were not distasteful enough – descriptions of the London-born England footballer Ashley Cole as “not ethnically British” and “coming to this country” passed without proper challenge – even more worrying is the revelation that these members, still introduced simply as Joey and Mark on the BBC website, are key members of the BNP hierarchy. One, Mark Collett, is the BNP’s director of publicity. Would the BBC allow any other party’s spin doctors to appear anonymously? The interview was in clear breach of basic journalistic practice, and of official BBC and National Union of Journalists guidelines.
Where does it all go from here, though? As I mentioned in my first post on this, I e-mailed a complaint about the web feature, only to get a standard reply from Newsbeat editor Rod MacKenzie referring to the radio broadcast. I replied to that, and later got a reply from another member of the Newsbeat team, who rather awkwardly for this, I know personally from my time working for the BBC. I explained I’d take the complaint as far as I could, we politely agreed to disagree on most points, although a line was inserted into the intro to the piece clarifying that Ashley Cole was born in the UK. Last week, I submitted a formal complaint about the web feature and the way my initial complaint was handled by Rod MacKenzie, and I’m waiting to hear back about it.
One other thing happened last week – BBC chief political adviser Ric Bailey appeared on Radio 4’s The Media Show to discuss the incident. He wasn’t particularly impressive on it – as Sarah Ditum wrote last week: “Ultimately, Bailey largely repeated what was fallacious in Rod McKenzie’s answer: he defended the need to report on the BNP, without acknowledging the ways in which a specific instance of that reporting can be flawed.”
When I used to work at the BBC, I’d rant on about the sort of people who made such clueless judgements that it’d give ammunition to the BBC’s enemies. I’d bend anyone’s ear about it, because it was simply maddening. The teeth-grindingly tedious Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross fiasco was a prime example; that wasn’t about morality, this was about one radio station catching a complacent culture where the talent was in charge and nobody was given the power to stand up to them. Being inside the BBC that week, and having to report on it, was like being in a slow-moving car crash. It seemed everybody except the corporation’s management could see what was coming. As Charlie Brooker put it on Saturday over lavish ads for Radio 1: “It’s all quite depressing. At a time when repugnant vested-interest newspaper scumbags are circling the BBC peevishly seeking any opportunity to kick it hard in the arse, the corporation has bent down and painted a lavish target right on the seat of its trousers in high-gloss paint.”
And so it is with this Newsbeat fiasco. It’s a lamentable journalistic failure. Someone high up – and this stuff about something as controversial as the BNP should have been vetted at the highest level – should have spotted this, and seen the potential for trouble. But they didn’t. I feel sorry for the Newsbeat journalists, because they’re left exposed by their bosses’ complacency. As for the bosses… hopefully they’ll be forced to give an explanation as to what they think they were playing at soon. Like the Brand/Ross affair, this will drag on forever now, because nobody thought to take decisive action at the time. It’s a crying shame.
LATER: The film-maker behind a Channel 4 documentary on one of the “young BNP members” criticises the radio interview: “The BNP’s heritage of neo-nazism and position in the ‘white supremacist’ movement is often not understood by poorly briefed reporters, who conduct interviews in a format designed for credible politicians”.