Are BBC journalists trained for today’s post-truth, populist politics? The question must be asked after a British politician remained unchallenged after expressing anti-German sentiments during an interview.

BBC journalists increasingly seem to be unprepared for today’s post-truth, populist politics, especially when they interview politicians and political commentators who are too happy to defy the viewers’ intelligence, knowing they will not be challenged. We see this happening regularly on daytime TV with BBC News, on Politics Live, on Question Times and This Week, on the Andrew Marr Show at the weekend, and sometimes on Newsnight too.

Sadly, the radio is not exempt from the unjournalistic practice. The BBC Radio 4’s Today programme regularly features interviews of Brexiters with unchallenged claims, especially when John Humphrys is the interviewer.

Just a bit of harmless spin?

Is there any problem with a journalist allowing a little bit of harmless spin in an interview after all? Ask the BBC journalist Nick Robinson who wrote a piece for Radio Times back in 2017, with the title “The referendum is over – now the BBC must fight a new Brexit bias”, where he claimed:

“The day we broadcasters have to ‘broadly balance’ the views of the two sides is at an end. Why? Because there are no longer two sides.”

Not very much so. It actually even looks like there are now more than the original two sides (Remain and Leave), maybe four, five or six sides, each one with their own version of Brexit or No-Brexit!

Nick Robinson ended his piece explaining:

“The BBC has a commitment to what’s called ‘due impartiality’. Translated, that means we aim to get as close to the truth as we can each day – to weigh arguments, to assess the evidence, to ask difficult questions – and then be ready to listen and learn and correct any errors we may make. We must, of course, ensure that we display no bias. The bias I worry about most is the bias against understanding.”

How it all started...

On Friday, the BBC failed in this very regard. The latest example of the Corporation’s bias against understanding came when a Conservative MP remained unchallenged after he expressed clear anti-German sentiments during an interview on BBC News. Viewers at home, and later on social media, could just serenely absorb the politician’s venom with no fear that they were being injected a populist’s poison into since the keeper was, of course, handling the interview very safely. (not!)

It all started with a video message of Tom Enders, the German CEO of Airbus, published on the company’s website on Thursday, where he said that in the event of a No-Deal Brexit, his company would have to make “potentially very harmful decisions for the UK.”

Airbus employs more than 14,000 people at 25 sites across Britain and supports 110,000 jobs in the wider supply chain.

He called “a disgrace” that more than two years after the EU referendum, businesses in the UK are “still unable to plan properly for the future.”

Enders also urged MPs and Ministers, “Please don’t listen to the Brexiteers’ madness which asserts that ‘because we have huge plants here we will not move and we will always be here’. They are wrong.”

Watch the video:


How not to handle an interview.

In response to the boss of Airbus, the Conservative MP and hard Brexit ERG member Mark Francois gave an interview to BBC News which he started by mentioning what he probably thought was absolutely paramount to say before everything else: that the CEO of Airbus “was a German paratrooper in his youth.”

Totally irrelevant.

But now the trap was set.

The Brexiter’s agenda was clear: throw the boss of Airbus under a Monster Truck. The viewers could then patiently wait for the V sign as the politician methodologically engineered in the audience’s mind the traditional nationalistic imagery of the nasty German soldier trying to invade Britain once again vs the “patriotic Englishman” who, of course, respects the nearly three-year old ‘will of the people’ and is trying to implement the decision of 17.4 million Brits.

Well, as Peter Kellner, the former president of YouGov, explains in a piece he recently wrote for The Independent, they are probably not even 17.4 million anymore.

Mark Francois then continued, “I would never dream to tell a German MP how to vote in the Bundestag and I think Mr Enders should pay us the same courtesy.”

His message was suddenly interrupted when the journalist changed the topic of the conversation and asked him a question about Theresa May’s Brexit Deal instead. But an unphased and fully focused Mark Francois returned to his agenda of the day, totally ignoring the question and literally telling off the journalist — politely, as a gentleman would — for asking a question in the middle of his brilliant anti-German argument, “Forgive me, I hadn’t finished my point, I’m sorry...”

Back on track, the MP for Rayleigh and Wickford went on with his anti-German, pro-Britannia rule the waves argument, calling “Teutonic arrogance” (note: Teuton is a derogatory word to define a German — The Nazis considered the Teutons to be the purest branch of the Aryan race.) the idea that the Airbus Chief could “bully British MPs how to vote”, Typical Germans: arrogant and bullies, isnt it? — before suddenly recollecting how “(his) father, Reginald Francois, was a D-Day veteran. He never submitted to bullying by any German and neither will his son.”

Moving. Really. (sic)

The Brexiter ended the interview tearing up a piece of paper he claimed was Tom Enders’ letter.

Watch the interview:

BBC News

The BBC must change, or die of its irrelevance.

Politicians must not any longer go unchallenged when they so very clearly express such offensive and obnoxious sentiments.

Whether the journalist’ decision not to interrupt or at least question the MP’s behaviour was the result of the BBC’s inability or unwillingness to challenge politicians, the Corporation’s ‘balancing act’ must now stop. There will be no end to what those hot-air populists and dangerous nationalists can say during interviews otherwise, especially since they know it is their very way to propagate their distasteful message and excite their followers.

By not doing their job of journalism, i.e. questioning claims, fact-checking and holding to account, the BBC ends up facilitating the prosperity of those who have an extremist agenda and who know very well how to use the media and social media to achieve their goals successfully.

As Nick Cohen wrote in the New York Book Review of Books:

“In the preface to Animal Farm, George Orwell provided a line that today would be apt for the walls of the BBC headquarters: ‘Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.’ No doubt, if the shift of public opinion against Brexit continues, the BBC’s silence will end and, like a weather vane, it will swing with the prevailing wind. It will receive no plaudits from me. No one should praise journalists who speak out when, and only when, they are certain that public opinion is with them. Not just journalists, but anyone engaged in political life should learn from the BBC’s abject performance. Whether you are on the left or the right, there will be times when you will be frightened of saying what you believe for fear of offending your friends, breaking a taboo or going against the ephemeral consensus of the day. Allow that fear to dominate you and you will end up like the BBC: platitudinous, frightened, and irrelevant.”

Without proper training for its journalists to be prepared for today’s political world, without putting an end to its ‘balancing act’, without the editorial will to hold the powerful to account, BBC journalism will end up platitudinous, frightened, and irrelevant indeed.🔷

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(This is an original piece, first published by the author in | The author writes in a personal capacity.)

(Cover: Gif of Mark Francois on BBC News.)