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A Duty to Inform or Channel for Disinformation? BBC Defends Bannon’s ‘Build the Wall’ Interview

The public service broadcaster still refuses to explain how it agreed to stage Jon Sopel’s interview at the under investigation ‘WeBuildtheWall’ fundraising event near El Paso.

The public service broadcaster still refuses to explain how it agreed to stage Jon Sopel’s interview at the under investigation ‘We Build the Wall’ fundraising event near El Paso.

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The BBC has defended its controversial decision to interview the right-wing political and media activist Steve Bannon, arguing that he was “robustly challenged” on his views. 

The broadcaster aired an interview with Bannon, conducted by North America Editor Jon Sopel, last week in which Donald Trump’s former campaign manager sat in front of a privately-funded wall being built on the US-Mexico border, with an American flag and war jeep positioned between himself and the journalist. 

Many questioned the setting of the interview and the ease with which Bannon was allowed to offer his views on a range of issues including Brexit – “you ain’t seen nothing yet”, he warned the UK public – on the “anti-racist” nature of the President’s crackdown at the US-Mexico border, and his belief that the Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar is “anti-American”.

Even the former director of BBC News, Richard Sambrook, said on Twitter: “It wasn’t a great piece and there are questions to be asked about the setting.”

The BBC did not answer any of my questions about the setting of the interview, why and by whom it was chosen, and whether the BBC felt the overall presentation of the piece contributed to Steve Bannon’s self-propaganda. 

But a spokesperson said the corporation stood by the interview.

“As a key former member of the Trump administration, Bannon led Trump’s inaugural presidential campaign and therefore it was legitimate to interview him about the rise of populism, Trump’s chances of a second term, the controversy around the wall with Mexico including the detainment of children, and the accusations of racist remarks against Democratic congresswomen,” a spokesperson said. 

“Mr Bannon was robustly challenged on his views and the actions of the President, as well as being asked to explain his relationship with Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.” 

The spokesperson said Bannon’s views were also put to a number of commentators, some of whom disagreed with his views “on a number of points including alleged similarities between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and on populism and racism”.

Is the BBC fulfilling its mission to inform the public – or leaving the door open to disinformation?

“It is essential in a democratic society that influential people should be challenged and held to account,” the spokesperson added. “Our audiences depend on the BBC to provide rigorous scrutiny of people and their ideas so they can make informed decisions of their own. This is not ‘enabling’ or ‘providing a platform’ – it is public service journalism and the BBC will not shy away from challenging or uncomfortable issues.”

Writing about the interview, Jon Sopel said that “Bannon revels in the furious reaction he provokes”.

“Some say he shouldn’t be given a platform; that he is a racist and extremist,” Sopel said. “Weren’t we making his views respectable, and bringing them into the mainstream? Well, his views were what Donald Trump fought an election on, and having won – and pursued those policies in office – well, yes, I guess they are what some now say is the mainstream.

“He is not a crank or an outsider, and he certainly isn’t a nobody. He has been at the heart of government and remains very well connected to key decision makers in Washington.

“In our increasingly polarised politics, are we to say we are going to ignore people we don’t like, and ban them from the airwaves? It also shows a distinct lack of self-confidence. Surely our job is to hear different opinions – but at the same time challenge and scrutinise the arguments they are putting forward. The logical extension of banning Bannon is to ban Trump too.”

Staying on the Surface

The problem is, many felt that Steve Bannon was not “robustly challenged” or subject to “rigorous scrutiny” as the BBC claims.

It is not disputed that Steve Bannon is influential, he is. But no wider context was provided about his rise to prominence or any scrutiny of how his views influenced Donald Trump’s election as president. Building a wall in the mind, draining the swamp, the role of his scandal-hit defunct data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica – none were examined; no depths explored.  

When Bannon spoke of the need for a border wall with Mexico because of “the crime that’s being brought here” and “the competition for jobs that’s being brought here”, Sopel did not offer the viewer any evidence as to whether these claims were based in fact.

Bannon was also not made to “explain his relationship with Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage” by Sopel. He was asked whether he was still in touch with Boris Johnson – which Bannon had previously stated, but Mr Johnson has said was “codswallop” – but Bannon simply laughed this off, adding with the smile of an inside joke: “We’ll go with whatever the Prime Minister says.”

Meanwhile, walls and flags have symbolism. The overall effect was to make Bannon look heroic and, as a former film director, he knows the significance of the subtle messages symbols send – particularly on a stage considered as reputable as the BBC’s. 

But, the whole affair points to a wider conversation which needs to be had about whether the BBC exists to merely air people’s views or to search for the truth in what public figures say and do.

In its apparent desire to give people a platform to share their beliefs with little-to-no critical challenge, is the BBC fulfilling its mission to inform the public – or leaving the door open to disinformation?

The logical conclusion of the Bannon interview seems to be that the BBC does not believe it is its job to oppose white supremacism, but merely to present that it exists.

Are we happy with that?

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