The corporation’s biggest mistake was to court and give a platform to extreme voices, says former BBC journalist Patrick Howse

I worked with Huw Edwards in the mid-1990s when he was just making the transition from being a political correspondent to a newsreader, and I was doing a stint producing the three-minute news summaries that the BBC used to broadcast during the day.

I remember one of these summaries in particular. It was scheduled for one of the intervals in a Test Match and, after it had aired, Huw came out of the studio beaming from ear to ear. “Richie Benaud said my name,” he said in a mixture of joy and awe. “When he handed over to us, he said ‘and now for the latest news, read by Huw Edwards!’”

Huw, like me, had grown up watching cricket on the BBC and enjoying Benaud’s commentaries. He saw it as a huge honour to share a broadcast with him. He has never lost that sense of joy and I have never heard a colleague say a bad word about him (which is not something that can be said for every high-profile BBC newsreader or presenter). He has never forgotten where he comes from.

So I wasn’t surprised to see him post a picture on Twitter of him superimposed onto a Welsh flag. I haven’t spoken to him about this, but I’m sure that part of his motivation in doing so was the approaching rugby match between France and Wales, in which his side had the chance of clinching a ‘Grand Slam’.

Sadly, it appeared in a context of another BBC presenter – Charlie Stayt – teasing a Government minister about the size of his flag, and Huw may have been making a point about that, too. It’s an incident that has been portrayed by those on the right as evidence of the BBC’s lack of patriotism and has provided a number of the usual anti-BBC figures with the chance to weigh in.

Sadly, this ridiculous situation is partly the BBC’s own fault.

A Platform for Extreme Views

For several years now, the BBC has actively courted what it calls ‘voices’. It has come to see its job as providing a platform for people to share extreme views and this has translated into airtime for the far-right.

As I have written previously, programmes such as Question Time and Any Questions were seen as an opportunity for the BBC to air views that would not otherwise be heard on national airwaves. Audiences were seeded with far-right activists, some of whom were invited to broadcasts several times, and who were somehow always able to ask questions and share their reaction.

This appeasement of the far-right has normalised these views. The entire national discourse has been shifted right, to such an extent that it almost seems normal for politicians to appear on our screens from their bedroom or studies with enormous Union Jacks behind them.

Just for the avoidance of doubt, I would like to put on record that this is not normal – it is a new thing. Yes, prime ministers may have had British flags behind them when they made speeches or gave news conferences, but these were big, set-piece national occasions, not filler Zoom interviews on a news channel.

The only conclusion one can draw is that these politicians are seeking to portray themselves as patriotic. And we are now in the next stage of this, in which pointing out this fact is seen as somehow unpatriotic.

After the Charlie Stayt incident with Robert Jenrick, former Labour MP and Brexit enthusiast Kate Hoey saw this supposed lack of patriotism as a reason to “defund the BBC”. This was echoed by a number of Conservative MPs.

Hoey and the rest are all politicians who have benefitted from the BBC’s appeasement of extremists – and this really shows the magnitude of the corporation’s error. It has courted and appeased people who are unappeasable; people who are always going to hate the very idea of the BBC as a publicly-funded public service broadcaster.

Waning Public Support

While this visceral, ideologically-driven hatred has always been there, it used to be a survivable problem because the BBC could always rely on the bulk of the British population for support. Among the public, it has always been a trusted source of education, information and entertainment, and it is fair to say that it has been one of Britain’s best-loved institutions.

But, while the BBC was assiduously appeasing the far-right, it was alienating everyone else. Its Brexit coverage was a key case in point, but it has carried this on into its political coverage of the Government’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic.

It wasn’t until a year into the crisis – after the UK’s death toll topped 130,000 – that the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg wrote a very good article giving chapter and verse on just how bad Boris Johnson’s handling of it has been. It should have been written months before and formed the basis of the BBC’s coverage. Instead, Kuenssberg has too often seen her role as repeating what she is told by Downing Street before Robert Peston, her ITV counterpart, can.

The BBC’s response to the flag row has been to crackdown. The patriotism of Edwards was apparently seen as the wrong kind of patriotism – being Welsh, rather than British. Following on from the recent cancelling of The Mash Report – a show offering a satirical take often critical of the Government – this doesn’t look good, coming as it does from an organisation with a Director-General who is a former Conservative Party candidate and a new Chairman who has donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Tories.

The BBC is now faced with a very hostile political environment; one which will tolerate scoundrels wrapping themselves in flags, but won’t tolerate anyone calling them out for it. It is an environment in which the BBC’s natural base is alienated and disillusioned. It is an environment the BBC has helped to facilitate and create.

Patrick Howse is a former BBC reporter and producer


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