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26 October 2009

Think the BBC doesn’t do spin?

Reflections on a shameful weekend for the corporation

By James Macintyre

To be fair to the BBC, unlike many other media outlets it rarely spins in its own favour. In fact, its news output is often absurdly self-critical and self-consumed, with disproportionate coverage of itself.

Fascinatingly and depressingly, all this changed over Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time last week.

It started with the protests, the images of which were — admittedly — highly damaging for the corporation. How could it be that the BBC, so often accused of caution, political correctness and a liberal-left bias, had allowed itself to be plunged into such dramatic controversy that this led to howling anti-fascist protesters being dragged by the ankles from the cosy lobby of Television Centre?

So, during the Ten O’clock News on Thursday night (which you can watch on iPlayer), the BBC repeatedly portrayed the White City protesters as “angry” with the “BNP”. In fact, protesters do not follow Griffin round wherever he goes: they were protesting at the BBC’s decision.

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But second, and more importantly, the BBC spin became more shameful over its coverage of the fallout from Griffin’s appearance. By Saturday, every serious news outlet including Sky News, which had previously ignored the story, was reporting fresh polling showing a huge boost for the racist party (one in five voters is considering voting BNP) thanks — as I have argued all along — to the symbolic taboo-lifting effect of his appearance.

Not the BBC. Not a word of it in its rolling headlines. And the story was relegated to a paragraph or two in reports which instead emphasised the other story — in fact, helpful to the BBC, which by now looked far too cosy with the BNP — about Griffin complaining over the supposed “lynch mob” atmosphere of the show.

This is consistent with its handling of the story all along. In the controversial build-up to the show, Mark Thomspon, the BBC director general, and his rather more passionate if misguided deputy, Mark Byford, had gone absurdly out of their way to spin the move, misleadingly pointing to “impartiality” and the case against “censorship”, as if there had been some imaginary public clamour for Griffin’s appearance after a — let us not ever forget it — 1.3 per cent rise in its vote share.

Meanwhile, Ric Bailey, the BBC’s chief political adviser, had gone even further in justifying the plan. Without any evidence, he claimed that the BNP could have sued the BBC had Question Time not hosted Griffin. This was gullibly bought by some newspapers.

Thompson, by now in the absurd position of having to act as Griffin’s unofficial spin doctor, apparently even sought legal advice on his behalf. In response to a letter from Peter Hain pointing out that the BNP was an “unlawful” party thanks to its whites-only membership policy, Thompson said: “the [BNP] is not prevented from continuing to operate on a day-to-day basis”.

Clearly BBC bosses have been especially worried about this programme. And so they should have been. The headlines may have emphasised Griffin’s more embarrassing interventions — the sniggering non-denial of Holocaust denial, the defence of the “non-violent” Klu Klux Klan — but Griffin is the real victor from last Thursday. The symbolism of his appearance, clad in a suit, tie and poppy and sitting beside a cabinet minister and one of the best presenters in the business, showed he was right to “thank” the BBC and the political establishment for being so “stupid” as to grant him what Jean-Marie le Pen called “the hour that changed everything”.

In the short term, Griffin may have been semi-exposed as a fool, thanks largely to articulate audience members. But in the medium and long term the damage was arguably done; the taboo of supporting a party that has racism written into its constitution was smashed. Griffin had arrived. You can be sure he will be back on Question Time, and next time the content will be wider-ranging. And all this over a decision that did not have to happen, as I explained in the Mail on Sunday this week.

This has been a dark and shameful episode for the BBC. The question that remains is: has Mark Thompson got anything right while in charge? After all, he was wrong over the BBC’s bizarre refusal to broadcast the Gaza appeal in January, a decision that has been exposed as grotesquely inconsistent with the Griffin airing.

Of course, in the end, with an irony that would be amusing were it not so serious, Griffin threw the invitation that caused so much criticism back in the face of the BBC, accusing it on air of being “ultra-left” and condemning the alleged “lynch mob” atmosphere on Friday morning.

With considerable skill, Question Time produced a highly entertaining piece of television. With eight million viewers, the enterprise will be seen internally as a great success. The audience was brilliantly managed, and the presenter rose to the occasion. But surely this great programme was misused last week. And so was BBC News. The question is: at what cost?

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