John Humphrys ‘admission’ behind a paywall in The Sunday Times that the BBC has botched and skewed coverage of immigration – and failed to reflect genuine concern and genuine cultural and infrastructure issues, not to mention the malign influence in the equation of the EU – is a classic and totally meaningless Corporation mea culpa.
Why? Well Humphrys produces not a shred of evidence to back up his claim. It’s a lofty pronouncement from a high priest of BBC journalism to us less lesser mortals, the audience. He doesn’t say in which interview, with which guests or how or when he arrived at the judgement. Was it perhaps when for the umpteenth occasion he patronisingly told Nigel Farage he was a corrupt fruitcake and failed to treat him seriously? Or maybe when he and his colleagues deliberately ignored yet another report from Sir Andrew (now Lord) Green at Migration Watch, and instead focused on the risibly skewed findings of ‘researchers’ at UCL who said the total influx of Polish immigrants would be 14,000? Of which, more, later.
No, this ‘bias’ happened at some undefined, mysterious time in the murky miasmic mists of the Blair era. It evidently made Humphrys queasy and uneasy, but back then, he and his chums above and below him in the BBC hierarchy did nothing at all about it.
Now, though, says the great man, the bias is fixed – it’s a matter of regret, but move along there, folks, nothing to see: everything in the BBC garden is tickety-boo.
Humphrys joins in the mea culpa confession stakes political editor Nick Robinson – who said pretty much the same thing at the beginning of the year – former television news chief Roger Mosey (ditto, the year before, but only after he had left the Corporation and was safely ensconced as master of Selwyn College, Cambridge), and former director general Mark Thompson (ditto, the year before that).
All the confessions are eerily similar, as if emanating from a common hand in the BBC equivalent of the Politburo. Roughly, give or take a few commas, they should have been tougher in exposing the Blair government’s undeclared unlimited immigration policy, but, whoops, weren’t, because
a) it’s jolly difficult terrain, and b) they were afraid of committing the biggest sins of all in the BBC lexicon: being seen as racist or a spanner in the works of multiculturalism.
This raises two massively crucial points about the BBC £1bn news operation.
First, Humphrys and those he works with don’t have any real knowledge. What his ‘confession’ seems to be based upon is gut journalistic instinct rather than any form of measurement. And it’s only now, when Ukip is winning by-elections and voters are showing that they do deeply care about the impact of the biggest influx of immigrants in British history that they have seen the light, and then only as a flickering flame of shame in the distant past.
Second, the BBC – from Humphrys downward and upward to the Trustees – will never, ever respond to genuine concerns about bias. Here, the facts are incontrovertible.
Back in December 2004, my organisation News-watch (then Minotaur Media Tracking) was commissioned by Sir Andrew to investigate across seven flagship programmes whether editors were paying enough attention and were properly balanced in covering precisely the issue and period Humphrys is talking about – the lifting of the controls (because of changes in the EU) that led to an influx of Poles and others from Eastern Europe.
The meticulous 12,000-word report involved the transcribing of every item in which immigration or asylum was mentioned over a three-month period. Its headline conclusions included this:
‘TODAY – for example, despite broadcasting 30 items on the topic, had only three on economic migration as opposed to asylum. It scrutinised poorly the moves towards the dropping of the UK’s EU veto, and paid disproportionate attention to asylum seeker problems while not investigating the impact of immigration on the UK.’
With the benefit of hindsight, this could have been a little clearer. What the meticulous research actually spotted was that Today was virtually avoiding escalating immigration from the EU while focusing on the bleeding heart cases of those who were trying to obtain asylum – and mixing the two together as if they were the same thing. This was larded, of course, with frequent direct and indirect accusations of racism.
‘In the entire three month period in coverage of immigration, there were only around 20 brief mentions of the figures involved….’The coverage of immigration, therefore, was carried out with only minimal analysis of one of the key components of the debate…This was rather surprising, given the debate itself – for all political parties – is mostly about numbers.’
‘During the 14 weeks, apart from one brief mention of a planning inquiry for a new centre for illegal immigrants, there was no item designed to examine the impact of immigration on British communities, and little effort to cover why there was concern about immigration.’ Sir Andrew presented these findings to then BBC news chief boss Helen Boaden soon afterwards – but she did nothing, to the point that (I am told) Sir Andrew now believes that any form of protest to the BBC news management is pointless.
In other words, despite what Humphrys says, the BBC did have knowledge of the glaring inadequacies of its coverage. His ‘confession’ is thus utter nonsense. It boils down to that there was a disgraceful avoidance by he and the BBC of debate in an area of crucial public importance.