In the magisterial words of its first Director-General, Lord Reith, the objective of the BBC is “to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain”. Few institutions are as deeply woven into the fabric of British national life as the BBC. Its influence is considerable and it has been a powerful instrument of British soft power worldwide.
The duty and constitutional basis of the BBC is set out in a Royal Charter which, in addition to the BBC’s Object, Mission and Public Purposes, also outlines its governance and regulatory arrangements, including the role and composition of the Board.
Many of the BBC’s programmes are of high quality and are widely praised. The BBC’s coverage of the period following The Queen’s death, for instance, which included the processions, lying in state and funeral, was excellent.
Yet it seems that the BBC, for all its merits, does not always respect the objectives set out in its founding charter. This is concerning, particularly given the fact that it is a publicly-funded body; through the licence fee, it is funded by all viewers, which amount to almost the entire population of the UK. 2 Unless action is taken, these concerns are likely to have increased by the time of the Charter’s review in 2027.
In particular, the way in which our history is told by the BBC has become a matter of public concern. This report draws on several recent case studies to evaluate the BBC’s handling of historical themes. The report therefore does not purport to be acomprehensive survey of all the BBC’s output, but serves to demonstrate how the BBC often strays from its stated objectives through its consistent bias when exploring British history, whether through inclusion of inaccurate or tendentious material, or by omission of important relevant facts.
The BBC’s purpose
The Royal Charter sets out the following 5 “Public Purposes” for the BBC:
- To provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them: the BBC should provide duly accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming to build people’s understanding of all parts of the United Kingdom and of the wider world. Its content should be provided to the highest editorial standards. It should offer a range and depth of analysis and content not widely available from other United Kingdom news providers, using the highest calibre presenters and journalists, and championing freedom of expression, so that all audiences can engage fully with major local, regional, national, United Kingdom and global issues and participate in the democratic process, at all levels, as active and informed citizens.
- To support learning for people of all ages: the BBC should help everyone learn about different subjects in ways they will find accessible, engaging, inspiring and challenging. The BBC should provide specialist educational content to help support learning for children and teenagers across the United Kingdom. It should encourage people to explore new subjects and participate in new activities through partnerships with educational, sporting and cultural institutions.
- To show the most creative, highest quality and distinctive output and services: the BBC should provide high-quality output in many different genres and across a range of services and platforms which sets the standard in the United Kingdom and internationally. Its services should be distinctive from those provided elsewhere and should take creative risks, even if not all succeed, in order to develop fresh approaches and innovative content.
- To reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all of the United Kingdom’s nations and regions and, in doing so, support the creative economy across the United Kingdom: the BBC should reflect the diversity of the United Kingdom both in its output and services. In doing so, the BBC should accurately and authentically represent and portray the lives of the people of the United Kingdom today, and raise awareness of the different cultures and alternative viewpoints that make up its society. It should ensure that it provides output and services that meet the needs of the United Kingdom’s nations, regions and communities. The BBC should bring people together for shared experiences and help contribute to the social cohesion and wellbeing of the United Kingdom. In commissioning and delivering output the BBC should invest in the creative economies of each of the nations and contribute to their development.
- To reflect the United Kingdom, its culture and values to the world: the BBC should provide high-quality news coverage to international audiences, firmly based on British values of accuracy, impartiality, and fairness. Its international services should put the United Kingdom in a world context, aiding understanding of the United Kingdom as a whole, including its nations and regions where appropriate. It should ensure that it produces output and services which will be enjoyed by people in the United Kingdom and globally.
While there is no fault to be found with the objectives themselves, the issue is that they are not always followed. The following case studies are a sample of such instances
The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan
‘The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan’ is a BBC Two travel documentary series which won a British Academy Television Award for Best Features in 2020.
In the first episode of the third season, Ranganathan visits Sierra Leone and looks at the history of slavery there. However, by omitting important facts about the role of Britain in the country’s history and presenting a biased narrative of British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, he distorts the viewers’ understanding of the country’s history.
In the documentary, Ranganathan visits a fort established on Bunce Island in 1670 by a British company as a holding point for slaves to be shipped to the Americas. He tells us it was held by four British companies over 138 years, leaving the impression that enslavement was a purely British enterprise. Yet he omits to mention the fact that the fort was sacked in 1728 by a local African slave trader, José Lopez da Moura, who resented the loss of business caused by the British presence.
Ranganathan describes how “raiders” captured the slaves and brought them to the fort. Yet he does not mention that the said raiders were Africans, or that when Britain abolished its slave trade in 1807, many local Africans continued to trade slaves with other countries, including the United States, as well as the colonies of France, Spain and Portugal.
Ranganathan states that 30,000 slaves were shipped from Bunce Island. He does not, however, mention that it was Britain’s Royal Navy which was later sent to suppress the slave trade, or that in doing so between 1808 and 1860 the West Africa Squadron captured 1,600 slave ships and freed over 150,000 African slaves.
Ranganathan describes Freetown, the freed slaves’ destination, but does not mention that the town had been set up specifically for freed slaves by Britain in an area negotiated by Britain with local chiefs.
While he does mention a freedom tree in the centre of Freetown, he does not mention the “Freedom Arch” leading to The Old King’s Yard. Freed slaves were taken to Freetown, walked through the arch to hospital and given treatment and food. Sierra Leone declared it a National Monument in 1949 and applied to UNESCO to make it a World Heritage site in 2012. The application on the UNESCO website notes that:
The Gateway to the Old King’s Yard compares with the Statue of Liberty in the United States in enduring as a highly potent symbol, inspiring contemplation of ideals such as freedom, human rights, democracy and opportunity… [It]…. is a symbol telling the end of a particular epoch of man’s cruelty to man.
Seeing such a monument would have enabled the viewer to get the full context. It is difficult to understand why such an important site was not mentioned in a travel programme.
Ranganathan remarks that what he calls “creoles” cannot, even today, buy land outside Freetown and concludes from this that “discrimination lasts today as a legacy of colonialism”. Yet the area concerned was controlled historically by African chiefs.
Inside Freetown, where the British had control, “creoles” have equality. So the legacy of colonialism is in fact the reverse of that suggested by Ranganathan.
Ranganathan also asserts that “the standard of living [in the UK] was built on the benefits of slavery”. This idea that Britain’s prosperity was created by the slave trade echoes the thesis of the historian and politician Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery, written during the 1930s. 4 It has been long been rejected by most economic historians. David Eltis, in his Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (1997), argues that Britain spent as much money suppressing the slave trade as it ever gained from it. While it is not easy to draw up an economic balance sheet, and while slaving undoubtedly enriched some individual seaports, shipowners, plantation owners and African chiefs, the theory that it financed the Industrial Revolution is not generally accepted by economic historians, and to repeat it as if it were a matter of undisputed fact suggests a lack of impartiality.
Drawing on his own defective analysis of the history in Sierra Leone, Ranganathan’s picture of slave trading as something “that the white British did” completely ignores African involvement. British involvement was, of course, morally reprehensible. But it could not have taken place without the active involvement of Africans, who were owners and traders of slaves long before the British arrived. It is a gross distortion to talk of black slaves and white slavers; many peoples were involved. If we limit ourselves to Africa, there is no doubt that black Africans were the main actors in the slave trade south of the Sahara, both as slavers and victims.
Among the European participants in the African slaving, the Danes were the first to renounce it in 1792 and the British were the first to try to suppress it after 1807.5 The British anti-slavery effort was costly, in money and lives, and it was vigorously resisted by other powers, especially the Americans and the French. Eventually the British used both bribery and force against some African rulers with whom they had previously had peaceful relations but who persisted in slave trading. Suppressing slaving became a major motive for British military intervention in West Africa in the 19th century, some of which was made following requests for protection by African victims of the slave traders.
In short, the programme makes no mention of Britain’s efforts to end slaving, which is central to the history of Freetown; it presents an inaccurate picture by making no reference to native African involvement in slavery; and it leaves the viewer with the inaccurate impression that slaving was a largely British activity.
In response to a viewer complaint, the BBC made a series of comments which evade the points raised.6 The original response said that “a single programme or report wouldn’t always be able to break down extensive historical information as much as we’d like due to time constraints”; this does not answer the point about which information was included and which excluded, and why. Indeed, the final rejection of the viewer’s complaint by the BBC’s Complaints Director, Mr Jeremy Hayes, merely elaborated on the earlier response: “The programme, as the Complaints team explained, took in many other aspects of life in Sierra Leone, past and present, and given the varied and impressionistic nature of the programme, it was perhaps not surprising that more detail was not supplied about the history and legacy of slave trading in the country.” In admitting that the programme had time to cover many aspects of life in Sierra Leone, Mr Hayes did not try to explain why “detail” could be given on aspects of history that were discreditable to Britain, but not on those that were creditable.
Given the number of mistakes and omissions in this programme, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it was a case of poor journalism (unless the BBC considers that travel programmes are in a lower category for accuracy) and/or of conscious or unconscious bias.
Enslaved with Samuel L. Jackson
This four-part BBC 2 documentary on the transatlantic slave trade was first aired on 11 October 2020.
Episode 1 focuses on European involvement and the conditions in the slave forts. It mentions the slaves brought to the coast, but, as in the Ranganathan documentary discussed above, fails to point out that African traders were centrally involved. The Asante, of what is now Ghana, were highly active and fought wars to protect their sources of slaves and to keep open their trade routes to the coast. They are described in an authoritative modern history of Africa as one of the two “most authoritarian 18thcentury [slave-] trading states” showing “great brutality towards the weak”.
In ‘Enslaved’, journalist Afua Hirsch interviews local historian Wilhelmina Donkoh in Elmina Fort, Ghana, about the role of the Asante in slaving. Dr Donkoh acknowledges this role but qualifies it by referring to other slaving empires in history, notably the Romans, a defence rarely extended by modern critics to European slaving. But she adds that “the Asante have publicly apologised for their role”; and, ludicrously, that the Asante did not in any case have slaves, only “unfree” people. Dr Donkoh bases this on the argument that these “unfree” people could sometimes marry and have children, and that female “unfree” might even marry their master. It would, of course, be rightly thought scandalous if such statements were made unchallenged about enslaved women in South Carolina or Jamaica. From the tone of the exchange, it is clear that Ms Hirsch is encouraging Dr Donkoh to suggest that the slaves were not slaves, but rather simply people of low status.
Neither speaker mentions that the Asante fought wars to obtain slaves, and that these “unfree” people had no rights. As in America, their treatment depended on their masters’ whim. Some might be more humane. But the slaves were nonetheless also liable to beatings or killings, and could be sold or be victims of human sacrifice.
Dr Donkoh suggests that the Asante traded people only to buy firearms for self-protection. This is unsubstantiated. The Asante needed firearms for war and further slaving. When Britain finally overcame the Asante after the third war in 1874, the resulting treaty included clauses outlawing slavery, slave trading and human sacrifice.
Episode 4 examines the events that led to the end of the slave trade. It rightly covers an anti-slavery petition by Mancunians to Parliament; the work of the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson; the anti-slaving and anti-slave trading acts 1807 and 1833; and the work of the abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, albeit without mentioning that he was himself a reformed slave trader and indeed minimising this point by admitting only that he made money at the periphery of the trade.
Hirsch argues that the 1807 Act stopped the British “kidnapping” Africans. In fact, the British did not kidnap Africans, but bought existing slaves from African traders in return for goods from England (not morally justifiable, of course, but rather different to what is claimed). Nor, as usual in such discussions, is there any mention of Britain’s huge diplomatic, economic and military effort against slaving.
The programme generally leaves the viewer with the impression that when Britain stopped its slave trade in 1807 (and later slavery in the Empire in 1833), this marked the end of all slavery, and thus that Britain was the main obstacle to the end of the trade. In reality, African nations, other European countries, Brazil, the USA and the Muslim world continued trading despite sustained British efforts to end the trade, and it was principally due to major and persistent British efforts that the Atlantic and Arab trades were finally ended.
The so-called ‘Benin bronzes’, a range of works of art confiscated from the royal palace of Benin by a British punitive expedition in 1897 and sold by the government to help defray the cost of the expedition, have long been a matter of public debate, and so ignorance cannot be a plausible explanation for biased reporting.
Yet on 29 November 2022, Radio 4’s midnight news featured the following item:
“Nigeria has tonight taken back ownership of a collection of 72 items previously held at a museum in London which were looted by British troops in 1897. The Horniman Museum and Gardens is the first UK museum officially to take such action on this scale. Among the pieces are some of the Benin Bronzes. Here’s our Culture Editor,
‘The objects, made from brass, ivory and wood, were bought by the museum soon after the violent British raid on the wealthy kingdom of Benin. Among the items: a brass plaque depicting a 16th-century Oba or king of Benin and an ivory staff of office. The so-called bronzes are of huge cultural significance and a key historic record of the kingdom plundered by British forces. In front of Nigerian royalty and other dignitaries the collection was officially signed over to their country. Six items will return at first; the others are to be loaned back to the Horniman.
The head of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Professor Abba Tijani, praised the Horniman for doing all it could to correct the past and called on others to emulate the museum’s example:
“If you see that this is happening and important museums across the world are also involved and ready to repatriate then every museum should do so because hanging onto looted objects is no longer tenable. It is morally wrong and ethically wrong […]”
KR:] “Thousands of Benin bronzes are held by museums in the UK, Europe and the US. The British Museum has 900 of them. Unlike the Horniman, the UK’s national museums are prevented by law from returning items in their collections, except in specific circumstances. Other museums, in Glasgow, Oxford and Cambridge have begun the process. Germany and France have also agreed similar deals. As museums continue to grapple with the legacy of British colonialism, demand for not just the bronzes, but other objects, including most famously the Parthenon sculptures, also called Elgin Marbles, will only grow.”
The language used is tendentious and inaccurate. The objects were not “looted” or “plundered” but seized in what was then a legal process in retaliation for an act of war. More important still is what is left out—likely deliberately—from the historical account given. This was a punitive expedition against a violent slave-trading kingdom (hence “wealthy”) after the massacre of an unarmed party of British envoys and a large number of their African bearers. The punitive expedition, after it captured Benin, ended slave trading in the kingdom.
Also omitted are highly relevant issues concerning the present day. There are serious doubts about the security of these objects, as many Benin bronzes that were donated to Nigeria at independence (including by the British Museum) have since disappeared. One, indeed, was illegally given to the late Queen by a Nigerian politician, and is now at Windsor.
No less importantly, and as has been reported in the press, the Restitution Study Group, an American association representing the descendants of former slaves from Nigeria sold by the rulers of Benin and other territories, have been campaigning (including through appeals to the Charity Commission in Britain and through court action in the United States) to prevent the bronzes, which were in many cases made by slaves from brass received in payment for trafficked Africans, from being returned to the descendants of the slave traders, as has been done by the Horniman Museum. The moral and ethical issues are therefore far more nuanced and complex than the BBC suggests.
Finally, the question of the Elgin Marbles was brought in gratuitously as by implication part of the “legacy of British colonialism”, even though the frieze was legally obtained from an ally of the United Kingdom, and thus saved from probable damage or destruction. It has no connection with “colonialism”.
All this could have been conveyed in a few sentences and by use of accurate language.
The news report on the Benin bronzes sums up all that is wrong with the BBC’s recent treatment of British history: tendentious language, distorted interpretation, and deliberate omission of facts that do not suit the chosen slant. Listeners are not given objective facts to enable them to form a view. On the contrary, they are made the objects of one-sided propaganda.
Digging for Britain
Digging For Britain is a BBC series focusing on archaeology, presented by Alice Roberts, a biological anthropologist.10 Episode 9 in Series 6 examines the “famine roads” works programmes in Ireland during the Great Famine of the 1840s. Dr Onyeka Nubia, an academic at Nottingham University described on the University website as a specialist in “anti-colonial movements and Pan Africanism”, discusses the reaction in Parliament at the time. He argues that Daniel O’Connell, the Irish Catholic MP, was trying to prevent
“the extermination of a people, his people, he’s imploring the British government to do something about it. O’Connell seeks aid for famine victims, but the government and opposition are opposed to this. Their philosophy is to reject all requests for handouts. Simple charity was out of the question.”
Dr Nubia goes on to suggest that the then Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel “suggested a compromise”: to provide work rather than handouts—this “in the midst” of the famine, says Nubia, implying that it was heartless to do so at a time of mass fatalities, as shown in the previous segment of the programme. He goes on to allege that Peel is arguing that it was “worse” to provide handouts than to let the population die of starvation. The people were being starved, according to Nubia’s interpretation, to “enforce a philosophical point”; this, he says, was “utterly deplorable”.
The notion of Peel suggesting “a compromise” is pure fiction. It is no surprise that Peel reached for the standard policy option used to deal with subsistence crises in pre-Famine Ireland. This form of state intervention, which was generally popular in Ireland, was largely successful in combatting various subsistence crises in Ireland between the bad years of 1816-18 (a global famine caused by volcanic activity) and 1845. The Great Famine turned out to be of unprecedented severity and length not only in the context of Ireland but of 19th Century Europe too.
Dr Nubia’s condemnation of Peel’s favourable view of works programmes for famine relief does not make it clear (though he must have been aware of the dates, as he was reading from Hansard) that Peel was speaking not “right in the midst of the famine”, which came after his term of office, but before he stepped down in mid-1846. The crop failure of later 1845 had been only partial, unlike the total one of later 1846, after Peel’s resignation. It is unlikely that anybody died of starvation during Peel’s tenure as Prime Minister. Many Irish historians have described Peel’s programmes as generally effective.11 Indeed, some nationalist-minded Young Irelanders themselves minimised the problem, and initially rejected aid: “no begging appeals to England”.
What were Peel’s actions? The crisis began in 1845 with the arrival of two potato diseases, phytophthora infestans and dry rot, from the Americas. When this was first reported to Peel in September 1845 — a potato merchant wrote to him personally to warn him — he ordered the purchase of American maize for Ireland to feed 500,000 people for three months. In January 1846 he suspended the Corn Laws to allow untaxed imports. A Public Works (Ireland) Bill was introduced to create jobs, wages and purchasing power.
The impression created by Dr Nubia is that Peel was speaking much later than he was, and this makes him seem callous and unmoved by the condition of the starving Irish. In reality, Peel destroyed his own political career by pushing through the hasty repeal of the Corn Laws, motivated at least in part by the need to import large amounts of grain to relieve the situation in Ireland. Peel’s Whig successors at first continued the policy of public works but once it was clear that famine had hit badly for the second successive year (disease reduced the 1846 potato crop by between 75 per cent and 97 percent) they began direct food distribution through soup kitchens, which by July 1847 were feeding 3,000,000 people daily. That was hardly the action of a government bent on “extermination”. A sixth of total State spending was going to famine relief, which a leading Irish authority on the famine, Cormac Ó Gráda, describes as “probably unprecedented in famine history.”12 It was undoubtedly inadequate, but the impression clearly created by this BBC programme is one of heartless and deliberate inaction, other than the futile “roads to nowhere”. The failure to complete some, though by no means all, infrastructural projects was because of severe cut-backs to projected public expenditure in 1847 due to a severe financial crisis in Britain (and indeed throughout Europe). None of this is acknowledged in the programme.
Dr Nubia appears to be unaware that no serious scholar regards the Irish famine as “the extermination of a people” — effectively an accusation of genocide, if taken at face value — or accuses successive British governments of refusing aid, even if aid
proved insufficient in the face of a previously unknown potato disease that caused several years of disastrous harvest failures in several countries. To describe this as “extermination” is to adopt a view held only by extreme Irish nationalists and their sympathisers, and which has for years been combatted by Irish scholars unwilling to allow their history to be weaponised by extremists. For such an accusation to be espoused uncritically by the BBC is astonishingly irresponsible.
A measured judgment by an Irish historian is that the Whig government that succeeded Peel “may have lacked foresight and generosity” and “may have been guilty of underestimating the human problems”, but was “not guilty of either criminal negligence or of deliberate heartlessness.”13 A programme concerned with giving accurate insights into the Irish tragedy would have given voice to authoritative scholarly opinions. 14 Even though neither the presenter nor Dr Nubia have any qualifications to pronounce on this subject, they might surely be expected to show some curiosity as to what real scholars think and to weigh their own words carefully. Although this is not the only time that Dr Nubia has publicly made inflammatory or inaccurate assertions on historical subjects of which he has little knowledge,15 the programme’s producer presumably has access to modern scholarship and has the duty to check basic facts. Was this a lapse in elementary journalistic standards, or was it a deliberate choice to enable the programme to give its chosen slant?
Kit De Waal on Sarah Forbes Bonetta
BBC Radio 4 aired a programme in August 2022 with author Kit De Waal and journalist Zeinab Badawi exploring the story of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a 6-year-old west African girl, who was kidnapped and taken to the King of Dahomey’s court after her parents were killed by the army of Dahomey. A British Naval Captain then bargained to take her back to England where she was presented to Queen Victoria and introduced into high society. She was then nicknamed “the African princess”.
Zainab Badawi refers to terrible events in the British Empire, including “slave revolts” in Jamaica in the 1860s, suggesting that she is unaware that slavery had been abolished in the British Empire in 1833. The 1831 Baptist slave rebellion in Jamaica played some part in the abolition, but it was long before the 1860s and before Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s arrival in Britain in 1851. The scandal of the Morant Bay rebellion of 1861 drew attention to the conditions that persisted in Jamaica after emancipation. But to equate these, inaccurately, with slavery creates a misconception that the British were practising slavery late into the 19th century.
Listeners might also need to be reminded that the transatlantic slave trade into which Sarah Forbes Bonetta was in most danger of being sold would have been at the hands not of the British (they had abolished the slave trade in 1807) but of the Spanish and Portuguese. The British, as was pointed out later in the programme, were actively involved in abolishing slave trading by Dahomey and other African states.
The Bengal Famine, 1943
The disastrous Bengal Famine has for many years been a staple of a certain strand of Indian nationalism, and has recently become a subject of public debate in Britain. Serious scholars have written on the use of food as a weapon in war, and the Bengal Famine has been thoroughly analysed.17 There is no excuse now for ignorant or inaccurate reporting on what is clearly a complex and sensitive topic, comparable with the Irish Famine mentioned earlier in this report.
On 21 July 2020, the News at Ten included one of a series of reports introduced as “looking at Britain’s colonial legacy worldwide” which dealt with the Bengal famine and Winston Churchill. A viewer subsequently complained that it personalised an issue about which Churchill could have had limited knowledge; it ignored key roles played by others (who included the Indian Government, the elected government of Bengal, Indian grain merchants, and the relevant Cabinet Committee); it did not take proper account of the fact that Britain was engaged in a world war at the time; and it claimed that absence of effective action to alleviate the famine was a consequence of racism on Churchill’s part.
On the contrary, as historians of this subject have documented, far from nothing being done by Churchill and his government, large quantities of food began to be sent to Bengal as soon as the severity of the situation was realized, despite widespread shortages of food and shipping.
The BBC subsequently admitted that it had breached impartiality guidelines in this news item.19 However, given the kind of defensive response made to complaints that we have already seen in this report, it is perhaps not surprising that the BBC’s internal complaints procedure rejected most of the criticisms on what seem to us flimsy grounds. It pleaded that the broadcast had not given the impression that any of the many parties concerned had sole responsibility for the famine (this, indeed, would have been absurd). It also pleaded that it had attributed decision-making power to Churchill and his Cabinet, not to Churchill alone. No one who knew anything about wartime government could reasonably place responsibility on Churchill alone, but to bring in only the Cabinet as co-decider and to neglect the roles of others is wholly unconvincing. The role of the Americans (who controlled much available shipping), of the Indian regional administration, of the Japanese (who had captured the Burmese rice fields) and of the rice disease Helminthosporium oryzae seems not to have entered the BBC’s collective consciousness.
The BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU) noted significant documentary evidence that Churchill was aware of the famine and intervened personally on a number of occasions, and seemed to have regarded this as implying guilt. But far from nothing being done by Churchill and his government, more than a million tons of grain arrived in Bengal between August 1943, when the War Cabinet first realised the severity of the famine, and the end of 1944, when the famine had petered out. This was food aid specifically sent to Bengal, much of it on Australian ships, despite strict food rationing in England and severe food shortages in newly-liberated southern Italy and Greece.
Did the BBC credit Churchill with any of this? Their guiding assumption appears to have been one of guilt. Nevertheless, the ECU congratulated itself on having given “a duly balanced picture” of the context. It could be argued that news journalists cannot be expected to have much knowledge of history; but in that case they should be cautious in the views they broadcast.
However, the ECU was less happy with accusations of racism made in the programme about Churchill, or at least, it had to recognise that no other view was given air time. It admitted that “more exploration of alternative views of Churchill’s actions and motives in relation to the Bengal famine was required to meet the standard of impartiality appropriate to a report in a news bulletin of this kind.” It is difficult to disagree.
The examples given in this report do not claim to be exhaustive, but they show certain patterns that are indicative. Taken together, they cover some of the most sensitive topics that feature in public debate, including slavery, race, empire, Ireland, war and Sir Winston Churchill. These subjects have both national and international resonance. Taken in isolation, each example might seem minor, but they all tend in one direction: the fostering of a negative view of British history, and especially of its relations with the non-European world from which British citizens of ethnic minority backgrounds and their ancestors originally came. We have found no examples in which recent BBC programmes might be accused of giving excessively favourable accounts of our history: of Britain’s struggle against slavery, its promotion of economic development, its provision of law and security in trouble-torn regions, or its fostering of democratic institutions for independent colonies.
The examples we have highlighted have other common features. They give a voice only to one side of a disputed past, even presenting false history as uncontested fact. Furthermore, those presenting or being interviewed as experts generally have little or no expertise in the subjects on which they are making pronouncements, even though these are often complex and controversial matters. It is as if the BBC is choosing interviewees who are intended to give a particular slant. That slant never errs on the side of nuance and complexity, let alone generosity, but favours extreme and provocative claims. Consequently, these programmes cannot be said to reflect serious scholarly opinion or even provide basic factual accuracy.
The BBC Charter requires the BBC to use “the highest calibre presenters and journalists”. This requirement cannot be said to be met when ill-informed and uncritical viewpoints are presented as fact. The Charter also requires the BBC to “reflect the diversity of the United Kingdom both in its output and services [and] accurately and authentically represent and portray the lives of the people of the United Kingdom today, and raise awareness of the different cultures and alternative viewpoints that make up its society”. In all the examples we have given, the BBC has failed in these duties towards true diversity, accuracy, and alternative viewpoints by presenting a one-sided version of events, and moreover one that is unlikely to develop “active and informed citizens”. Finally, the BBC’s duty “to reflect the United Kingdom, its culture and values to the world” cannot be fulfilled by the broadcasting of inaccurate views of British history that could almost seem calculated to create prejudice and ill feeling against this country.
The following recommendations should go some way to avoid such failings in future.
The BBC should
- Update its editorial guidelines to clarify that historical and current affairs documentaries and news reports on historical matters need to be accurate; and commit to providing a diversity of opinion amongst contributors where interpretation of history is contested; and ensure that those called upon to give historical interpretations are properly qualified to do so.
- Commit to reviewing all content produced by its history department that is currently available to download or view on its on-demand services.
- Update its guidance to independent production companies that history programmes need to be accurate in all significant areas and need to demonstrate a commitment to diversity of opinion amongst programme contributors.
- Establish an advisory panel of properly qualified historians that reflects the diversity of scholarly opinion to help reduce group think amongst programme makers.
The BBC has laudable objectives and plays an important role in British soft power worldwide. It produces countless high-quality programmes in many different languages. But recent pandering to politically motivated activists, especially in the historical sphere, has contributed to calls for the end of the licence fee. If the BBC carries on broadcasting politically motivated, gratuitously divisive and factually unreliable material such as the examples used in this report, calls to end the licence fee will only get stronger. Adopting the recommendations set out in this report should go some way in restoring the BBC’s reputation for impartiality and accuracy.
History Reclaimed would like to thank Chris Tett for his help with this report
For more information contact David Abulafia – email@example.com