The Bolter affair throws into sharp relief the BBC’s perennial shoddy treatment of Ukip.
The latest survey by News-watch shows that in the European elections back in May, the coverage by the BBC put a relentless focus on whether the party was racist or corrupt – but didn’t ask a single question of a supporter of withdrawal about the subject.
From the Corporation media-bubble perspective, this is a party of mavericks and they treat it that way.
So when a 39-year-old woman made allegations of sexual harassment and Ukip quite properly said it was holding an inquiry, what did it do?
It threw the kitchen sink at it. Yes of course the media always love a sex scandal and when a national party’s general secretary is under investigation, it’s a story – whether it is Labour’s Jack Dromey and the allegations that he supported the Paedophile Information Exchange group or Ukip’s Roger Bird.
But reporting is one thing, disproportionate and unprincipled use of resources is another. We saw, for example, what the BBC did over the Cliff Richard affair. It went after him with a vengeance, to the extent of causing serious concerns, even among the human rights fraternity that normally support the Corporation.
On Tuesday night, Newsnight did the equivalent over Roger Bird and his alleged harassment of Natasha Bolter.
The programme, it should be underlined, is the BBC’s self-declared television shop window, the platform that reports the key issues of the day seriously and with all the supposed gravitas that a £1bn news operation can bring to bear.
Newsnight’s editor, the former Guardian journalist, Ian Katz, fished out distinguished veteran reporter Tom Mangold to interview Bolter. He gave almost a third of the programme to the exchange. The use of Mangold was clearly designed to reinforce the impression that this was a Very Important Story Indeed.
I declare at this point here that I am making no judgment whatsoever on the truth or otherwise of Ms Bolter’s harassment claim. That’s for the independent assessors to decide after considering properly all the available evidence.
However, when I trained to be a journalist, it was a fundamental rule of ethics that all claims of impropriety must be treated with caution and must be presented on the basis that there are at least two sides to almost every story.
With Bolter – as with Cliff Richard – any such caution seems to have been abandoned. There was no effort to tell the audience who Bolter was, where she had come from, what her credentials were or any context provided for her allegations.
It was embarrass Ukip time – and don’t let any doubts get in the way of that. This previously virtually unknown woman – whose only claim to fame was that she had defected from Labour to Ukip and had become an approved Ukip parliamentary candidate – was treated with near-reverence by Mangold. She was given acres of space to put across her case, and was scarcely interrupted or challenged.
In the event, the strength and credibility of her claims were unravelling even as Bolter spoke. Roger Bird released texts as the exchange was being pre-recorded. They showed that that two days after the alleged improper proposition, Ms Bolter was sending him affectionate texts.
I am not suggesting for a second that proves Bird’s case or that harassment did not happen – only those with the full facts can decide that – but the texts sounded very strong notes of caution several hours before the broadcast went ahead, leaving sufficient time to alter the presentation, and even to go back to Bolter.
Newsnight’s editors were fully aware of these issues and indeed made reference to them in the programme script. But they still treated Bolter with reverence.
This boils down to that the Newsnight feature on Tuesday night was a classic example of never let the facts get in the way of a good story – or in this case to kick Ukip. Yes, getting Bolter to speak was a coup. But she – and the story – should have been treated with much more caution.
Yet again, it shows that the BBC is highly partisan. And the only morals it displays when trying to discredit those who support withdrawal from the EU are those of an alley cat.