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David Keighley: London a multi-ethnic city for 2,000 years? Only in the madhouse of BBC propaganda


The BBC’s claim – trumpeted by a gurning-with-delight Fiona Bruce on news bulletins – that analysis of skeletons from Roman London showed that the capital was ‘’ethnically diverse from its very beginnings’’ (BBC code, of course,  for multicultural)  is an affront to journalism, a huge distortion of the historical record, and an indefensible misuse of statistics. 

Where to begin? The item was clearly only elevated to major bulletin status because the 8,000-strong news department is currently engaged in a full-on political campaign to tell us that those who disagree with mass immigration are right-wing bigots. 

In line with this, the Corporation is engaged in re-writing our history to make us a nation of settlers and of constant ferment. If such was the case for two millennia, how can complaining about the current level of 350,000 immigrants a year be anything but irrational, racist, xenophobia? 

A major rule of ethical journalism is to use statistics, as with all sources of evidence, wisely and judiciously. ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics’, was popularised by Mark Twain as a warning for good reason. 

The BBC pays lip service to this cautionary principle; the Trustees are currently going through another of their (sham) ‘impartiality reviews’ focused on that theme. 

It is clearly much overdue. The story that was broadcast about the skeletons was so risibly a misuse of statistics that it is hard to know where to begin.   This DNA study, by the Museum of London on its own collection of skeletons, was of just FOUR individuals. Two were of ‘non-European’ origin, one was from Europe and one was a native Briton. 

From that, reporter Pallab Ghosht trumpeted the claim of the museum’s curator that this showed that London was a ‘cosmopolitan’ city from the moment it was created 2,000 years ago’.

Excuse me? The Romans occupied London for roughly 380 years (43AD- 410AD). The average population was around 30,000 (with a peak of around 60,000). Assuming a birth-rate similar to that in Africa now (around 40 per thousand per annum), this means that around half a million individuals were likely to have been born and died there. 

On that basis, four skeletons out of 500,000 prove absolutely zilch about the ethnic make-up of the population. BBC reporters and museum curators should damn well know better than to make such preposterous claims. Yet Ghosht was so ecstatic about the findings that he tweeted that it would ‘literally change history’. 

What utter, ignorant codswallop. His crass words are sure evidence that the true intent of such claims is to spread propaganda. 

The story is also rubbish in archaeological terms.  The fact is that Roman London was founded by Roman invaders whose social structure was based upon forced and slave labour drawn from throughout its immense Empire.  It would have been astonishing if some of the settlers in London were not drawn from faraway places. But that does not mean it was a ‘cosmopolitan’ city in the current sense of the word. 

Nor was it ‘ethnically diverse’ in any modern sense. There were different races, but each would have been treated in accordance to their social status. The majority of non-Romans were viewed as inferior vassals.  

BBC reporters, it now appears, don’t have any knowledge of British history. After the Romans left there is a huge gap in the written and archaeological record. What is certain is that only a few thousand souls lived there. The capital of Anglo-Saxon Britain shifted to Winchester for large parts of the Anglo-Saxon era, and only reverted permanently to London after the Norman Conquest.

The population did not reach the peak Roman level again for more than a thousand years – until 1500. The idea that it was ‘cosmopolitan’ during this thousand-year stretch, as is implied by Ghosht’s feature, is utter nonsense. Extensive sampling of skeletons from these periods shows that there was an impact on our DNA from Anglo-Saxon settlers, but little else…not even from the Vikings. 

In the last 500 years, until after the Second World War, the only significant influxes into London were the Hugenots after the edict of Nantes, and then significant large numbers of settlers from Germany and Eastern Europe. Yes, as a port with a merchant fleet that traded with the world, London had  a significant of foreign-born nationals – but at most only 3 per cent or so of the population.  

 The massive changes happened after the Second World War, first with war refugees, then from the Commonwealth and finally from the EU. The 2011 census revealed that 3 million foreign born nationals are now living in the capital. 

To compare crudely that level of influx with Roman Britain – as Bruce and Ghosht so clearly tried to do – is dishonest reporting on a gargantuan scale.  

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David Keighley
David Keighley
Former BBC news producer, BBC PR executive and head of corporate relations for TV-am. Director of News-watch.

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