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David Keighley: The strange matter of the sudden BBC U-turn over depicting figures from the Koran


Let’s be very clear. The BBC’s decision in the wake of Charlie Hebdo to allow in future depictions of figures from the Koran is more than a ripple in terms of Corporation internal regulation.

It emerged last Friday in the fall-out from the terrorist massacre by Muslims in pursuit of their religious ideology that editorial guidelines on this topic were being re-written. Hitherto, there had been a blanket ban on all such depictions. It was enshrined in BBC groupthink, as this piece for the BBC College of Journalism about Islam by Emily Buchanan illustrates.

How did this news emerge? David Dimbleby mentioned the straitjacket approach on the Thursday night edition of Question Time, rightly noting that this was now rather a hot potato. Presumably, he did that off his own bat, because the Corporation reacted like a scalded cat.  By next morning, the relevant key guideline had been taken down from the BBC website and the re-writing message emerged from both the BBC press office and online.

Why is this such a big deal? Since the BBC Governors transmuted in 2007 to the BBC Trustees, declarations about editorial policy have become major Articles of Faith both inside the BBC and in its relations with audiences, such as they are. Enshrined within them has been multiculturalism, and inside that, extraordinary – and some say entirely disproportionate – respect for Islam.

One of the first acts of the new Trustees was to commission a programme producer, John Bridcut,  to write a document on impartiality. An interesting insight into how he tackled the task – and his own lack of impartiality in carrying out the role is here.

He was aided of course by a phalanx of BBC staff and acolytes, including a former NUS president (now a Labour councillor) , the former deputy director general Mark Byford, and then head of news Helen Boaden (both of whom have since attracted notoriety, one for his colossal £1m retirement pay-off; the other for allegedly not allowing the pursuit of stories about the fall-out from the Savile scandal).

They duly obliged with a labyrinthine document with a typically Politburo-style obscure title: “From See-Saw to Wagon Wheel”.

In its 81 main pages (with hundreds more of appendices), it explains that the strange title is warranted because British society is now highly segmented, and where once balance could be viewed as binary, the Corporation now needed to take into account lots of different viewpoints, though not on an equal basis.  So balance was now more like the spokes of a wagon wheel.

Despite being cumbersome, the analogy  might have served as a useful way of ensuring diversity in coverage and that minority views were properly represented.

In fact, the opposite happened, because Bridcut also said that BBC editors need not be too bothered about  ‘minority’ views (in areas of public policy) where there was ‘consensus’ against them. It was too difficult, so editors had the discretion about whom they could ignore.

This is what he said, for example, about climate:  “Climate change is another subject where dissenters can be unpopular. There may be now a broad scientific consensus that climate change is definitely happening, and that it is at least predominantly man-made. But the second part of that consensus still has some intelligent and articulate opponents, even if a small minority. The BBC has held a high-level seminar with some of the best scientific experts, and has come to the view that the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus.”

In the wake of Bridcut, the editorial guidelines were also re-written to incorporate its core tenets. The combined impact was that the Corporation now had a ‘right way’ of covering complex issues. Multiculturalism, like climate change (despite a specific warning to the contrary), was assumed to be the ‘consensus’ and those against it could be ignored and sidelined.   As part of this, the diktat forbidding the depiction of  figures from the Koran was set in stone.

Soon afterwards, too, the BBC appointed its first Muslim head of religious programming and he has gone about over the past six years promoting multiculturalism at the expense of Christianity and the BBC’s wider approach to major issues. His is most evident in the Today programme’s Thought for the Day, or by his action in permitting BBC1’s Songs of Praise to be put in the Sunday afternoon schedule and to be replaced in its prime-time slot with Countryfile. That, these days, is mostly about climate alarmism, and so it fits with the BBC agenda; hymn-singing clearly does not.

What’s strange therefore about the Thursday night decision is that it seems a sudden retreat from everything the Trustees have set in train in terms of BBC orthodoxy since 2007. Who took the decision?  The speed at which it happened and the potential implications suggests it must have been at the very top, by Tony Hall, the director general.  Has he suddenly  seen the error of the BBC’s  ways?  I somehow doubt it. Once the immediate fall-out from Charlie Hebdo evaporates, it will be business as usual in the Corporation’s pursuit of their version of ‘right’.

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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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