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David Keighley’s BBC Watch: Panorama’s hatchet job on Trump completes its fall from grace


In its heyday, BBC One’s Panorama was the Corporation’s proud flagship current affairs programme. Politicians of every stripe quaked at its gaze. With ITV’s World in Action, it pioneered the art of television investigative journalism.

Its slump from that lofty pedestal was firmly underway by the mid-1980s when the senior echelons of the BBC current affairs department were so consumed by hatred of Margaret Thatcher that Panorama was used as a platform – in an edition called Maggie’s Militant Tendency – to mount sensationalist claims of Nazi-like right-wing extremists within the Conservative Party.

The allegations were built on sand, and the Corporation ended up losing in the libel courts for its bogus claims. Many also believe that it was the beginning of the end for then Director General Alastair Milne.

The descent to the pits of this once great programme was well and truly completed on Monday night with a scaremongering edition called Trump: The Kremlin Candidate? by so-called investigative reporter John Sweeney.

His conclusion? “Whatever the truth, Trump is locked in a strange embrace with Vladimir Putin, an ally that could so easily become an adversary. If…Donald Trump falls out with President Putin, to put it mildly, that’s not good. We face the prospect of a grand new Cold War, colder than ever before.”

So bad was this malicious offering that it does not deserve to be even remotely classed as journalism. It was a party political broadcast on behalf of the discredit-Trump-at-any-price party.

At its heart was the unsubstantiated claim that Donald Trump is not fit to be President of the United States because he is the catspaw of dictator Vladimir Putin.

Using every shady technique of the propagandist – including, incredibly, a crudely photo-shopped image of bare-chested Putin and Trump riding a horse together – Sweeney launched an all-out attack on Trump. He seriously cast the two men at outset of the programme as leaders whose main drive was that they saw themselves as comic book superheroes.

Sweeney insinuated that Trump was, in essence, a dangerous, delusional, corrupt Mafia loving, halfwit whose crude narcissism was so outrageous that he had conned America and was about to pitch the world – through a danse macabre with the equally idiotic Putin – into World War III and a possible nuclear holocaust.

The central strand of his evidence appeared to be that – despite its comprehensive debunking – the intelligence dossier revealed by Buzzfeed last week was fundamentally true. In Sweeney’s world, Trump had been the victim of a honey trap set by Putin, and was now totally compromised because he was being blackmailed by him. Putin, he also posited, had fiendishly used his intelligence services to sabotage the US election, thus illegitimately catapulting the hapless Trump into the White House.

What else? Well, of course, Trump’s aides and appointees, including his new secretary of state Rex Tillerson, and his director of strategy, Steve Bannon, are also Russian cyphers being manipulated by the sinister Putin Kremlin machine. Searching through the programme for actual evidence of any of this is like looking for a needle in a haystack. It is easy to conclude there isn’t any.

He brought in one commentator in an effort to substantiate his claims, the journalist Anne Applebaum, who stridently opposed Brexit. Her credentials? She has used her column in the Washington Post to relentlessly attack the Trump candidacy for the past year. She told Sweeney that Trump would bring the world closer to nuclear war. She said: “I think democracy is in trouble. I think the example Trump set in the way he conducted and ran his election campaign, his use of open lies, fake news, the hint of violence, I think all of this is incredibly damaging for democracy… I haven’t been sleeping well since the invasion of Crimea.

“I have since then began to worry what Russia’s aims are in Europe, and about the possibility of a nuclear or conventional clash of an incredibly dangerous kind in the Baltic states, in central Europe, and Ukraine. Having Trump in the White House does not make me feel better.”

The motivation? Sweeney suggested that Trump was locked in this unholy embrace with Putin because they both had the temerity to like ‘traditional (nationalistic) values’ and disliked ’scrutiny’. How very dreadful of them to love their countries. And maybe it has escaped his attention that Trump is actually considering expanding access to the White House by the media.

Sweeney is a man who wears his political credentials so clearly on his sleeve that in August last year – when an unfortunate Polish man in Harlow was killed in a sordid late night fracas in a pizza parlour – he included a quote that claimed Nigel Farage now had blood on his hands. This, in Sweeney’s world, was post-Brexit race hate in action.

This latest offering puts Sweeney’s anti-populist claims into the framework of a world-wide conspiracy by those on the ‘Right’. Fake news? Rather, David Icke, another product of the BBC’s current affairs department, immediately springs to mind.

(Image: Gage Skidmore)

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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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