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David Keighley’s BBC Watch: Today lauds a tyrant who nearly wiped out the planet


Let’s not mince words: in his vainglorious, tyrannical exercise of power, Fidel Castro took the world in October 1962 to the brink of a nuclear holocaust.

Because of that, Castro stands unique in world affairs. He wilfully, calculatedly, put his own people – and countless millions more – at risk of annihilation by accepting that a fearsome arsenal of Soviet nuclear warheads could be placed, ready to strike, on his island’s soil 90 miles from the USA mainland.

As he aligned his country increasingly with Cold War Russia – and thus became dependent on their aid – he was also systematically crushing Cuban press and political freedom, building what were, in effect, concentration camps for gays and a regime that was openly hostile to the black minority on the island.

In the intervening years until his death, hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled his oppressive regime, and the island’s economy – once the bright star of Latin America –  has languished at developing world levels. Its people –almost 80 per cent state employed – in 2014 earned an average of $17-$30 a month.

There is rationing of almost every kind of foodstuff and Cuba’s economy, even after many so-called ‘reforms’ in recent years, is judged to be one of the least free in the world.

John F. Kennedy, speaking to a group of Cuban dissenters in December 1962, summed up the developing excesses of Castro’s dictatorship:

Your conduct and valour are proof that although Castro and his fellow dictators may rule nations, they do not rule people; that they may imprison bodies, but they do not imprison spirits; that they may destroy the exercise of liberty, but they cannot eliminate the determination to be free…. 

The Cuban people were promised by the revolution political liberty, social justice, intellectual freedom, land for the campesinos. and an end to economic exploitation. They have received a police state, the elimination of the dignity of land ownership, the destruction of free speech and of free press, and the complete subjugation of individual human welfare to the service of the State and of foreign states.

Obituaries are clearly tough to get right. But in the BBC’s case on Saturday morning, as Today and the news operation wrestled with that task in relation to Castro, they characteristically got it disastrously wrong.

Paramount in the coverage was constant moral equivalence. Was he a dictator? In the BBC’s estimation – despite the words of Kennedy, and despite irrefutable statistics – it was a case of only some people said so.

The first Today programme guest to comment on Castro was former Guardian features editor Richard Gott, who resigned after admitting he had received money from the KGB.  His verdict? Castro was, in effect, a candidate for beatification; any negatives in the equation were because he had no choice – America and wicked imperialism forced him.

Just as egregiously – in line with the Corporation’s all-out assault on first the prospect and then the reality of the Trump presidency – the coverage quickly cast Donald Trump’s reaction as ‘hard-line’, ill-judged and – in contrast to that paragon of virtue President Obama – inflammatory.

Trump’s crime?  He called Castro a dictator, spelled out that he had oppressed his people and crushed dissent. He finally expressed the hope that Castro’s death would open up the way to genuine freedom for the Cuban people.  How very, very subversive!

Pride of place in Today’s running order was an assessment by John Simpson, the BBC’s grandly-titled World Affairs Editor. 

No mention of the missile crisis, of the continuing grinding poverty, the food rationing, the oppression of gays.  Castro, said Simpson, was a ‘magnificent figure defiant in his loneliness’, who had turned Cuba from being ‘a nasty, corrupt dictatorship to a proud and in many ways more decent society’.  He was surrounded by ‘impossible glamour’ – and, in conclusion, the world in general ‘is certainly poorer and more ordinary without him’.

To be fair, Simpson’s piece contained some less flattering description. Castro was more popular outside Cuba than he was at home; he had displayed a ‘dogmatic refusal’ to change; and had carried out ‘assaults’ on freedom of speech and action.

Times writer Tim Montgomerie immediately attacked on Twitter the contention that the world was now a ‘poorer place’.  Today presenter Nick Robinson leapt to Simpson’s defence on the grounds that what Simpson meant was that the world would be poorer because it had lost a colourful character, and there was plenty of criticism of his record elsewhere on Today.

No. The tone and tenor of Today’s coverage overall and Simpson’s eulogy especially were shot through with moral relativity, overwhelmingly fawning, and wilfully blind to Castro’s monstrous track record.  The only exception was that Mishal Husain gave Ken Livingstone a run for his money against his assertions that echoed those of Richard Gott.

Obituaries are tough; here the BBC showed yet again that in its obdurate support of what it sees as ‘liberal’ values, it is selectively deaf and blind. Even, when it suits, the opinions of one of its heroes, John F. Kennedy, can be airbrushed out.

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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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