‘As a journalist, it’s my responsibility to give people information that is relevant to their lives,’ declared Robert Peston, ITV News political editor and presenter, on BBC Radio 4 on Friday. His sense of duty doesn’t seem to be shared by everyone in his profession. The previous day BBC radio reporter Lucy Ash presented The French East End without revealing who exactly she was talking about until we were almost halfway through.
As a young, easily distracted tabloid journalist I once put through a celebrity interview forgetting to name the person I had just interrogated, but that was sheer carelessness. I couldn’t help feeling that Ms Ash really didn’t want to tell us what and whom she was discussing. It was one of those unmentionable topics which the listeners or viewers must now work out for themselves, in this case on radio without the help of pictures, but with subtle BBC codes.
‘We are all getting married, having kids, buying houses,’ said a cheerful French voice at the beginning of the feature. ‘We are émigrés but England is home.’
His charming Gallic tones created the image of successful Parisians moving to London and buying expensive houses. ‘We thought, let us teach [them] savoir vivre,’ he said, ‘let us teach you food, but now this is our home it is not so good to be arrogant so we have a lower profile.’
All very nice. He sounded like the kind of neighbour anyone would like to have, and that is quite likely; something like 400,000 French citizens now live in London, making it the sixth-biggest French city. There are more French citizens in the capital than in Nantes, Strasbourg or Bordeaux. So many that since 2011 our biggest city has been officially part of ‘Europe North,’ an area including Scandinavia, which sends its own MP to the French Assembly.
‘What makes them come here?’ asked Lucy Ash. ‘Are they looking for Liberty, Fraternity and Egality?’
She answered her own question by saying most of them came because they are sick of ‘rigid social codes’ in France, and a ‘lack of spontaneity’.
Moving from your homeland is quite a drastic way to escape a lack of spontaneity; they could perhaps have gone to Spain or Italy where it often seems there is more spontaneity than here. Ms Ash didn’t give enough detail to make those reasons convincing, and we were well into the programme before I noticed that none of the people she interviewed had French names.
Her guides through ‘Europe North’ were a young man called Hamid and a girl called Malika. Listeners would have picked up from this belated intro that they were Muslim, probably from the Maghreb, not France at all. But nothing was said about it. For Ash of the BBC, and for the audience they hoped was listening, these immigrants were just French, fully sharing their nation’s history of migration to the UK.
‘Melika is following in the footsteps of her compatriots centuries ago,’ Ash told us. Meaning the Huguenots, about 50,000 Protestant French weavers who decamped to Spitalfields from 1685 to escape Catholic monarchical despotism, an episode always cited by the Left as an example of continuous and successful migration into the UK.
‘The Huguenots came to the UK to escape prejudice at home,’ said Ash. We didn’t know until she made this oblique point that Hamid and Melika had come here for any reason of that kind. She went off determined to answer her own question, ‘So are there any modern-day parallels?’
She visited the Dennis Severs’ House museum to hear the story of one Protestant silk merchant who lived there in the 1680s, and the owner of a nearby wine bar with a lunch menu inspired by the ‘hardworking Huguenots’.
By this point we knew, without her saying it, that the French she referred to were French Muslims, probably from North Africa. Her subtext hinted that the issue of the Huguenots was racism, although the French King’s objection to them was religious, and we didn’t find out about any exact parallels except that Melika or Hamid were French and happy in London.
The message seemed to be: they are all refugees and once in London they’ll be a huge success. For Ash and the BBC all migrants, whether 17th or 21st century, are exactly alike, sharing the same noble aims and making the same impact on the society around them. She did admit, joyfully, that these French émigrés are ‘changing London’s schools’.
We heard her visit the East London borough of Newham, one of the country’s poorest areas, where 147 languages are spoken. She had an interview at NewVic, London’s biggest sixth-form college. Its students are mainly non-white from France’s former colonies such as Reunion, Guadeloupe and Algeria. This time we were told they’d ‘crossed the Channel partly because they hope learning English will improve their chances of getting a job and because of perceived racial prejudices in the French system’. For ‘racial prejudices’ read: the French do not allow girls to wear the hijab in school but in London they can.
The college is far removed from the French Lycée in Kensington, and Ash delighted in that. Anything to do with diversity was good, although for a moment she revealed her own possible elitism when she seemed taken aback to discover that NewVic teachers, imported from France, were teaching philosophy. Her surprise suggested it was not something she expected to find in a state school.
We had to wait until we were more than halfway through the programme for the word ‘Morocco’ and the true ethnic origin of her interviewees to be mentioned. It seemed many of them came from the notorious and desolate banlieue estates north of Paris. That was the real subject of her programme, yet she or someone at the BBC just could not admit it. Instead we were given persiflage about French social structures, Anglo-Saxon lack of formality and the Huguenots.
As a young journalist I was told in no uncertain terms to put my subject into the intro as brightly as possible, then repeat it in the copy below. Tell people your theme; do not beat around the bush. Nowadays training manuals need to add for the benefit of trainees at the BBC: do not prevaricate, do not dissemble.
But beneath all the contortions, distortions and double-speak from the BBC there perhaps lies a deep confusion. Journalists working there must wrestle with the question of why so many foreigners want to come to the UK, a place which is so racist and despicable. ‘To me Britain is tainted by racism and strangled by regulations,’ Ash told us. ‘But these young French people see it differently.’
They certainly do and they’ve been moving here in droves to prove it. A young French African émigré spelled out his world view: ‘Here it’s about the job, not the contract. In France it’s about the contract.’
The upper echelons of the French state may be closed to the children of the banlieues, but in France workers in low-skilled jobs are still protected by a minimum wage and it’s hard to sack them. Here, as the migrant pointed out, ‘It’s more like America.’ In London, boys from the banlieues ‘benefit’ from being able to get jobs with long hours and low wages , from 24-hour shifts in care homes to stacking shelves in supermarkets without a long-term contract. They neither expect nor receive paid holidays or sick pay. Sadly for Ash and the BBC, they do not seem to be interested in the kind of socialism she and President Macron favour. They want cash and the freedom to spend it how they wish.
Some of that freedom was in the programme. Ash relished finding herself in a Congolese bar on a council estate in Peckham where she gleefully told listeners they regularly hold noisy parties lasting from 8pm until 6am the next day. Apparently similar bars on other estates carry on until lunchtime. A woman from Cameroon described how she goes there to ‘get hammered’. There were also illegal migrants there, but to Ash the place was another marvellous sign of diversity. Of course neither she nor her colleagues will ever have to live within six miles of it, or cross the river to visit there again.
Despite her obfuscations I gained a clear picture, not of elegant French people coming to London to prosper, or latter-day Huguenots setting up in business, but of an underclass of Africans, many here illegally, prepared to work for pitiful wages with no security, in a city where there is no pressure to integrate.
Rather than being an optimistic piece about a Europe without borders, it took me back to the 19th century with London as a hub of ingenuity, laissez faire and greed, where everyone is free to succeed or throw themselves into the river if they fail. Poor old France, meanwhile, is left behind with its pride and high standards in a quasi-socialist past.
Lucy Ash also gave me an impression of herself as a well-meaning member of the white elite, more in touch with France and its restrictions than with London and its increasing squalor. Despite all her Left-wing beliefs, she is now having to side with advanced capitalism, the great driving engine of migration.
We live in bewildering times, and abandoning the journalist’s duty to report honestly and directly makes our world even more bitter and confusing.