I’ve looked on with interest at how BBC news outlets have covered the extreme far right activities in London and Glasgow over the past week. I have been disappointed at the seeming equivalences being drawn by BBC Scotland’s output between ‘protests’ by right wing extremists and those protesting legally in support of the rights of refugees (‘No Evictions Glasgow’). I have been disappointed at the lack of contextualised assessment of the two groups in Glasgow.
One other notable feature in the difference in coverage of what happened in London and Glasgow is in the choice of the photographs of each used by BBC News online.
On the BBC News ‘Scotland’ section there is a short video clip which shows a scuffle involving s small number of ‘protestors’ and the police before it cuts to a scene showing the ‘No Evictions Glasgow’ march. But then there are five still photos used in the article: three show nothing but ranks of policemen and two have shots of those protesting in support of refugees. Anything missing?
The same online article makes reference to what can only be described as a peaceful, positive, inclusive ‘chant’ (‘refugees are welcome here’) from those on the ‘No Evictions Glasgow’ march. There was no mention by the BBC of any ‘chants’ from the others! Perhaps they were conducting a silent vigil?
The coverage of the extreme right wing activities in London published on the BBC News website on 14 June clearly had a picture editor with a very different view on what and how much it was important to show of the extreme right wing activity. Why the wholly different editorial approach?
On the role of the media
BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (18 June) was notable. In introducing a piece on extremism in the UK, Nick Robinson drew an equivalence between the right wing protests in London (whose behaviour the PM had termed “Racist thuggery ….”) and those in Glasgow (that the FM called “racist thugs”). Robinson went on to interview Sara Khan who was appointed by Home Secretary Teresa May in 2018 to lead the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE). In the interview Khan emphasised the rising profile and threat from the far right.
I’d never heard of Ms Khan and her ‘official’ position but whilst searching around I came across a speech she made in 2019 on the role of the media in challenging extremism. Given the interest within the TuSC in the media, the content of the speech is highly relevant. It also seems relevant in the context of concerns over how the BBC specifically in Scotland covers (or fails to cover) extremism on the far right and amongst fringe British Nationalist/‘Loyalist’ groups. This goes back at least as far as the BBC’s appalling coverage of the events of 19 September 2014 in George Square.
Below are my ‘take aways’ from Ms Kahn’s speech – there is a lot to ponder!
“A free and fearless press, determined to shine a light on extremism and the divisive tactics of extremists, is crucial.”
“A free, independent and vigilant media, acting as truthbearer in our society, is a vital defence against extremism.”
“I am of the firm view that there is an important role for the media in exposing the activities of extremists and their ideological beliefs, whether that is their hatred for Western democracy, human rights, equality principles or the rule of law.”
“… journalists have to unpick dubious claims such as championing freedom of speech, campaigning for human rights or in declaring they represent a particular community. … There are troubling consequences when this isn’t done.”
“And where you are describing an eco-system of individuals, groups and campaigns, it’s important to use pinpoint accuracy when it comes to describing and explaining the actors in the story. .. But above all, there are real risks of using sweeping statements when you’re zooming out to provide the bigger picture.”
“Words are a journalist’s precision tools. They should be used with precision, directed at the individual, or organisation in question, never a whole community.”
“When deciding to report on extremism, it comes back to the principles of quality journalism. Do what you do best. Investigate, challenge and refuse to take a message on face value.”
“I know something of the constraints in which you work – tight deadlines, a desire to give balance, a need to show you are not taking sides. But you need to ask: have I done my research into this person, or that organisation’s background? Have I challenged them robustly?”
“You must have thought carefully: do we understand who and what this person represents? What is their agenda? Is the way they are presenting themselves consistent with how they have acted in the past? Could any third parties be presenting a distorted version of who they are? Have I contextualised these views?”
“As tempting as it is, it must not be those who shout the loudest or who answer their phones first who are given platforms.”
“.. this is complex territory, so every word matters. As I say, words are your precision tools.”
“But when reporting on extremism, the principles of quality journalism matter hugely, rigorous in its analysis, scrupulous in its regard for facts.”
A final thought
If you have managed to reach the end – even read Ms Kahn’s full speech – perhaps you have formed a view. How well does BBC Scotland measure up?