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Governance of the BBC

Volume 618: debated on Thursday 8 December 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Heather Wheeler.)

On 7 October, The Sun released a video of the gymnast Louis Smith and friends having fun at the expense of Islamic prayer practices. This unleashed a torrent of venom in the media and beyond, with Louis Smith being widely denounced as Islamophobic. The sensationalist reporting of his actions in some sections of the media resulted in the gymnast’s receiving multiple death threats.

The BBC has a rich heritage of aiming both excoriating and gentle humour in the direction of Christianity over the past 40 years. We have had Dave Allen, Monty Python and the Vicar of Dibley, and I particularly remember “Not the Nine O’Clock News”, in the early 1980s, taking the Church of England to task for its views on homosexuality. So, given its proud tradition of tackling religious sensibilities, one could be forgiven for thinking that the BBC would inject some common sense and balance into the reporting of Louis Smith’s actions. Not a bit of it: instead of trying to insert itself between Louis Smith and the mob, the corporation placed itself firmly at the head of the mob.

On 13 October, during a radio interview on Radio 5 live, the BBC talk show host Emma Barnett irresponsibly painted Louis Smith as both Islamophobic and a racist, defining “phobic” as

“sort of hateful or it can mean mimicking or it can be taking the mickey”.

She went on to describe Louis Smith’s actions as “very, very offensive” and “shameful”.

Ms Barnett is clearly as unfamiliar with the Oxford English Dictionary as she is with the BBC’s output of the past 40 years. In condemning Louis Smith as “phobic” for taking the “mickey” out of faith, she has placed a question mark over the motives and legacy of some of the UK’s greatest deceased and living comedians. Now, I recognise that Louis Smith is never going to be the world’s greatest comedian, but we—and the BBC—should be blind to that fact, because the law applies as much to gymnasts as it does to joke-tellers.

More worrying than Ms Barnett’s ignorance over the law and her employer’s heritage was her failure to condemn the multiple death threats that Louis Smith had received. Having put the question and received the answer, at no point did she intervene to say that those death threats were wrong and entirely unjustifiable. She had eight immediate opportunities to do that, and a further 23 throughout the remainder of the interview. None of those opportunities was taken.

Having heard the interview, I took the view that the BBC had been unbalanced in its approach to Louis Smith, with the inquisitorial tone of the interview heightening the already significant threat to his wellbeing and safety. I was also concerned that the BBC was once again promoting the narrative that all British Muslims are thin-skinned and easily offended. I raised my concerns in writing with the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and Rona Fairhead, the chairman of the BBC Trust.

The response that I received from those three figures of authority was disappointing. The Secretaries of State delegated their reply to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Digital and Culture, who will be responding to this debate. In an anodyne letter sent to me on 18 November, he said that

“responsibility for what is broadcast rests with the broadcasters and organisations which regulate broadcasting.”

That is, of course, absolutely correct, but what was evident in his letter was a complete unwillingness on the Government’s part even to engage with the subject of my concerns, which, at their core, centred on the hounding of a young man for exercising a form of speech that was entirely protected in law by section 29J of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. Perhaps the Government felt that in view of the sensitivities surrounding the subject area, it was all too difficult publicly to champion the principles of UK law. Instead they breezily stated that:

“It is a long-standing principle that the Government do not interfere in programme matters, either on arrangements for scheduling or on content. It is important to maintain the principle of freedom of expression which political interference could undermine.”

Like the Minister, I am very pro-freedom of expression, but he seems blind to my concern that the BBC, while benefiting from our country’s wonderful protections and traditions, seeks to belittle and denigrate others, such as Louis Smith, for the temerity to expect that the same rights and courtesies should extend to them.

Having taken up my concerns with the BBC, I received a letter from its director-general, Tony Hall, with an attached note of investigation prepared by Rozina Breen, head of news at Radio 5 live. The response is both tone deaf and rather chilling. In relation to my concern about the failure of Emma Barnett, the interviewing journalist, to condemn those issuing Louis Smith with death threats, I was told:

“Death threats are widely understood to be unacceptable in our society and we don’t believe it was therefore necessary for Emma Barnett to condemn the reported death threats, on air as you suggest.”

That is a simply stunning response. Yes, death threats are widely known to be a bad thing, but clearly in the case of Louis Smith this message had yet to penetrate into the consciousness of those calling for him to be killed. Perhaps, therefore, having painted him as Islamophobic, the BBC may have felt some obligation to strike a note of cautionary balance in Louis Smith’s favour. It obviously felt otherwise.

Even more grotesquely, in response to my concerns that the interview had further endangered Louis Smith’s life, Ms Breen of the BBC stated that:

“I can’t accept that this interview endangered Mr Smith’s well-being. If anything, by allowing him an opportunity to make his apologies to a very large audience, the interview might have served to demonstrate the sincerity of his apologies and appease people who might be angry with him.”

That is a breath-taking statement. Setting aside the fact that Louis Smith had nothing to apologise for, I want to focus on the BBC’s belief that its interview allowed Louis Smith the opportunity to

“appease people who might be angry with him.”

I am sorry, but this looks a lot like the BBC congratulating itself on allowing Louis Smith the opportunity to beg for his life. I hope I am wrong in this analysis but, whatever the denials offered up by the BBC, I fear that I am right.

The BBC is a public service broadcaster funded by a public use tax. It has a duty to be balanced and measured in its reporting and news output. In the case of Louis Smith, it was not. The real story that the BBC missed, or chose not to report, was the hounding of a man simply for finding humour in religion.

In this whole sorry affair the only person who is deserving of an apology is Louis Smith himself. He is owed an apology from the Muslim Council of Britain for its ridiculous overplaying of Muslim sensitivities towards their faith, for having toured the radio and television studios to be publicly humiliated and smeared, and for having missed his Olympic homecoming parade to visit mosques. The Muslim Council of Britain said that the apology issued by Louis Smith

“falls well short of addressing the hurt caused against Muslims”.

What uncharitable nonsense from an organisation that strives to be taken seriously.

Having helped ensure the humiliation of Louis Smith and his banning from his sport, Harun Khan, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, tweeted:

“Louis Smith already regretted his action and all good now. No one asked for a ban. Let’s work towards developing great sportspeople.”

This faux act of magnanimity would have been genuine and carried real weight if stated on day one of the story, and not, as was the case, after the humiliation was complete.

In relation to his ban, Louis Smith is owed an apology from British Gymnastics for its cowardly decision to suspend him for a period of two months—a decision that aligns this organisation firmly with the bullies and the name-callers.

Turning to our public service broadcaster once again, Louis Smith is owed an apology by the BBC and Emma Barnett for the callous and cruel treatment they subjected him to, providing a bear pit environment where he was ruthlessly painted as Islamophobic. The BBC’s conduct in this matter was both wicked and irresponsible. It might also like to reflect on its wider conduct in the way that it represents the Muslim community. It always seems to favour the loud and angry voices of the fringe over those with a self-confident, relaxed and gentle tone.

Finally, Louis Smith is owed an apology by the Government. In his hours, days and weeks of need, Ministers were nowhere to be seen. Even if the Government find the idea of British values too nebulous a concept to get their head around, they could at the very least have pointed out that Louis Smith’s actions were entirely protected and catered for in UK law. As I have said, the law in relation to the ridicule of faith is here for all of us, not just for comedians. I warn the Minister that many will construe the Government’s silence in the matter of Louis Smith as one which heralds, de facto, the reintroduction of an unwritten blasphemy law, enforced by threat and thuggery.

Sadly, I suspect that there is more chance of The Sun newspaper reflecting on its actions and admitting that it could have handled things better than the hubristic BBC doing so. The hounding of Louis Smith has shamed our public service broadcaster, as it has shamed our nation and its laws. In our liberal and open society, freedom of worship marches hand in hand with the freedom to lampoon religion. Quite simply, that is the deal.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) for securing the debate, and for his dogged pursuit of justice and reasonableness on behalf of his constituent. The case he has raised has at its heart the question of how best to protect free speech and how our national institutions support both free speech and tolerance of others. He has put his case characteristically eloquently and powerfully.

The Government’s view is that the treatment that Mr Smith received on social media and elsewhere was wholly and deeply unacceptable. I am very sorry that Mr Smith received death threats and threats of violence, which are not only unacceptable but potentially illegal, whether made online or offline. We have seen cases, including several involving Members of Parliament, of online threats that were potentially illegal. In some cases, they have been found to be illegal, and those findings are based on existing law, in which it is immaterial whether a threat is made online or offline. Threats of violence are just as illegal online as they are offline.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said last month at Prime Minister’s questions:

“We value freedom of expression and freedom of speech in this country—that is absolutely essential in underpinning our democracy—but we also value tolerance of others and tolerance in relation to religions.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2016; Vol. 616, c. 888.]

It is a historic principle that people should have that freedom of expression, and it is of course right that with that freedom comes the responsibility to recognise the importance of tolerance towards others. We should all acknowledge and welcome the fact that Mr Smith has apologised for any offence caused, as my hon. Friend said.

Freedom of expression operates within a framework. The freedom to offend, whether wise or not, is a vital part of freedom of expression, but the freedom to threaten violence is not.

That brings me to role of the BBC. It is an important part of our constitutional settlement that the Government do not comment on the way the BBC, or indeed any other news outlet, reports individual stories, for the very good reason that it is operationally and editorially independent—so I am going to resist the temptation to do that now, just as I did in my earlier correspondence with my hon. Friend. I will say, however, that the right to freedom of speech—and with it the right to mock and poke fun—is something that the BBC itself holds very dear in its own content, as many Members of the House know only too well. Indeed, the mocking of our institutions, our politicians and our religions is a very BBC thing. There was “That Was the Week That Was” and “Spitting Image”. My hon. Friend mentioned “The Vicar of Dibley” and I mention it, too. The BBC even named a brilliant show after mocking whole weeks. Our love of mockery is very British, and long may it be so. The right to mock is of course balanced by a responsibility to be reasonable and restrained, but it is a right that we should uphold.

The process of the BBC charter review, which formally concluded this week, addressed the question of how the BBC should respond to concerns and complaints. The current model, based on the BBC Trust, is widely agreed not to work, so we have sought to improve and streamline how the BBC deals with complaints to ensure that it is clearly answerable to the people who pay for it, should they think that the BBC has failed in its duty of due accuracy and impartiality. The new charter will introduce two changes: a simpler overall complaints system; and external regulatory oversight of complaints made on editorial matters. In the first instance, the BBC will handle complaints about editorial things, and it is right that the broadcaster should deal with complaints about its own conduct to start with. The new charter will therefore give the BBC’s new unitary board responsibility for how the BBC deals with complaints before any appeals are made to Ofcom. The new board will be chaired by a non-executive director and will comprise a majority of non-executive members, ensuring that the BBC is properly held to account for the way it deals with complaints.

As a whole, the changes that the Government have made to the BBC’s governance will mean that the BBC is better governed and more accountable to the people who pay for it. In designing the new governance structure, we wanted to be clear that the day-to-day editorial decision making must rest with the director-general as the editor-in-chief, but the director-general will also be directly accountable to the new BBC board. That strikes the right balance between the director-general as the editor-in-chief and the new board, which sets the editorial standards and guidelines.

In cases where a complainant is unsatisfied with the BBC’s response, or where the BBC fails to respond in a timely manner, the complainant will for the first time then be able to complain to Ofcom. Ofcom may, in exceptional circumstances, intervene at an earlier stage to handle and resolve a relevant complaint that has not been resolved by the BBC. Ofcom will be able to consider relevant complaints about all BBC content. While I acknowledge that my hon. Friend is not at all happy with how the BBC dealt with this case, Ofcom is well placed to take on this new regulatory role.

Beyond the specifics of individual editorial decisions or cases, there is of course an important wider point to reflect on: how broadcasters deliver their news content with due impartiality. Ofcom is currently consulting on its proposed approach for regulating BBC editorial content. This is the first in a series of consultations that Ofcom is publishing as it prepares for its new BBC duties.

I am of the view that the role that our public service broadcasters, and other responsible news providers, take in presenting the news with due accuracy and due impartiality is increasingly important. We have a broad and fragmented news environment, including print, broadcast, classic websites and social media. The way in which news is generated and shared has changed enormously over the past decade. My hon. Friend’s example is a case in point, owing to the interaction between social media and mainstream media. The emergence of the citizen journalist who, at best, can truly democratise news provision and reflect unfolding events in real time is an important development.

The plethora of news sites now available allows curious and interested consumers a wealth of sources to interrogate but, as we are all aware, this is not a wholly positive picture. For each site that takes a responsible attitude toward news provision, others do not. Added to that, the use of social media as a main source through which news is consumed is increasing, particularly so for young adults, meaning that context may be lost and that consumers may be less clear about the source of news they are reading. The ability of social media users to share news content along with their comments on that content—both positive and negative—becomes an integral part of the way that news is consumed.

All of that makes the role of our broadcasters in providing trusted, reasonable and impartial news all the more important. It is right, as this debate suggests, that we look to the BBC—and to other broadcast news outlets—to uphold the highest standards in its coverage. We must ensure broadcasters have the confidence to broadcast fairly, impartially and accurately, based on values of free speech and tolerance that we hold dear.

I hope that in responding in this way, in changing the way the BBC is regulated and in underlining in this House the importance of freedom of speech and the value that we attach to that freedom not only to speak, but to mock and, in some cases, to offend, we are demonstrating that the age-old principle of freedom of speech is alive and well. We must continue to do the work of upholding it.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.