This blog prefers to give the BBC, and indeed all mainstream broadcasters, the benefit of the doubt, even when claims of prejudice and bias are swirling around. Most of the time, the Corporation does its best to steer a path free of partiality, and succeeds in its efforts. But one part of its reporting on the fallout from the Salisbury poisoning has given cause for concern. And I have to tell the Beeb that the concern is justified.
While the Government, cheered to the rafters by the right-leaning part of our free and fearless press, has wasted no time in pointing the finger for Sergei and Yulia Skripal’s poisoning with a nerve agent from the Novichok family straight at the Government in Moscow, and in the wayward world of former very occasional London Mayor Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, straight at its head, Jeremy Corbyn had urged caution.
The Labour leader has pointed out that Novichok nerve agent may have fallen into the hands of one or more of the mafia organisations that have sprung up since the collapse of the former Soviet Union; it has already been admitted by the Government that Novichoks can be manufactured in more or less any suitably equipped laboratory.
For this caution, Corbyn was instantly vilified by the right-wing press, the Mail and Sun asserting that he was in hock to Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin. Terms such as “puppet”, “stooge”, and “appeaser” were deployed in support of these claims. The BBC should have been aware of the sensitivity of the subject when Newsnight came to cover it.
So the dismay expressed by many, and not just on the left, at the deliberate linking of Corbyn and Moscow, was entirely understandable. There was presenter Emily Maitlis, in a studio whose backdrop was, as Billy Connolly once put it, loaded. A supposed vista of Moscow sights, with Corbyn front and centre, with even his usual headgear changed to make him look just that little bit more Russian.
Coming hot on the heels of that morning’s papers and their incendiary headlines - the Sun’s “PUTIN’S PUPPET” and the Mail’s “CORBYN, THE KREMLIN STOOGE” at the forefront - there can be only one message being conveyed here, and it is that of Jezza siding with not just a foreign power, but the gangsterist Putin régime.
What did not help the Corporation was when the following night’s show, still with the faux-Moscow backdrop, had Evan Davis countering Owen Jones’ arguments in support of the Labour leadership by saying “but the public support Theresa May by two to one”. We should now decide foreign policy stances on instant poll ratings and take our cues from organisations just as adept at mafia-style behaviour as that in Moscow.
The BBC cannot always get it right; that is understood and some slack should be cut it on those occasions. But that Newsnight backdrop was not an accident. It was a deliberate linking of Jeremy Corbyn and the Government in Moscow.
Newsnight got that call seriously wrong. And that’s not good enough.