Our national broadcaster is not having a happy time of it right now: after questions over its coverage of the Cambridge Analytica affair, and continuing disquiet about some of its presenters and especially commentators, the BBC is now embroiled in a deepening row over its decision to broadcast in full the speech that got Enoch Powell sacked from the Tory front bench half a century ago.
Powell’s chosen subject was immigration; his tone was incendiary. He pretended that he was quoting the words of a constituent, but the identity of that person was never established. Nor did any journalist ever find the elderly woman referenced in the letter he quoted in his speech, whose life had allegedly been made a misery by her being the only resident of her West Midlands street who was not an immigrant.
“In this country in 15 or 20 years' time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”, and “Whole areas, towns and parts of towns across England will be occupied by sections of the immigrant and immigrant-descended population” were followed by the remedy: “stopping, or virtually stopping, further inflow, and by promoting the maximum outflow. Both answers are part of the official policy of the Conservative Party”.
There was more. “It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre … The discrimination and the deprivation, the sense of alarm and of resentment, lies not with the immigrant population but with those among whom they have come and are still coming”. And Powell’s conclusion is universally known: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’”
Sailor Heath sacked Powell from his shadow team the following day; one member of that team who demurred was Margaret Thatcher. It was a horrendously crude and bigoted outburst, especially for someone so well-read and well-travelled as Powell.
But now we have the Beeb’s media editor Amol Rajan happily telling “On Saturday, for 1st time EVER, Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech will be read in full on UK radio (by actor Ian McDiarmid). Please join us @BBCRadio4 8pm. Super-brains Nathan Gower + David Prest have done an amazing production job. Great guests too”.
This enthusiasm was not shared by many outside New Broadcasting House. The text of Powell’s speech has been there online for anyone to read for some years now. We are told that this reading will be broken up by critiquing of his claims, but that reading will still be completed, including all the probably invented claims within it.
Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff concluded that “Why the BBC would think to do this at a time when far-right nationalism and casual racism is on the rise in Europe and the UK is baffling”. Even the Murdoch Sun has leapt on the criticism bandwagon, although this is routine hypocrisy from a newspaper which still practices flagrant racism itself.
The problem that the BBC faces here, and which some in the Corporation may be unaware, is that the far-right will feed on this as if it were some seal of approval. So while Powell knew exactly what he was doing, and what would result, those at the Beeb may not. Well, they are getting the message loud and clear today. Think again, Auntie.