After the débâcle that was last Thursday’s edition of BBC Question Time, the initial reaction of those at the Corporation was, sadly yet predictably, to sniffily dismiss criticism and suggest that they were right anyway. It wasn’t going to hold the line, and it didn’t: now has come the first retreat as reality has forced an admission someone fouled up.
As Zelo Street has already pointed out, there were two serious mis-steps on the part of new host Fiona Bruce - endorsing the flagrantly untrue claim by mercenary hack Isabel Oakeshott that Labour was “way behind” in the polls, and suggesting both sides in the EU referendum campaign cheated. That was in addition to the disgraceful treatment of Diane Abbott - and not telling the audience that Ms Oakeshott is a paid lobbyist.
There is, therefore, a lengthy charge sheet awaiting the faithful PR servants of Director General Lord Hall-Hall. And the good news is that those servants have addressed part of it, telling “We've reviewed what was said re polling on @bbcquestiontime. A YouGov poll published on the day of the programme suggested a lead for the Conservatives. Diane Abbott was also right that some other polls suggested Labour either as ahead or tied, & we should have made that clear”. Not an apology, but we’re getting there.
The claim made by Ms Oakeshott, and backed up by Ms Bruce, was that Labour was behind in “The Polls” plural. This claim, as with so much else emanating from Isabel Oakeshott, was not true. One Tweeter was unimpressed. “It's not good enough to just tweet this. The lie was told on national TV therefore the correction (and imo apology) needs to be made at the start of next week's programme”.
Dead right it does, along with correcting the referendum campaign claim, giving full disclosure of Ms Oakeshott’s background, and that full apology to Ms Abbott. And there were others taking issue with the mealy-mouthed climbdown.
Owen Jones was one of them. “This isn’t good enough. Diane Abbott, the most abused politician in Britain, was heckled and ridiculed for stating a fact (the polling average shows Labour actually slightly ahead), and the presenter even said Labour was ‘definitely’ behind. Why not just say sorry?” For the BBC, sorry seems to be the hardest word.
Aaron Bastani was also unmoved by the Beeb PR team’s admission. “Translation: When Labour are behind in the polls we'll say they are behind, when they are even we'll say they are behind, when they are ahead we'll say they are behind”.
The Corporation needs to address this directly: it may look a minor detail, but if the rumours that Ms Abbott was improperly lampooned by Ms Bruce and others on the Question Time staff before the broadcast are reinforced by further audience testimony - or even backed up by video footage - the BBC needs to be on the front foot. Retreating only when forced to do so will only make matters worse.
But at least a little honesty has arrived on the scene. That is more than the Beeb usually manages - as one observer put it, “First time I’ve seen the BBC conceding in such a manner - showing how tense the political situation is”. Also, the criticism won’t stop.
This time, the Corporation is bang to right. The only way out is to say sorry.
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