The BBC, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to usher in a new era of politics and current affairs coverage by giving a weekly evening show to its latest young and fresh-faced presenter … but no, it hasn’t. Lord Hall-Hall and his minions have, instead, given a weekly evening slot to one Andrew Ferguson Neil, who is known to all across the political spectrum, and especially well-connected, but who recently celebrated his 70th birthday.
Now, those who look in regularly on Zelo Street, and some others, will point out that the person typing this post is also not in the young and fresh-faced category; true, but that is not the point. The point is that, given the opportunity to put new talent before the viewers, the Corporation has fallen back on someone who, yes, has a significant track record, but who, whisper it quietly, has significant baggage as well.
Moreover, Neil’s judgment appears increasingly error-prone and partisan, neither of which is the kind of attribute the BBC should be embracing in the current political climate. But let’s start at the very beginning, as it’s a very good place to start.
Yes, this is his new boss ...
Neil made his name as editor of the Murdoch Sunday Times. He counts his greatest achievement while in the editor’s chair the revelation of Israel’s nuclear capability. What he does not tell is that the ST’s source, Mordechai Vanunu, was effectively lost by his ST handlers, lured to Rome, lifted by the Mossad, taken to Israel and jailed. Vanunu has since been released from prison, but is unable to leave the country - or talk about his plight.
Also in Neil’s Sunday Times baggage inventory is the paper’s wilful attempt to disprove the evidence gathered by Thames Television for Death on the Rock, the documentary on the killing in Gibraltar of three unarmed IRA members by soldiers of the SAS. The ST was one of several papers that libelled Thames’ key eyewitness Carmen Proetta.
... but don't forget his old boss
Then there is the paper’s bizarre attachment to the idea that HIV was not a cause of AIDS. It was. The ST talked of a “politically correct virus” [?] and asserted that AIDS could not spread to heterosexuals. It could. But, it seems, all of this has been no barrier to Neil’s later career as a broadcaster and pundit. Nor have his later eccentricities.
Those eccentricities include flirting with climate change denialism, to the extent of using the BBC to push his own views. A Sunday Politics article which was produced in response to an interview he did with Ed Davey, and which was perceived as attempting to rubbish mainstream climate science, dismissed one of those in the scientific mainstream, and in his place promoted three climate sceptics. And there was more.
And don't forget those to whom he won't say sorry
Neil also cited one sceptic who was a signatory to the Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming, which holds, more or less, that it’s not happening, but that, if it really is happening, then the signatories’ chosen deity will be along to sort it all out. Hopefully.
That is bad, but then we come to Neil’s role as head of Press Holdings, which means he is the ultimate boss of the increasingly alt-right Spectator magazine. The Speccy not only publishes climate change denialists, it regularly features bigots such as Rod Liddle, Doug Murray The K, and of course anti-Semite and general purpose racist Taki Theodoracopulos. Editor Fraser Nelson is well-known for his routine dishonestly.
And if that is not of sufficient concern to Lord Hall-Hall and his minions, there is Neil’s recent response to the less than totally legal conduct of groups campaigning for the UK to leave the EU. Vote Leave and Leave EU both broke the law. Yet Neil has reserved his fire for those exposing the lawbreaking, not the lawbreakers.
So when Kamal Ahmed enthusiastically told his followers about Neil’s new show, explaining “Analysis, forensic interviews with the key players - peeps, this stuff matters”, he was immediately brought down to earth by the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr.
“You know what also matters? That he dismissed [Shahmir Sanni]’s evidence, called [Chris Wylie] a fantasist, raised £ for Arron banks, labelled me a ‘mad cat woman’ & just this week promoted his pal's Robbie Gibbs' bollocks about [Channel 4 News]. That matters too”. Dead right it does. Neil, uniquely for those within the BBC fold, was not leaned upon to the extent that he apologised to Ms Cadwalladr for his sneering smear.
Neil is also an enthusiastic proponent of war, providing this is undertaken a long way away from where he broadcasts, or indeed where he has his mainland European residence. So he was in favour of going to war in Afghanistan, and indeed in favour of the 2003 Iraq adventure. He was, at the time, a great supporter of Margaret Thatcher, too.
That, BBC people, is the variety of baggage that Andrew Neil brings to the table. His ability to take apart politicians across the political spectrum is as nothing when he gets badly flustered when his role at the Spectator is forcefully put before him - as Owen Jones did recently on the now thankfully retired This Week show.
When the only ones applauding Neil’s new show are others at the BBC, and those out there on the right, the alarm bells should be ringing. I’ll just leave that one there.
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