Panorama, the Corbyn surge and the political establishment

This week’s Panorama documentary on Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised for shoddy reporting and overt political bias in favour of the political establishment. This is not an isolated incident. 

Tom Mills
9 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn caricature. Image:Flickr / DonkeyHotey

Along with the rise of the SNP and the radical independence movement in Scotland, the emergence of the mild mannered socialist MP Jeremy Corbyn as the clear favourite in the Labour leadership election is one of the most extraordinary British political stories of recent decades. There can be no doubt then that it is an appropriate topic for the BBC to report on, and in some detail.

Indeed, informing audiences about political issues is crucial to the BBC's public service remit. The way the Corporation's flagship investigative programme Panorama covered the story on Monday night, however, was, to put it mildly, disappointing. At best the programme was irresponsible and lazy tabloid-style journalism. At worst it was a dereliction of the BBC's duties as a public service broadcaster.

'Jeremy Corbyn: Labour's Earthquake', as the programme was called, was purportedly an account of how the left-wing MP has come 'to dominate the Labour leadership election race'. But insofar as the half an hour programme offered any insights on this central question, they were based largely on the views of the right-wing of the Labour Party, which seems as mystified by the turn of events as it is panicked. 

Interspersed with condescending 'vox pops' with Corbyn supporters were interviews with luminaries of the Labour right, who were free to offer their apparently authoritative analysis unchallenged by the programme's presenter, the veteran broadcaster and former Sun journalist, John Ware. Amongst the interviewees were the authoritarian populist, David Blunkett, and another Blairite former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke. The latter, an occasional lobbyist who lost his seat in the 2010 General Election, the programme noted, has described Corbyn's supporters as 'completely barking mad'. He offered some sobering reflections on the turmoil within the Labour Party during the 'darkest days of the 1980s'. 

The implication of history repeating itself was affirmed with footage of the Unite leader Len McCluskey, 'Britain's most powerful trade union leader', and warnings from Ware about the 'financial muscle' of the unions. Then there were the Labour MPs Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna – both, like Clarke, privately educated. They are key figures in the Shadow Cabinet, and have been organising 'moderates' in the Parliamentary Party in preparation for the expected Corbyn victory. Needless to say they are not favourable to the ascendant rebel MP, though Umunna unlike Hunt was not openly critical. The most sympathetic authoritative voice Panorama included in the programme, meanwhile, was the former Bennite MP Chris Mullin, who testified to Corbyn's saintly good character, and in particular his willingness to share his vegetarian sandwiches. Prompted by Ware, however, Mullin conceded that he did not think Corbyn was electable.

Corbyn himself was also interviewed. But his role in the programme, apart from being filmed going from here to there, and giving rather measured speeches, was limited to responding to accusations which have been levelled against him by his political opponents – more or less everyone with power and influence in politics and the media – which were dutifully put to him by John Ware.

Political smears

The 'guilt by association' approach adopted by Panorama once it had rubbished his economic policies via an interview with David Blunkett, will be quite familiar to those who have followed Corbyn's campaign, or to anyone who has been involved in peace activism. Exhibit A in 'Labour's Earthquake' was the Second Cairo Conference Against Capitalist Globalisation and US Hegemony. An international event held in December 2003 and hosted by Egyptian activists, the conference was attended by delegates from the UK's Stop the War Coalition, which Corbyn now chairs. The conference declaration, Panorama noted, called for 'resistance against the occupation forces with all legitimate means, including military struggle'. On this basis, Corbyn stood accused by the BBC of having condoned attacks on UK forces.

Even leaving aside the oddity of Corbyn being asked to condemn a statement made twelve years ago by an organisation in which he had no involvement, and of which there is no evidence he ever endorsed, this was a bizarre line of questioning. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was opposed by the majority of the UK public, was a prima facie violation of the UN Charter, and therefore a grave international crime. Armed resistance against an occupying force, by contrast, is a recognised right in international law, which permits those under belligerent occupation to resist, including by force. 

This, to paraphrase Tony Blair, was 'Alice in Wonderland' journalism. Corbyn was attacked over the deaths of 179 British soldiers in an illegal war and occupation which he doggedly opposed, and for which both Burnham and Cooper voted (his other rival, Liz Kendall, was only elected in 2010 but did vote for a 'no fly zone' in Libya in 2011 and airstrikes in Iraq last year). Similarly, Corbyn was attacked on the basis that he attended a rally where supporters of the Lebanese group, Hezbollah, were present. This, as far as Ware was concerned, was evidence that Corbyn could not possibly be in favour of peace. Never mind that Hezbollah, like Hamas which the programme also mentioned, was formed in response to Israeli occupation.

The Cairo Declaration was not even unearthed by the Panorama team. Rather it is a line of attack which appears to have originated with a 2010 post by an anonymous contributor to the attack blog Harry's Place, a website known for virulent attacks on Muslim and left-wing anti-war activists. Whilst not particularly well known, and certainly not a credible source of political analysis and commentary, Harry's Place has at times enjoyed a political reach beyond its zealous followers, and Panorama's 'Labour's Earthquake' would seem to be the latest example of this. That Ware borrowed from Harry's Place is not particularly surprising given that he is a contributor to the neoconservative Standpoint magazine.

Moreover, he has form when it comes to exposés of leftists and politically engaged Muslims. Back in 2005, for example (during the Conservative Party leadership election won by Cameron), Ware fronted an episode of Panorama entitled 'A Question of Leadership'. In that programme he accused the Muslims Council of Britain of 'extremist' connections, and suggested that new 'moderate' representatives of British Muslims should to be found. The programme, which was later subject to a thoughtful and persuasive critique by Julian Petley,[i] popularised a set of arguments developed in opposition to the anti-war movement (in which Corbyn has been a stalwart) – arguments which have since been further developed, and which have influenced the British state's draconian counter-extremism policy.  

Similarly, back in the 1980s, Ware presented a Panorama programme entitled 'Brent Schools – Hard Left Rules'. In it he claimed that left-wing extremists were undermining education in the London borough; part of a much broader attack on egalitarian political movements in the 1980s which was led by Britain's reactionary press.

Poor reporting

Even putting aside the spurious smears at the heart of 'Labour's Earthquake', the programme was a poor piece of political reporting which gave very little sense of why Labour Party supporters, old and new, are attracted to Corbyn's campaign, or why his competitors have failed to attract any such enthusiasm or momentum.

There were only hints of the real world beyond the mechanisms and machinations of party politics. Ware noted Corbyn's principled opposition to the Government's Welfare Bill – a highly regressive piece of legislation not opposed by any of the other candidates – and Andy Burnham was shown struggling to justify his stance on the Bill with appeals to party unity. The actual policies advocated by Corbyn – which by historical standards are not in the least bit radical – were hastily listed by Ware in one section of the programme. But there was no sense of their widespread popularity amongst the population as a whole, nor any consideration of why they seem to appeal in particular to the young and working class people attracted to Corbyn's campaign, but otherwise cynical about, and disconnected from, formal politics.

To some extent the General Election, with its surprise majority for the Conservatives, has obscured the long-term trends in British politics, which are vital to any adequate understanding of the Corbyn surge. There has been a convergence of the dominant parties around a shared policy agenda which overwhelmingly reflects the interests of corporations and the very wealthy. This elite consensus has been facing something of a crisis of legitimacy, and in recent years there have been notable successes for populist political movements like UKIP in England and the SNP in Scotland –  movements which define themselves in opposition to the politics of Westminster. It is hardly beyond the capacities of Panorama to examine these extraneous factors. 

But all this was lost in the programme, which seemed determined to portray the 'Corbyn earthquake' as an hysterical reaction to a traumatic General Election. At the beginning of the programme, Ware offered a bird's eye view of the Tory domination of southern England. 'One way of appreciating the sheer scale of Labour's election defeat last May,' he opined, 'is to take to skies.' With huge swathes of the country held by the Conservatives, the Labour Party's grass roots supporters, it was suggested, have collectively turned their backs on political reality, seeking refuge instead in the politics of fervour and fantasy. 'Corbyn mania' and 'visceral left-wing passions', Ware said, had gripped the party, and the meetings attended by 'Labour's most famous rebel' had all the 'fervour of a revivalist rally'. The political realities, sternly explained by Charles Clarke, Ware noted, don't 'seem to bother the growing army of believers'. 

'That may make you feel better,' Ware said, responding to a comedian supporter of Corbyn. 'So it's a feeling,' he asked another supporter shortly after a Corbyn meeting, 'not policy?' 'Policy is a massive part,' she retorted. 'Do you go to rock concerts?', he asked another supporter at the rally, 'Does it feel a bit like that?' All these apparently irrational supporters Ware interviewed were female and, as political supporters go, young. Another of them described Corbyn as the 'candidate of hope'. 'Hope rather than reality?', Ware responded.

Behind the screen: the BBC and the Establishment 

How could an organisation committed to political impartiality and to educating and informing its audience have produced such an unbalanced, ill-informed programme at such a sensitive time?  Needless to say, a public service broadcaster should scrutinise politicians and other powerful figures and movements, and it is important to bear in mind that the BBC has never sought to maintain political balance within individual programmes. Is 'Labour's Earthquake' therefore defensible on these grounds?

In my opinion it is hard to see how dedicating a whole programme to just one candidate in an ongoing election contest without any equivalent scrutiny of that candidate's rivals can be justified. No doubt the defence would be that Corbyn is set to win the election, and is therefore deserving of more scrutiny. But in that case how can the decision to run the programme prior to his expected victory be justified, unless it is to be defended as a political intervention?

The factors which led to the production of 'Labour's Earthquake' are at this stage largely a matter of speculation. But thanks to social media some revealing pieces of information have already emerged. The left-wing author and columnist Owen Jones, one of the only mainstream journalists to openly support the Corbyn campaign, tweeted that he had been 'told by someone extremely close to the programme they were planning a hatchet job', whilst Dianne Abbot MP revealed that she had given a long interview to Panorama, none of which was used, she assumes because her views did not fit the programme makers' 'pr-conceived narrative'. 

One thing we can be pretty certain of is that this programme was approved at a very senior level in the Corporation. It is one of the longest standing BBC conventions that programmes on MPs must be 'referred up' the hierarchy, and centralised editorial controls were expanded in the wake of Thatcherism and the Hutton Inquiry.

Indeed, it is notable that a number of previous episodes of Panorama have been censored by the BBC for being too politically controversial or 'sensitive'. John Ware himself made a programme revealing that Britain had armed Saddam Hussein at the time of the First Gulf War, which was blocked by the then Director-General John Birt. And in 1981 the then Director-General Ian Trethowan censored a programme about the intelligence agencies after consulting with the heads of MI5 and MI6. Perhaps most relevant for our purposes is a Panorama programme entitled ‘Sliding into Slump’, which was cancelled in the run up to the 1992 General Election because of its critical analysis of the Conservative Government's economic policies.

The broadcasting of 'Labour's Earthquake', then, is no accident. Rather it should be understood as part of a broader pattern in which the BBC's political output has overwhelmingly reflected the interests of a political Establishment in which it is deeply embedded, the members of which, left and right, feel profoundly threatened by popular political mobilisations like the 'earthquake' now shaking Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition.

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[i] Julian Petley, 'A Question of Leadership: Who Speaks for British Muslims', In Pointing the Finger: Islam and Muslims in the British Media, edited by Julian Petley and Robin Richardson, 100-151. Oxford: Oneworld, 2011.

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