Do you recall when Boris Yeltsin had his tank top moment back in the hot summer of 1991? I don’t mean he was caught wearing a tank-top, though I wouldn’t have put that past him, I mean he actually stood on top of a tank. He did this to face down a coup led by generals, who were hardline communists.
The reason I mention it is that when the BBC reported these events, it didn’t describe the hardline communists as hardline communists. It called them “hardline conservatives”. See what they did there? Quite an Orwellian insinuation, wasn’t it? As a character in 1984 says: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”
But that was back in the good old days when you knew where you stood with the BBC. They had a Left-wing bias and they made no apology for it. Now they have become almost pathological in their desire to avoid making any value judgments whatsoever. As James Clappison MP asked on Wednesday: “It makes you wonder what you have to do for the BBC to call you an extremist.”
Apparently, Abu Qatada, Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe, didn’t do enough, because all he did was incite the mass murder of British civilians in the name of jihad. This, according to new BBC guidelines, makes him a “radical, not an “extremist”. He joins other “radicals” in the new edition of The BBC Guide to Objective Journalism. These include: Anders Behing Breivik, who must now be described as “a radical Norwegian gun enthusiast with a preference for black clothing and ‘being outdoors’ ”; Adolf Hitler, who must be called “a radical German politician who made the trains run on time and was prone to mood swings”; and Genghis Khan “a radical Mongol warlord whose reign coincided with the decapitation of 40 million non-Mongols”.
I only tease the BBC because I love it. My luxury item on Desert Island Discs would be a radio, because I don’t think I could live without Radio 4. It is wonderful. Along with BBC4. And Radio 3 in the bits without the cheerful chat. And I can see why BBC World News America gets such huge viewing figures. Have you tried watching American news channels lately? Fox News is a cheerleader for the Republicans, while all the rest — CNN, MSNBC, CBS, ABC etc — wave their pom-poms for the Democrats.
But does the BBC need to be so obsessive in its impartiality at home? I don’t mean they have to start referring to the British Army as “we” or “our”, nor do they have to call the people killing our soldiers “the enemy” — “insurgents” is fine if that’s what makes the BBC happy. I wouldn’t even mind if they wanted to call Joseph Stalin a “radical conservative” rather than “a communist tyrant who was responsible for the murder of 23 million of his own people”, because I can see that if you still have a soft spot for communism/socialism, that must be hard to swallow.
But would it have cost the BBC so much integrity to have called those who killed 52 civilians on London transport “terrorists”? A BBC memo at the time of 7/7 said they had to be called “bombers” instead — “terrorist” was a “loaded term”. Too right it was loaded, with 22lb of hydrogen peroxide, a 9-volt detonator and a copy of the Koran. It went without saying, they couldn’t be called Islamic extremists either. Islamic radicals, maybe. Or Islamic conservatives. But not Islamic extremists. That might have implied a value judgment.