Why did the BBC broadcast untrue claims about ConservativeHome?

20 Jan

This morning, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Michael Burleigh – the eminent historian of the Third Reich – was introduced for a discussion of the future of Trumpism after Trump. Out of the blue, he announced he didn’t really want to talk about that, and launched instead into an exposition of a somewhat peculiar personal theory about British politics.

A hijack, he claimed, had taken place in the UK via a three-pronged assault identical to that seen in America. First was “dark money and rather sinister ideological think tanks”, second came entryism, “the way in which the equivalent of Africanised bees have invaded decent political parties, so you can see that in the Tea Party or ConservativeHome or other similar movements in this country”, and “third, last but not least, the role of fanatical talk radio”. All this produced a “populist” force which he went on to link to “various anti-lockdown movements” and which he lumped in with “the group of nutters who believe that coronavirus is transmitted by 5G masts or worse”.

Oh dear.

Obviously, this isn’t true. Indeed, just about every discernable ‘fact’ asserted is untrue.

ConservativeHome is a media outlet, not a “movement” of any sort. Hence we feature in the Today programme’s own round-ups of the press on a regular basis.

We aren’t the equivalent of the “Tea Party” or any “similar movement” in this country or any other, but a site with a great reputation, established over 15 years, of expert analysis and insight on conservative politics and the Conservative Party.

Our readership encompasses millions of people, ranging from Conservative members, MPs and ministers of every ideological stripe and tradition, to large numbers of people of many political alignments and none, who are simply interested in reading great writing about politics. The idea they or we are some form of “invader” or entryist force is bizarre and baseless.

As Burleigh was espousing his own conspiracy theories and shoddily trying to draw associations with Covid conspiracy “nutters”, he somehow failed to notice that it is our columnist, Neil O’Brien MP, who is currently the most prominent and vocal Westminster critic of those very people.

I don’t know how we came to feature in his imagination as some sort of sinister entryist campaign group, but – rather by definition – logic and facts are not required components in the architecture of such constructions.

He isn’t alone in finding it hard to reconcile electoral events which he dislikes with his firmly held beliefs about the world, and apparently genuinely buying into elaborate and outlandish theories which seek to explain away the discomforting clash between the two. In recent years, various other eminent public figures, armed with good reputations and media clout, have wrecked the former and misused the latter in a similar way, particularly since the 2016 referendum and 2019 General Election.

Burleigh isn’t the only one at fault. It was odd – to say the least – to hear the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme giving him a national platform to go down the rabbit hole in this way.

It’s bad enough to have a formerly serious historian wibbling on air, but worse that the BBC failed to correct, challenge or even try to balance it for the benefit of listeners. Martha Kearney’s reply to the section which misrepresented ConservativeHome was simply to say “Well that’s a very particular characterisation of populism” – a characterisation which was then implicitly accepted for the rest of the discussion.

We often hear about the BBC’s commitment to accuracy, and its fretting about political misinformation, but this morning it failed its responsibilities and its audience on both fronts. A correction and apology is clearly due; we have contacted Today to request exactly that, but have so far received only a vague “we recognise you are concerned” reply, in keeping with the Corporation’s familiar tradition of non-apologies. We’ll be pursuing it further.

In the meantime, if you would like to enrich your mornings with a daily dose of top-notch news, opinion and analysis – no licence fee required, no peculiar celebrity ramblings involved – you can sign up to our mailing list here.