A Very British Man Shaping BBC News

Rob Brown shines a critical spotlight on the ultra-ambitious executive who has supreme oversight of the corporation’s coverage of the campaign for IndyRef2 

Aye, they’re still at it. Graphic illustration of how the BBC continues to strive to diminish support for Scottish independence was provided by the infographic Reporting Scotland concocted to shrink the scale of the SNP’s success in the recent European Election – now the subject of a serious complaint.

Less blatantly biased, but also a distortion of reality, was the news package its Scotland Editor filed for the network on the eve of that ballot. With the Falkirk Wheel clanking in the background, Sarah Smith suggested that Scotland’s most popular political party could be about to suffer a setback in that ballot.

While it was worth weaving in the fact that a third of SNP voters are believed to have voted for Brexit, it was more than slightly devious of Smith to suggest that the SNP was cruising for even a mild bruising along the canal bank. Rigging a vox-pop in favour of that proposition was pathetic ‘evidence’ to put before viewers and certainly did not counter every (obviously spot-on) opinion poll throughout the campaign.

The good news is that Ms Smith is just a tiny cog in the wheel of the ever-turning BBC News spin machine. The bad news is that the person increasingly directing this 24/7/365 multimedia defender of the realm is so openly and passionately committed to Britain that he even recently penned a highly opinionated autobiography titled The Life and Times of a Very British Man.

That ultimate control of the corporation’s coverage of any indryref2 campaign could be in the hands of Kamal Ahmed should be of serious concern to any democrat in this land. Now in charge of “the BBC’s editorial strategy” and overview of Brexit, he is what Eddie Mair once described Boris Johnson to his face – a piece of work.

On taking up this new post the former economics editor sent a patronising (and highly impartial) email to his underlings instructing them to bear in mind when covering Brexit that “on economics…the evidence from expert modellers who know what they are talking about…is clear – it’s a bit rubbish.”

In fairness, he did balance this in his book by proffering an equally biased take on the potential social and cultural benefits of this political earthquake. “You know what?” he mused aloud on its pages, “Our decision to leave the European Union might go a lot further towards solving our issues of race and identity than anyone ever imagined.”

Ahmed claims the primary theme is identity, yet there is not a single mention in this volume of the bitter identity divide that is raging across a third of the landmass of this small island. That isn’t because he is at all unaware of the Scottish Question. Kamal cut his journalistic teeth in Scotland as a cub reporter for Scotland on Sunday (when I was also employed by that paper as its media pundit).

Serious consideration of Scottish nationalism would have rendered ridiculous his Pollyannish prediction that “all the people who live on our small island” are on a joyous journey to becoming “simply British”. More importantly, a public misstep on that issue could have sent the broadcaster-turned-author sliding back down the career escalator again.

His incendiary Brexit email was not the first time he had found himself in the headlines. In 2005, when he was political editor of the Observer, an esteemed colleague on its sister paper the Guardian felt moved to denounce him as a mouthpiece for Downing Street. In his award-winning book Flat Earth News, Nick Davies even claimed that emails sent to Ahmed by Tony Blair’s chief spinmeister Alistair Campbell were copied and pasted into leader articles advocating support for the Iraq War.

The New Labour lapdog snapped back by dismissing Davies’s allegations as “scurrilous” and “hearsay”. But he was obviously severely injured in this dog-eat-dog scrap and fled from Farringdon Road with his tail between his legs to become a PR flunkey at the UK’s equality and human rights watchdog – whose remit obviously did not include the human rights of Iraqis.

Never slow to namedrop, Ahmed later told a trade rag he was having dinner with David Miliband when he got the call from a head-hunter for that post. To his critics, that tale simply confirmed how snugly in bed he was with the then prevailing power elite.

Today one of his best pals at New Broadcasting House is, apparently, James Purnell, another former Blairite cabinet minister who has become the BBC’s head of radio and education. Little surprise Jeremy Corbyn gets portrayed night after night as the devil incarnate!

There was no way this born and bred Londoner was going to linger for long among us far northern provincials. Such was his rush to make it big back to the bright lights, even as a rookie reporter young Kamal was careful to cut a dash by splashing out pricey designer suits tailor-fitted to his whippet-like figure.

His dress-to-impress wardrobe in 2014 when he joined the BBC as its business editor after performing the same function for the pro-Tory Sunday Telegraph. It was a high-profile on-screen role but, with his cool demeanour and far from relaxed delivery, viewers were never going to warm to him.

The politics graduate from Leeds University did rapidly master the black arts of behind-the-scenes politicking and boot-licking, however, as he clawed his way up to his current highly powerful off-screen role. And he obviously hasn’t stopped clawing and crawling.

As much a self-projecting manifesto as a memoir, his book issues a clarion call for a “national conversation” about “those big questions about who we are, where we live and what that says about us – the British. Because I most definitely am British.”

What better pitch to the governors of the Very British Broadcasting Corporation?

By penning his first (of doubtless several) memoirs mid-career, this strident Brit is plainly already positioning himself for an even mightier position – maybe Director-General (as former current affairs chief John Birt became) or perhaps even a move into party politics. But the latter could only conceivably come about if thought he could rocket to the top as a British Obama.

Ahmed draws parallels between himself and the still idolised former president simply because both of them are of mixed race. “What President Obama did,” he writes, “was raise a mirror in which I could see myself reflected.” The audacity of hope doesn’t begin to describe that – especially as he also nicked a saccharine campaign soundbite from Bill Clinton to declare that he too comes from “a place called hope”.

Actually, he comes from Ealing, West London.

Ahmed says he wants all of us all feel embraced by Auntie Beeb. Soon after taking up his appointment towards the end of last year, he declared: “We want our newsrooms across the UK to be less a set of secret castles where, to the public, mysterious things happen.”

There is, of course, no great mystery as to why so many Scottish viewers (and voters) ceased to consider the Beeb a trustworthy news source after its shameful coverage of the 2014 referendum. Scottish nationalism obviously poses much of a threat to the British semi-state broadcasting service as to the British state itself. So, rest assured, from its secret castle on the Clyde the BBC will continue to strive to prevent that happening.


Comments (7)

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  1. John S Warren says:

    On the matter of the ‘infographic’ issue, if as ‘the National’ claims, the BBC defence of an inaccurate bar-chart is that the chart was presented as a “rough” guide only, with the accurate figures also presented, I would find the BBC’s defence incomprehensible. A bar-chart is not a ‘rough-guide’; it purports accurately to represent in chart form a visual representation of the statistical facts to which specific attention is being drawn. It is a frequency diagram based on actual measurements of real data. If it is wrong, it is wrong; and it should not be presented to the public if it is wrong, because it may mislead or lead to misapprehension (and it certainly would be a misleading visual representation of a bar-chart if it does not closley represent the compared statistics); and, as a bar-chart it would be statistically and factually worthless.

    The fact that the accurate statistics were also represented cannot be an excuse for an inaccurate bar-chart; it would not only beg the question, but compound the error, because it provides reassurance of the implication, easily drawn by the reader, that the bar-chart is accurate. The reader-observer is in no position to test the accuracy of the information provided; indeed he or she is being induced to believe its authenticity. The purpose of a bar-chart is to convey comparative and relatively complex data in readily understandable statistical form, using a well-established and quite precise form of visualisation, with precision relative to the comparison being drawn (the reason bar-charts were devised). An inaccurate bar-chart is not, in fact a bar-chart at all. It is, at best a misrepresentation of a bar-chart. There is no good reason for an inaccurate bar-chart to exist.

    I should make clear that I have not seen the bar-chart, or read the BBC defence; I am, rather, simply defending the principle of using statistics with due care. Using statistics carelessly establishes a dangerous precedent. I drafted this comment principally because the issue is sufficiently clear that I do not believe that I should be required to make it.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Mr Warren,

      Thank for that forceful rebuttal of the BBC’s mendacious argument about the bar chart being a ‘rough approximation’. Nowadays every computer device comes with a suite of statistical and word processing tools which can swiftly convert tables of data into histograms, pie charts, etc. Since the BBC has, with complete justification, prided itself on its cutting edge information technology, it is a total LIE, that the infographic was ‘rough’.

      Mr Brown,

      Thank you for this piece on Mr Ahmad. I think we need to know more background details of people in similar positions in the Scottish media, such as Mr Gary Smith, Hayley Valentine. They are in privileged positions and ought to be subject to similar rules such as MPs’ Register of Interests.

      Finally, a bit of pedantry – The Falkirk Wheel does not ‘clank’. This is a very highly efficient piece of engineering, which uses less energy to raise the huge reservoir, boats, water, passengers, than it takes to boil a domestic kettle! It does not waste energy by ‘clanking’. Perhaps, in your mind you had confused it with Ms Smith’s ‘CLUNKING’ delivery.

  2. Alasdair Galloway says:

    Tom an interesting and informative piece, though the detail about Ms Smith I found fairly obvious. I have only ever made a complaint to the BBC on one occasion and guess who it was about? It concerned a piece just before Labour got massacred up here in 2015. She had assembled a group of 18 year olds in North Lanarkshire, and concluded that, just as the Labour Party were complaining about these (new) voters weren’t listening either. This was despite the fact that she had asked them whether they had read Labour’s leaflets etc, and at least one of them said they had (to no dissent from the others) and that they hadn’t seen much in it for them. Either she had simply ignored the evidence she had gathered for herself, OR a voter was only “listening” if they came to the conclusion that Labour wanted them to come to.
    More pertinently – but briefly you will be pleased to hear – I wonder whether we should be surprised about any of them? I expect you will have seen this already, but it might be worthwhile reminding yourself of the interview (a much younger) Andrew Marr did with Noam Chomsky – it can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLcpcytUnWU. Marr’s denouement comes at just after 2’50” when Marr asks Chomsky, “how can you know I am self censoring?”. Chomsky replies “I am sure you believe everything you say. but if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you are sitting”. In other words to get to where Marr, Ahmed and so many more have got to where they have got to, they have to be seen to be “safe”. They have to espouse the “right” opinions”, or at least not the “wrong ones”. The really interesting thing is how many actually hold other views, but suppress them because they know professionally it would be suicide. That would be worthwhile knowing.
    But the take-home message is that there is a clue in the name of the BBC – the BRITISH Broadcasting Corporation. If Nicholas McPherson is correct that the Treasury is a Unionist organization – the clue he said was in its name “HM Treasury” – much the same thing can be said of the BBC. Can it not?

  3. Jo says:

    I think it’s safe to say that the BBC serves Scotland badly but we shouldn’t take from this that the rest of the UK is served well. It is not. The BBC churns out lies to every corner.

  4. David says:

    Thanks Rob for an interesting piece. I think one of the main problems with BBC bias is that the silent majority are still silent. A major cause of their silence is their disengagement and lack of interest in issues concerning power and control. The BBC has them where it wants them. They won’t be reading this and they won’t be reading your article either. In the very unlikely event that any of them accidentally tripped over the article I doubt they’d get past the first few sentences before they’d be returning to their remote control and big screen where another episode of Reporting Scotland or Eastenders was lurking and poised to consume their valuable time and help maintain there persistent vegetative state. The BBC thrives on voluntary self funding of ignorance also sometimes know as the TV licence.

  5. MBC says:

    As an English-born person of colour, Kamal has to be British. The Guardian ran an exercise some years ago about identity, asking 100 people resident in Britain which national identity they felt they were. It was striking how many people of colour identified as British, and how many said they identified as British because ‘English’ ‘felt too white’. It was also striking how many English-born white people said they felt English and not British.

    There were one or two people of colour who said they identified as ‘English’ – but the vast majority did not. There were a few white people who said they felt British rather than English; I suspect that though English born, they might have had parents who were Irish, Welsh or Scots.

    The British do exist as a tribe.

    1. Gavin says:

      Born of a Scottish father and English mother, and having grown up in England I would normally describe myself as both Scottish and English, however I sometimes use British as a useful overarching term (There is also some Welsh and Irish on my mother’s side so it feel very appropriate). I look forwards to Scottish independence but I will probably always think of myself as British in my overall heritage, I just don’t particularly see that as a national identification.

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