With the latest rise in COVID-19 cases in The Bahamas and re-imposition at the weekend of lockdown measures, I hasten to write briefly about this as well as about the BBC as I had planned. The reason for this spike seems to be linked to Bahamians visiting Florida during the last few weeks and is against the background of a second global wave of the virus.
At this stage, suffice it to say that until last week our figures of infections were exceptionally low even allowing for a relatively small population. It was, therefore, reasonable to judge that the virus had been contained, at least temporarily. The latest developments, following reopening of the airport at the beginning of the month, surely show the Prime Minister’s original policy of complete lockdown at the start of the crisis was correct. It was effective in reducing the incidence of the virus despite criticism of what were seen as draconian measures. Moreover, his subsequent gradual easing of the restrictions in a cautious manner has been seen generally as the right approach.
Now, with a surge of cases, government ministers are faced once more with difficult choices as they wrestle with the complexities of balancing the health impact against the economic cost – and this follows the disturbing actions of some in travelling, on the reopening of the airport, to a Florida that has become an epicentre of virus infections in the US. It has become clear that by so doing they may have contributed to the latest spike in The Bahamas.
Reverting to the BBC, it is fair to say that over the years the reputation of the corporation has been second to none as the world’s most trustworthy news network on which millions depend for information and analysis. At its best, it remains a fine public service broadcaster famous for reaching people in many different parts of the world. The images of those in remote parts of the globe holding a portable radio receiver close to their ear to listen to the BBC World Service - broadcast in the vernacular as well as in English – have become symbolic of the BBC’s extraordinarily wide reach. All that said, the corporation as a whole is now coming under fire once again for its claimed lack of impartiality.
The BBC has always been accused of harbouring a Left-wing bias. Its 1917 Royal Charter as a public broadcaster stipulated that in the public interest it should exercise impartiality and objectivity which were considered the essence of professionalism in broadcasting. It is obliged to identify the main strands of public discourse within the country and to give each an opportunity to be heard so as to provide ‘a level playing field for competing views and opinions to be expressed, heard, answered and debated’. But it has been falling short of this ideal. Recently, criticism that the BBC as the nation’s public broadcaster is systematically failing to comply with its charter obligations in respect of such impartiality has become more vocal. In particular, the corporation has been accused of ‘bias by omission’ with central issues deliberately ignored or under-reported and discussion panels that are unbalanced – as well as presenting arguments with an over-emphasis on only one approach and even distorting the facts of a case. Needless to say the BBC denies all this and claims it is committed to impartiality in its reporting.
This is a big subject and more space is needed to examine it properly. But it is worth mentioning just two examples among many that have been the subject of much debate. First, going back to the Brexit referendum in 2016, followed by the continuing controversy even though the UK has now left the EU, it became clear that the BBC was biased in favour of pro-EU voices.
Some maintain it heavily ignored the case for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU or routinely misrepresented it by selective use of the facts and by labelling those who voted in favour of leaving the bloc xenophobic, racist or extreme.
Secondly, and most egregiously, BBC TV carried a programme last week about a terrible event in 1943 known as the Bengal famine in which millions died of starvation. This piece mounted an attack on Winston Churchill’s record on India, accusing him of personal responsibility for these deaths. Of two academics on the programme, one claimed Britain’s wartime leader was the ‘precipitator’ of terrible mass killings while the other said he was guilty of ‘prioritising white lives over Asian lives’ – and there was no counter voice to defend Churchill against such claims.
At that time during the Second World War, he was of course heavily engaged in what was happening elsewhere in the world, not least the fighting in Sicily in 1943 and the impending invasion of Italy while also preparing for the D-Day landings in France the following year. It was also the case that Britain was locked in to the Battle of the Atlantic with Allied shipping hounded by German U-boat submarines. It should likewise not be forgotten that Japan’s invasion of Burma had driven thousands of refugees into India and Allied vessels had been sunk by the Japanese in the Bay of Bengal. So shipping was in short supply, but the record shows Churchill had instructed the Viceroy of India that ‘every effort must be made, even by diversion of shipping urgently needed for war purposes, to deal with local shortages’.
It looks as though the British authorities on the spot could have handled the situation better, but the evidence shows that no serious historian blames Churchill personally for a famine that took place thousands of miles away at the height of a war that had engulfed the whole world. An internet search reveals that at the time of Churchill’s death in 1965 the BBC’s schedules were interrupted to carry fulsome tributes by-then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and by former Prime Minister Clement Attlee, praising him as the ‘greatest Englishman of our time’ – and yet half a century later the corporation chooses to present such a one-sided, biased, misleading account about the same man, and completely without context.
Predictably, this programme has been described as an outrageous use of lies and inaccuracies to try to sully the reputation of a revered historical figure. It is seen as an example of the toxic ‘woke’ culture – which, as it happens, I wrote about generally last week. This seems to have permeated the BBC as part of its obsessive emphasis on youth, diversity, support of minority groups and even the rewriting of history.
Critics are now saying the BBC, which is under increasing pressure from Sky and Netflix, has to change its ways if it is to maintain its overall reputation; and many hope that - in the midst of other problems like the current row in the UK about the ending of free TV licences for those over 75-years-old – it will return to its former glory days when it was widely admired for its accurate, reliable and even-handed news reporting.
Don’t worry folks, Brexit is still lurking in the background
It is hard to believe that after so much media coverage over the last few years of the process of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union – from the 2016 referendum to the Conservatives’ election success in December, 2019, followed by the nation’s formal departure from the EU on January 31 this year – the matter has been largely out of the news in recent months.
This is partly due to the media’s preoccupation with the coronavirus crisis. However, during the current 11-month transition period, which ends on December 31, negotiations have been continuing about the shape of the EU/UK future post-Brexit relationship – and during the transition the UK has remained part of the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union. People have asked about the state of play of the current talks but there is insufficient room today to examine the details of what has been made public. The latest talks in London this month ended without agreement, but both sides stressed that, although there was no breakthrough, there was no breakdown either.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, below, has expressed optimism about achieving a free trade deal together with agreement on a range of other issues before the transition period runs out at the end of the year. He has also emphasised yet again that this period will not be extended. It is clear Britain would prefer a tariff-free and ‘zero-quota’ trade agreement with the EU rather than leaving without a deal and trading in future on World Trade Organisation terms. But differences remain on certain issues so talks during the coming months will be crucial. Britain has chosen its future outside the bloc and the die is cast.
Away from the hysteria, common sense rules
Commenting a month ago on the violent demonstrations in the UK in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, I urged that lawlessness should be handled firmly by the police.
Defacing statues and monuments constitutes criminal damage and those concerned should be held accountable. It is also the case, of course, that damaging or removing statues will do nothing to end racism or address social injustice.
While violence is continuing in some major US cities, it seems to have abated in Britain. Nonetheless, the issue of statues commemorating the lives of those involved in the slave trade - or involved in the nation’s imperial past in ways that are now deemed to be questionable or, at worst, objectionable - remains subject to fierce debate. So it has been interesting to observe recent reactions to the BLM movement’s activities. The group appears to have been infiltrated by Far-left activists and now – in addition to fighting racism – wants to end capitalism and abolish the police. So, as the realisation grows that it has become politicised and only represents a small part of modern Britain, other voices condemning the group’s activities are being heard more and more.
To my eye, one welcome development in the aftermath of the violent demolition of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol in the southwest of Britain was a decision by the Mayor of the city about what should happen next.
The Colston statue, pictured, had been in place since 1895 but it was attacked and thrown into the nearby harbour by an enraged mob on the grounds of his involvement in the slave trade during the 16th century. After it was retrieved and placed in a museum, a sculpture of a BLM protestor was installed in its place at night without permission of the local Council. Within 24 hours, the Mayor ordered its removal and set up a commission to gauge public opinion about statues and monuments in the city. He said that he himself was in favour of removing the Colston statue and placing it elsewhere, but mob rule was unacceptable and this had to be done legally with the consent of the majority.
It is also interesting that, after last month’s demonstrations demanding the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, famous 19th century diamond magnate and politician in southern Africa, from the entrance to Oriel College, Oxford, there remains some doubt about its future. The leader of the Commission of Inquiry looking into the issue is reported to have said that there was no point in setting up a commission to investigate the future of the statue ‘if it was already a foregone conclusion’ that the statue should be removed.
In each of these cases, it is clear mob violence has been rejected and that there should be proper consideration of such issues in a democratic way. An example of the way to proceed was the decision by Cardiff Council last week to remove – since that was the wish of the majority - a statue of Sir Thomas Picton, former Governor of Trinidad, which has stood in Cardiff City Hall since 1916. Apparently, it has now become clear that, despite his reputation as a philanthropist with a social conscience, he built a fortune on the slave trade and was known for his ‘highly brutal’ regime in Trinidad that caused suffering, misery and death there.
Whether it is right for society in the early 21st century to make such judgments about the actions so long ago of people like him, when slavery was not regarded with the moral repugnance of more recent times, is a broader question. But the point in this particular case is that the matter was considered fully by Cardiff Council and voted upon.
If, by today’s standards, a majority do not wish to be reminded of such men of the past on a daily basis by a prominent statue in a public place, that is a matter for the appropriate authorities but not for a lawless minority mob to determine. The same should surely apply in the case of the statue of Christopher Columbus outside Government House in Nassau - an issue that is now in the news and which I wrote about last month.