It takes an arts interview to reveal the truly parlous state of BBC journalism; to illustrate how deep attitudes run in the organisation.
Razia Iqbal, presenter of World Update on BBC World Service, interviewed Baltimore Symphony Musical Director Marin Alsop – listen here, at 20’40” – on 30th December 2015.
Alsop was speaking about the mentoring programme she had introduced to promote the study of music among Baltimore’s deprived (mainly African-American) community. Alsop’s comments about the success of the programme prompted the following extraordinary and revealing statements from BBC presenter Iqbal:
This would surprise a lot of people for whom Baltimore means the television series The Wire or the Baltimore that people see in real life depicted in our news bulletins of young African-American men being gunned down by the State. I wonder how you reconcile those things in your mind?
Up to that point there had been no political element beyond Alsop’s desire to get more African-American involvement in classical music. Iqbal tells us that;
- Baltimore is The Wire
- The State murders African-American men in Baltimore and that is the City’s defining characteristic
It is the most directly partisan comment I have ever heard from a news reporter, aside from Press TV or Russia Today.
The ‘young African-American men being gunned down by the State’ is clearly a reference to the Freddie Gray case – see here for BBC reports on that – a death in custody in the back of a police van, not by shooting, for which an African-American officer was tried for manslaughter and who faces a retrial. He was tried as an individual.
Whatever the rights and wrongs, and whatever the institutional and governmental injustices and inequalities in Baltimore, it is hardly something for a BBC presenter to raise in that way and comment on in that way. Especially not on a programme that is heard in Baltimore, when the case is sub judice, and at time when tensions run high.
Marin Alsop takes Iqbal’s cue and responds with the following, which seems to be an equally jaw-dropping, assertion:
It’s heartbreaking that we haven’t dealt with these issues, that it requires violence, which I think it does require, to be honest, to change this equation. Inequality and injustice is unacceptable. I mean sadly this has been the most violent year we’ve had in Baltimore, we’ve had over 300 people murdered. it’s a cry for help.
Does she mean political change will only come as a result of weariness of violence in the community or is it a justification for violence against the authorities? It sounds like the latter, in which case an interviewee is apparently openly calling for violent insurrection against the US government and how does the presenter seek to clarify this, to challenge this or offer balance? Not in any way at all.
Given that a significant portion of the interview is about the importance to Alsop of her mentor Leonard Bernstein and their friendship, Bernstein’s support for the Black Panthers, who were dedicated to violent social change, is relevant to Alsop’s comments. Bernstein famously threw a fundraiser for the extremist movement during which a Black Panther leader, Ray Hewitt, told the gathering that;
…if buildings were burned and other violence ensued, that was only part of the struggle that the power structure had forced the oppressed minorities into.
For more on that extraordinary gathering click here.
This philosophy has a contemporary Baltimore context; here is a quote from a 2015 interview in Baltimore with General T.A.C.O. of the Black Riders Liberation Party which sees itself as the inheritor of the Black Panthers’ struggle and calls for ‘armed self-defense‘:
What they can learn from the Freddie Gray situation is that the need to resist is necessary. No longer can we sit idly by and watch the pigs terrorise our communities.
When Donald Trump made broad comments about British cities he was vilified for it, something that was thoroughly reported by the BBC – see here. What about when the BBC itself does it? When presenters refer to a friendly state as an instrument of murder without explanation and when it allows itself to become a platform for what could be understood as a call for violence in American cities, and against the representatives of the American State, it shows just how deep the rot is.