The BBC is revealing itself as a state broadcaster in all the negative meanings of the word.
The death of a protester at last week’s G20 summit after he was twice attacked by police (truncheoned once and then, a few minutes later, beaten across the legs and shoved to the ground) has generated enormous comment, globally. The man died of a heart attack a few minutes later.
The BBC, it turns out, neglected to cover Ian Tomlinson’s death at all on the day, or the day after, focusing instead on presenting the G20 summit, hosted by prime minister Gordon Brown, as a successful solution to the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression 80 years ago.
Perhaps the BBC was keen to avoid comparisons with the killing by Italian police of an anti-globalisation demonstrator at the Genoa G8 summit in 2001.
Either way we should ask some questions.
The story is covered fully by Internet sites so I have just a few comments.
An American fund manager filmed the attack on Mr Tomlinson and offered his footage to the BBC when he decided that the family of Mr Tomlinson was not being listened to.
The BBC, which had ignored the death for 48 hours after the summit, refused to air the tape saying it was “a London story”. The tape was then offered to The Guardian newspaper and became a huge story.
I used to work for the BBC. We were often told not to run London stories, meaning – precisely – that we were not to bore the nation with stories about how badly the London underground compares with the Moscow, Kiev or Paris metros.
This is an important issue so let’s be clear. The idea of not reporting London stories means this: The vast majority of BBC staff live in London but we were not supposed to let our daily concerns bore the rest of the country.
Now when the BBC decides that Gordon Brown hosting the G20 summit is such a big story that it goes live, internationally, for two days, covering every tiny segment of the story, how come the death of a man caught up in the protests is not a story?
When the Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper missed the G20 photocall while all the leaders said cheese in front of the world’s press, because Mr Harper was, reportedly, in the toilet, the BBC did a three-minute live report. Ha, ha, ho, hum.
The BBC broadcast extensive coverage of the police “kettling” operation, describing their plans to contain protestors in specific zones. Kettling, by the way, is an interesting metaphor. Kettles boil. If the police called their plans to contain demonstrators, “kettling”, were they hoping for some reaction?
When a man died, the BBC coverage was…. Zilch.
On April 8th, the BBC finally covered the story. The report contained: One sibilant reporter, one statement from the IPCC, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and one comment from a “caring health expert” saying it is possible to get so upset at being suddenly attacked that you may, indeed, suffer a heart attack.
Duration of report: about one and half minutes.
Sky News (declaration: I worked as a newsroom journalist for BBC radio and television and as a correspondent for Sky News) devoted about five minutes to the story, with a comment from a member of the IPCC who said she had always been very concerned about police brutality and feared the police did not do enough to remove people who positively revel in violence from their staff.
The real issue is not whether the police have learned from their public relations blunders over the Jean de Menezes incident. Then, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that senior officers lied to try to minimize the damage that the killing of an innocent man would do to the force and to their careers.
This time, the story was ignored by the state broadcaster and played down by the police who lied on three counts: first that he was a “protester”, second that police had tried to rescue the man under a hail of missiles including beer bottles (images show no missiles), third that police had had no “contact” with the man (what we used to call intercourse) when actually police had attacked him on two occasions before his fatal heart attack.
Various sites that I visited earlier on the 8th April are no longer operative as I write including the comments section on this blog and even the self-proclaimed "Liberal Voice" The Guardian removed from the front page this trenchant comment by journalist Duncan Campbell which attracted a huge response.
The reasons for the way this story has been covered demand greater research.
This latest embarrassment to the police comes despite extensive measures to prevent themselves being filmed.
The Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 covers offences relating to information about members of armed forces, a member of the intelligence services, or a police officer.
Section 76 of the 2008 Act implicates anyone who 'elicits or attempts to elicit information about (members of armed forces) ... which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism'.
That includes photographs and video – and the law was used against London photographer Justin Tallis who was threatened while he covered and anti-BBC protest in January for simply taking a photograph of a police officer.
The story of Mr Tomlinson shows why it is important that independent individuals, neither from the police nor the state broadcaster, are on our streets, covering national events, regardless of whether they put the country in a positive or negative light.
And that raises important questions about what the BBC thinks its role is.