Equipment of media crews damaged during clashes after the US President Donald Trumps supporters breached the US Capitol security in Washington D.C., United States on 6 January 2021. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Heads should roll after the BBC’s coverage of the Capitol Hill riot

Under Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s news and current affairs output has let us down again and again

Yesterday, I saw extraordinary footage on Twitter of Trump supporters on a flight from Utah to Washington, screaming abuse at Senator Mitt Romney, a former Republican presidential candidate, who was on the same plane. It was just one of a number of warning signs. It was quite clear to anyone that something terrible was going to happen in Washington later that day.

What is curious is not what happened later that afternoon, but how so many missed the signs. Where were the security forces at the Capitol? Who was in charge? Why were leading Republicans not appealing to Trump supporters to respect law and order?

Those are the big questions and as yet I have seen no answers. Closer to home, however, we might also ask why were the BBC so badly prepared for one of the great historic moments of our time? Speaking on the Today programme on Thursday morning, Jon Sopel compared the invasion of the Capitol to Pearl Harbor. It was an extraordinary moment. The first time in many years that the Capitol had come under attack and the first time ever that a US President refused to condemn an attack on the home of American democracy.

At such a moment, with a dedicated news channel and a well-resourced Washington office, the BBC was slow to react and did a poor job of covering history in the making.

No one was asking any of the big questions

The early reporting from Barbara Plett Usher and Lebo Diseko was inadequate and sometimes even misleading. Diseko said at one point, “The Police are taking this very seriously”. Viewers could see from the pictures that this was incorrect. Perhaps the biggest part of the whole story was that the police were doing nothing. Why not? Neither Usher nor Diseko even asked the obvious question let alone provided any answers. To be fair, Diseko spent the crucial hours in a cafeteria so couldn’t witness anything at all. But Robert Moore on ITV and his cameraman/woman were throwing themselves into the heart of the action and Moore later provided clear, concise commentary.

Where were the A Team: Nick Bryant or Jon Sopel? Sopel was presumably writing and recording his script for the News at Ten. Bryant? Since the BBC had the pictures why didn’t they find an experienced, first-rate reporter to speak to the images? More important, obviously, is why didn’t they have a first-rate reporter on the spot?

In the first hour or so only the presenter Katty Kay did an excellent job, as always, conducting interviews, trying to pull together some kind of coherent story. Once she was joined by Christian Fraser things started to feel more professional. Up until that point it was a mess.

It wasn’t just that the reporters and the cameras crews weren’t close to the action. Kay was constantly reduced to quoting CNN and Twitter. But where were the big questions? If this crowd had been BLM demonstrators would they have been treated like this, with kid gloves, or would they have been teargassed, clubbed and possibly even shot? Who were these demonstrators?

The next morning, we saw pictures of men with antisemitic T-shirts (“Camp Auschwitz”, “6MWE [6 Million Weren’t Enough]”) and carrying Confederate flags. At the time, the BBC told us none of this. Where were they from? They were nearly all white and all male. Why? There is a clear narrative from the Waco siege and the film Falling Down, both in 1993, to the Tea Party and the birther movements in the early Obama years to today which makes it clear that yesterday was not just about the 2020 election or President Trump.

Writing for The New Left Review, Mike Davis wrote, “What was essentially a big biker gang, dressed as circus performers and war-surplus barbarians, stormed the ultimate country club.” It’s a funny line. But look again at the antisemitic T-shirts and the Confederate flag and it doesn’t look so funny. This is part of a larger white, male, Middle American narrative, seething with grievances, that has been going on for almost thirty years. It should be seen together with rising mortality figures from alcoholism, opiate addiction and economic decline. We got none of this from the BBC, not even from the politicians and pundits they interviewed. Looking at their camouflage gear, the obvious question to ask was how many of these men were veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan? George W. Bush was quick to condemn their actions yesterday, but is there a link between his wars and what happened in Washington?

The following morning, on the Today programme, the grown-ups were back. Anne Applebaum, Brian Klaas and Jon Sopel offered some proper analysis. Until then we got nothing. Of course, people wrang their hands. And there was a great moment when Congressman Brendan Boyle was told about the reactions of Pence and Mitch McConnell and said, “Well, how very nice,” in a voice dripping with sarcasm. His point was well made. What about the Vichy Republicans who have stood by Trump, and enabled Trump, for four long years? Aren’t they the real guilty men, as much as the white male rioters?

At 8.36pm Lebo Diseko was still in the Capitol cafeteria but at last Aleem Maqbool and Anthony Zurcher appeared. Maqbool did some proper reporting and Zurcher was a good pundit. Oddly, though, there was almost no mention of the Georgia Senate results. Katty Kay kept plugging away. “Is this how Trumpism ends?” Good question. “A lot has changed in American politics in 48 hours.” Good point.

BBC’s news output is meant to be the jewel in its crown – not anymore

At 9.18pm Diseko was still in the cafeteria, still inaudible and with nothing to say. By now Christian Fraser was co-hosting and the BBC could revert to its fallback of interviewing familiar pundits like Ron Christie and Bryan Lanza. But this was the point. This was history happening before our very eyes. It wasn’t just a daily news programme where you could fall back on your Filofax and call up the usual suspects. Where were the historians or the big-name politicians to assess what was happening? Was this a riot, a failed coup, or “domestic terrorism”? Should Trump be impeached or at least forced to resign? “America is on edge tonight,” Jon Sopel said on the News at Ten. Really? Then at 10.50pm we got an interview with Lisa Nandy, Shadow Foreign Secretary. Who thought that was a good idea?

Confronted with a world historic moment in an English-speaking city where the BBC has one of its biggest overseas bureaux, the BBC was slow to react, didn’t get great close-up pictures of the action as it unfolded, didn’t ask the right questions, offered no useful analysis and fielded the B Team when circumstances called for the very best they could offer. Under Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s news and current affairs output has let us down again and again. Heads should roll. Remember, this is what the BBC is supposed to be best at. Their news output is meant to be the jewel in its crown. Not any more it isn’t.

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