The BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU) has responded to complaints about its news coverage of an anti-Ulez protest in London’s Trafalgar Square on Saturday, April 15th, 2023. BBC London News broadcast at the time that:
Local protestors and mainstream politicians were joined by conspiracy theorists and Far Right groups.
I was among many people to complain at the time, disgusted at the BBC’s smear. I was at the protest myself, the first of any kind that I had attended. Since my previous exposure to similar protests – such as those against the lockdowns over the course of the pandemic – was limited to watching clips on Twitter, I was slightly anxious. Were things likely to kick off? Were the police going to ‘kettle’ us all in a side street off the Strand?
I could not have been more wrong. I was overwhelmed by how many families were there, abundant small children clambering up the bases of Landseer’s lions. There were a handful of Tory politicians some of whom spoke from the platform, but there was no other political presence whatsoever.
When I saw the BBC London news coverage, I was therefore appalled. I wasn’t too concerned about the claim that there were a few conspiracy theorists there – quite a few placard-holders were plainly ‘Team James’ – but “Far Right groups” seemed to me something for which there was no evidence at all. This appeared to be an attempt on the BBC’s part to suppress dissent towards the Ulez expansion by smearing opponents. This struck me as a sinister turn from the national broadcaster and so I complained.
On April 21st, the BBC responded to my complaint as follows:
BBC London had deployed a reporter to the protest and she witnessed, and documented, first hand, motifs on tabards and placards with explicit Nazi references, along with other epithets about world order and democracy.
I walked around the protest for about three hours on April 15th and I must have missed the explicit Nazi references, presumably displayed by the “Far Right groups”. I complained again, asking for evidence.
On May 12th the BBC rejected my additional complaint as follows:
We remain satisfied our BBC London reporter gave an honest account of what she witnessed that day.
At this point, I escalated the complaint to the ECU, one of 44 people to do so on the grounds of both accuracy and impartiality. Today the BBC acknowledged the following:
In relation to “Far Right groups”, we recognised that the [conspiracy theory] groups named above might have Far Right (or indeed Far Left) adherents, but did not consider this to be evidence of the presence of “Far Right groups”. The programme-makers directed our attention to the deployment by some demonstrators of Nazi imagery, symbolism and slogans directed against the Mayor of London which we accepted was consistent with tactics used predominantly by certain Far Right groups, but we saw no grounds for concluding that they were used exclusively by such groups. We also noted the presence of an individual who seemed, from social media postings, very likely to have been associated with the presence of a Far Right group at a previous demonstration, but the evidence fell short of establishing that he was an adherent of that group, and we saw no evidence that other representatives of the group were present. While it was clear from our dealings with the programme-makers that the statement about the presence of Far Right groups was made in good faith, we assessed the evidence differently. In our judgement it was suggestive of the presence of Far Right groups but fell short of establishing that such groups had in fact been represented among the demonstrators. This aspect of the complaint has been upheld.
This shows pretty clearly that the idea of “Far Right groups” being present at the protest was a complete fiction. Feelings are running high about Khan and some placards quite possibly likened his administrative style to infamous dictators of the past but for anyone to have spun this as evidence of “Far Right groups” is a stretch to say the least. As for the “individual who seemed, from social media postings, very likely to have been associated with the presence of a Far Right group at a previous demonstration”, the words ‘straws’ and ‘clutching’ spring to mind.
In addition to upholding the complaint about accuracy, the BBC has also partially upheld the complaint on impartiality which derives from the close resemblance of the BBC’s language in its news report to that of Khan himself at a People’s Town Hall in Ealing in March. When asked about people’s misgivings about the Ulez expansion, he said that its opponents were “in coalition with the Far Right” and “joining hands with some of those outside who are part of a Far Right group”.
The BBC has now acknowledged the “impression of bias” and upheld this part of the complaint, while spinning it as something of an accident, something that “might well have been perceived as lending a degree of corroboration to the Mayor’s comments”.
While it is a step in the right direction for the BBC to uphold two aspect of the complaints, there remain unanswered questions about its broader coverage of Ulez and to what extent its coverage is being unduly influenced by Sadiq Khan.
Consider the article in the Daily Express published on 24th June about a senior producer at the BBC that made contact with Reform U.K. London Mayoral candidate Howard Cox to blow the whistle on the BBC’s suppression of coverage critical of the Ulez expansion. (Cox, by the way, was also in attendance at the April demo but had not at that point declared as a Mayoral candidate):
The leak to Reform U.K. Mayoral candidate Howard Cox… reveals that Mr. Khan had applied pressure on the BBC over reporting the issue. It said that journalists wanting to run stories now needed top level clearance over something that is set to be a major electoral issue in the London Mayor election and general election both next year.
The Express article went on to explain email exchanges that the senior BBC producer had received:
The BBC producer was told in an email to news staff from Dan Fineman, Senior News Editor BBC South East: “If any platforms are doing a story on Ulez charges in the South and Southeast we now need to do a mandatory referral to Jason Horton or Robert Thomson (re) outstanding complaint with the Mayor of London which is very live at the moment.”
Jason Horton is the BBC’s Director of Production for BBC Local Services and Robert Thomson is Head of the BBC in London and the East. This suggests a level of collusion between very senior staff at the BBC and Sadiq Khan with a direct influence over editorial approaches to news coverage of anti-Ulez protests.
It was also reported by the whistleblower that a BBC London investigation into Ulez was now been paused because of the Mayor of London’s pressure on the BBC.
In short, Khan appears to be exercising at the very least some form of influence over the BBC’s coverage of anti-Ulez protests. This is not an “impression of bias” – this more closely resembles a real, undiluted bias against anti-Ulez campaigners on the part of the nation’s publicly-funded broadcaster at the behest of the Labour Mayor of London. The BBC has come up with a partial and grudging apology but I suspect that the truth about its willingness to suppress dissent with “Far Right” smears is more extensive than it’s prepared to admit. I hope that doesn’t make me a “conspiracy theorist”.