The BBC and the Making of a Most Damnable Lie; A DEVASTATING ANALYSIS OF HOW TELEVISION DISTORTS THE TRUTH

Daily Mail (London), July 24, 1998 | Go to article overview

The BBC and the Making of a Most Damnable Lie; A DEVASTATING ANALYSIS OF HOW TELEVISION DISTORTS THE TRUTH


Byline: SIMON HEFFER

THE programme was to have been one of the television highlights of the year. Two months ago the BBC proudly began broadcasting a four-part series on the history of Commonwealth immigration to Britain. It was linked to the 50th anniversary of the arrival here of the Empire Windrush, the first immigrant ship from the Caribbean.

It had all the hallmarks of an impeccably executed documentary series of the highest quality, having been made by Pepper Productions, a company run by one of Britain's most prominent black broadcasters, Trevor Phillips. In fact, the programme betrayed the kind of contemptible disregard for the truth that would have shamed the worst kind of red top tabloid.

I first began to realise that when the advance publicity proclaimed that the series would show how Enoch Powell, the man who later set his face against mass immigration, had once actively encouraged immigrants to come to Britain to alleviate labour shortages.

A call to the BBC revealed that the programme would not merely accuse Powell of encouraging immigration from his desk at the Ministry of Health. A 'witness' would testify that Powell had gone to British Guiana in the Fifties and launched a campaign to encourage immigration.

Powell is a hate figure for some people, who believe he was a racist. To expose him as being guilty of such hypocrisy would have been a scoop indeed.

When Powell had died four months earlier, he received tributes of the kind normally reserved for dead prime ministers. Such a damning revelation as this would help shatter Powell's posthumous reputation, and gratify his enemies.

HOWEVER, the 'scoop' was a complete lie. I knew this better than anyone, because for the past three years I have been writing, with the help of Powell, his family and his estate, the definitive biography of that most enigmatic of statesmen.

I knew, from having read all the papers in Powell's private archive and in the public archives of the departments in which Powell was a minister, that he had been opposed to mass immigration well before it ever happened, for reasons that were not remotely racist, and had never done anything to encourage it.

It was not the first time that this lie has been floated - and sunk. When Powell died, his obituary in The Times asserted that, when Minister of Health between 1960 and 1963, he had actively encouraged immigrant labour for the NHS.

I wrote to that newspaper pointing out the untruth of this assertion. I reminded The Times that it had itself published an article to this effect in May 1971.

The then Conservative Cabinet minister Geoffrey Rippon had accused Powell of just this same hypocrisy. Powell had demanded an apology. Rippon used all the resources of the Cabinet Office to prove Powell was lying. He failed.

The Times duly reported his public apology to Powell. It also, 27 years later, published my letter.

Someone at Pepper Productions might have read either of these letters; but, if they did, they ignored them. And the repetition of the lie, although now about to be officially retracted and made the subject of a humiliating apology by the BBC, calls into question the probity and professionalism of Trevor Phillips, of certain BBC executives, and of the Corporation itself.

Powell was not, as anyone who knew him can testify, a racist. He loved India and the Indians so much, when a soldier there during the war, that he learned Urdu to interpreter standards and immersed himself in that country's life and culture.

Perhaps the finest speech he ever made in the Commons, in July 1959, was an attack on the government for having allowed the beating to death of Mau Mau terrorists in a prison camp in Kenya.

Anti-racists like Tony Benn and Michael Foot, whose progressive credentials are impeccable and who knew Powell well, have repeatedly rubbished any claims that their friend was a racist. …

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