This BBC apology is a grovel too far
17 August 2007
Another day, another BBC apology. First it was the Queen, filmed walking out when she should have been walking in. Then one of Newsnight’s young bucks did something tricksy with a profile of Gordon Brown. More recently, there has been the shameful scandal of a Blue Peter presenter who appeared at a bicycling rally with Ken Livingstone.
Now, apparently, something very bad happened during the news coverage of an initiative by John Redwood to cut down government bureaucracy. So pronounced is the corporation’s new addiction to confession that the Today programme might usefully consider replacing its “Thought for the Day” spot with a “BBC Public Grovel of the Day”.
However tiresome it may be for those of us who would prefer the BBC not to bend the knee to anyone in power who kicks up enough of a fuss, the apology gambit presumably makes good political sense. In this golden age of inter-active maundering, canny media operatives have learned that there is much to be said for saying sorry on a regular basis. It allows those who have complained – notably, the cats’ chorus of moaners in the so-called “blogosphere” – to feel vindicated, while the sinners, having confessed to some past misdemeanour, can get on with more important matters.
All the same, there is something peculiarly irritating about the Redwood grovel. It relates to that magical occasion 14 years ago – the defining moment in Redwood’s career, surely – when, as Welsh Secretary, he was filmed, glassy-eyed with panic, head nodding like a character out of Thunderbirds, as he tried helplessly to sing along to “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau”, the Welsh national anthem, while knowing neither the words nor the the tune – nor, indeed, the language.
On news bulletins on Sunday, this comedy classic was dusted off and given another well-deserved airing during reports of Redwood’s latest big idea. “In retrospect,” Helen Boaden, the BBC’s director of news said later, “we were not right to use the footage again, which came from a long time ago.”
Here, surely, is an apology too far. Redwood’s none-too-original brainwave (to save money, it would be sensible to cut red tape) received wide, generally even-handed coverage on the BBC news. The inclusion of an unfortunate incident from his past may not have been strictly relevant or fair, but then politics has never been fair.
The Tory image-management team at the time commited a major gaffe by sending their man naked into the conference chamber by failing to rehearse him in the Welsh national anthem. If instead, they had, with Mandelsonian cunning, given him lessons in Welsh, briefed him comprehensively on Tom Jones, Max Boyce, Shirley Bassey and JJ Williams, and then told him to close his speech with a rendering of “Men of Harlech”, the footage of his triumph would have been pumped out by the Tory marketing machine on every possible occasion.
When politicians make fools of themselves in public, it is invariably because a wheel has come off mid-spin, and a human being, with all his faults and fallibility, has accidentally been revealed. It is one of the duties of the press and TV to remind the world of those increasingly rare occasions, as a small but significant act of resistance against the sinister smothering tactics of those in power.
The irony is that when we do catch a glimpse of the real person that resides in a political leader, we are as pleased as battery hens whose bland diet has suddenly been replaced by something which actually has a bit of taste to it. Almost always, the public reaction is to like the politician more, not less.
When Neil Kinnock fell over on the beach, or John Prescott took a swing at a voter, or John Major went to bed with Edwina Currie, or Boris Johnson was forced into a mumbled apology to enraged scousers, they did not become lesser politicians. In spite of (or perhaps as a result of) the strenuous efforts of professional image-makers, the public has an old-fashioned preference for humans over well-programmed androids.
If, through some miracle of camera technology, we hade been able to see the moment when Peter Mandelson tried to punch Alastair Campbell during an argument over whether Tony Blair should wear a tie or not, the reputation of both would have received a much-needed boost. Indeed, it was precisely the footsure way that Blair himself managed to avoid every banana skin put in his path that eventually made him seem so insufferable.
Politicians can say, with complete justification, that theirs is a more difficult and important job than that of any commentator or satirist who mocks them, but that is precisely why mockery is important. Once it is regarded as bad form, irresponsible journalism to remind the public that its leaders can sometimes look and behave like prats, we are in dangerous waters.
News reports, particularly when some self-important, new party iniative is announced, should be allowed their occasional moments of irreverence. The political establishment may argue that skittishness should be kept to the safe confines of a zany news satire, but the right of broadcasters to make light mischief, even in the news, needs to be defended.
In this month of repeats, the BBC should use news reports of its own apology as an excuse to show us once again the marvellous footage of John “Boyo” Redwood and his famous Welsh gaffe.