By Charles Moore 30.12.22
Respected historians have found significant parts of its history output to be biased, misleading and even factually wrong
As part of the BBC's agenda, even Sir Winston Churchill has been portrayed as a 'villain' CREDIT: PA
As the year turns, one thinks about history. There has been plenty of it in 2022. Queen Elizabeth II died after the longest and most successful reign of any constitutional monarch ever. By the following month (coincidentally), we had had three PMs in six weeks.
Across the world, Covid-19 continued to make people and economies (including its Chinese originators) ill and inflicted unexpected political after-effects. By invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin caused the death of more than 100,000 people and the displacement of eight million. He threatened global energy supply and the post-1945 world order.
How will these events be seen by history? It may be idle to speculate, but worthwhile to raise a different question – how will that history be told?
This week, History Reclaimed, a group of historians worried by what it sees as ideological hijacking, has brought out a report called “Can we trust the BBC with our history”?
It takes six case studies of recent BBC programmes – four related to slavery, one about the Irish potato famine in the 1840s and one about the Bengal famine.
In all cases, the main villains the BBC unearthed were white, British and male. Such men imprisoned slaves for trading purposes on Bunce Island, Sierra Leone; they robbed the Kingdom of Benin of its works of art; one of their prime ministers, Robert Peel, refused handouts to the starving Irish; another, Winston Churchill, denied food for the people of Bengal; and so on.
The case of History Reclaimed is not that these episodes are glorious chapters in Our Island Story, but that all the BBC stories were significantly, factually wrong – citing false evidence and/or omitting relevant, accessible evidence that complicates the broadcasters’ morality tale.
Thus, it was never mentioned in the Sierra Leone programme that the “raiders” who brought African slaves to the British were themselves Africans, who lived by this trade. Nor were viewers told that the Royal Navy became the main suppressor of the slave trade, capturing, between 1808 and 1860, 1,600 slave ships and freeing 150,000 slaves. Again, the BBC did not explain that the British raid on Benin was an expedition to punish a kingdom which traded slaves for the metals which composed their works of art, and massacred an unarmed party of this country’s envoys and their African bearers.
In the case of the Irish famine, the accusatory TV historian cited a speech Peel made in Parliament before the famine had taken hold as evidence of his callousness when it had actually happened.
History Reclaimed points out that such programmes violate the BBC’s own “public purposes” – especially its commitment to accuracy, impartiality and diversity (“alternative viewpoints”).
This might matter less if one programme’s bias balanced another’s – a separate documentary exposing African slave traders, say, or a pro-Unionist account of Irish history. But, no, the slant is all one way: the white British are always guilty. The BBC, says History Reclaimed, is “presenting false history as uncontested fact”.
I need not labour the point the report makes so well. Instead, I want to ask why such programmes – and comparable exercises, online or printed – are now omnipresent.
Their authors will say they are challenging “conventional wisdom” and overthrowing the self-serving orthodoxies of white male propaganda dished out to generations of school-children.
Where are these orthodoxies taught? It is 50 years since I studied basic history at school, but even in that distant era I do not remember ever being told that the British Empire as a whole was marvellous, and I do recall several occasions on which I was taught that it had been bad.
Mostly what I remember, however, is a strong historical narrative, Anglo-centric certainly, but not cut off from world issues. Its power came not from its ideology, which was mostly vague, but from its chronological coherence. The sequence of time is the framework of all history. What happens afterwards cannot affect what happened before (though it might well change our view of what happened before). So dates really matter: we learnt them, often by heart.
We also learnt a hierarchy of importance. As children tend to prefer, the emphasis was on great events and great people. We learnt more about wars and revolutions, inventions and discoveries, than about domestic customs or the growth of stock markets; more about Nelson or Newton than about Mrs Beeton or J.M.Keynes.
The first thing we learnt was a context of consecutive facts. It was only when we approached adulthood that we started to consider historical arguments more analytically. Our order of priorities was rather like that of a newspaper – exciting and important stories on the front page, comment articles inside for later consideration.
There was then – and, I am pleased to discover, there is still – a history exam, devised chiefly for preparatory schools, called the Townsend Warner Prize. To do well in this, one had to have much disparate knowledge at one’s 12-year-old fingertips. What was the War of Jenkins’s Ear? Name the members of the CABAL. Who was the Akond of Swat?
Looking at recent Townsend Warner papers online, I see they preserve the same testing spirit, while rightly including more non-European subjects, and place the same emphasis on facts, economically conveyed. Explain what the following terms mean, says one question – scutage, the Silk Road, the Cinque Ports, pals’ battalions, Doodlebugs. It gives you only half a line for each answer.
Unfortunately, this is untypical of the way history is conveyed in the 21st century. It is not so much that pupils learn bad narratives. It is more that they learn no overall narrative. Woke ideology seeks to fill the vacuum. If you don’t know what happened when, you are like a geographer who cannot read a map. You have no sense of where you, your time and your country stand in relation to your subject: you are susceptible to bad guides.
It would be a good thing, in 2023, if the BBC could apply its collective mind to remedying this. Is it too late, for example, to make a television about the history of the crowns and other objects to be worn at the King’s Coronation in May? You read a lot about the North/South divide in England. This is historically represented by the division of the Church into two provinces – York and Canterbury. How about a programme which studied how that power struggle played out, using the two cathedrals as illustrations? Newspapers tend to run “On This Day” columns drawn from their cuttings 50 or a hundred years ago. Why doesn’t Radio 4 do its version, rather as it does “Tweet of the Day” about birds?
We are all governed through the House of Commons. Why is there no programme about how it came into being and has developed from Simon de Montfort to Rishi Sunak?
What organisation could be better qualified than the BBC, by Charter and by its UK-wide funding, to tell us about ourselves, and our place in the wider world? What about Normans versus Anglo-Saxons, and both versus Celts? What about Protestants versus Catholics? What about the persecution, expulsion and eventual return of the Jews? What about the story of the British who left for the Americas, Australasia or Africa? And what of the mainly non-white peoples of the Empire and Commonwealth who came to these shores?
Yes, these stories sometimes involve injustice and suffering, but they are so rich and complex that they require not a wagging finger, but an open mind.
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By Charles Moore, who covers politics with the wisdom and insight that come from having edited The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator.