Shame on the BBC

March 11, 2008 — Comment

Written by Joe Street

Below we reproduce a letter of complaint from a historian to the BBC about its programme Rivers of Blood – part of the BBC 2 ‘White season’.

‘I write to complain in the strongest terms possible about last night’s Rivers of Blood documentary shown on BBC 2. The documentary’s position on Enoch Powell was irresponsible, poorly researched and seemed to justify and offer approval for Powell’s repugnant views.

The writer of the show seems unaware of the work of Paul Foot, whose biography of Powell was the earliest – and most reliable – source on Powell’s political ‘philosophy.’ Foot offers compelling evidence to demonstrate that Powell was an opportunist, and that his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was not an expression of Powell’s patriotism but a calculated ploy to exploit the fears and racial hatred that was welling up in the West Midlands in the wake of Peter Griffiths’s short-lived period as MP for Smethwick. The speech was not, as your documentary suggested, a plea from the heart of an English patriot but a cynical attempt to whip up racial hysteria among the White population.

This latter point was twisted by the editing of your programme to suggest that Powell’s speech also incited resentment among the British Asian and Black communities. The programme made explicit links between Powell’s speech and the Toxteth and Brixton riots over ten years after. The presentation of these events also suggested that they were part of a racial war that was overwhelming British society in the 1970s and 1980s. As any serious historian of the time will confirm, they were nothing of the sort, but were localised responses to White oppression from government authorities. This telescoping of history had the effect of suggesting that Powell’s warnings were correct. In fact, they are not. Powell warned of racial warfare in the UK. We have not seen anything of the sort since then, and it is irresponsible to suggest that we have.

The use of music in the programme furthered the producer’s aims to exonerate and offer approval for Powell. It was most noticeable that ominous chords appeared at certain points to heighten fears about Black peoples, but that Powell’s appearances – and that of the racist crowds who supported him – were met instead with more emollient classical music. A minor point, maybe, but a significant one within the context of the rest of the programme.

The programme’s response to Powell’s citation of the American civil rights movement was also erroneous and mischievous. The programme was correct to assert that Powell feared the racial tinderbox of the US that he had witnessed in 1967 but the programme’s choice of clips gave an entirely false interpretation of his response to the United States. Powell was in the US at a time when race riots were threatening the internal stability of many US cities (including New York City where he was based during his visit – I have no evidence to confirm whether Powell actually visited Detroit and Chicago during this visit, as your programme suggested). These riots were led by African American youths and were normally directed against White law enforcers and businesses that operated in the Black community. The programme, however, offered a different interpretation. By including footage from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s campaigns in Birmingham and Selma, both in Alabama and in 1963 and 1965 respectively, the programme suggested that the moderate civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, was in some way responsible for the rioting. That the programme went further, to link the assassination of King to Powell’s views compounded this twisting of the historical evidence. There is no evidence to suggest that Powell was moved in any way by King’s death, yet the editing of footage in your programme suggested that this was the case. The indiscriminate use of archive footage rendered this section incoherent and suggested to viewers that moderate opposition to racial segregation led directly to race riots. Again, no serious historian of the time would even suggest that this was the case.

The selection of ‘talking heads’ also seemed very peculiar. Why was no professional historian of the 1960s included? Why was the work of Robert Shepherd, whose biography of Powell is a much more reliable source than Heffer’s, excluded? Perhaps more pertinently, why was Paul Foot’s work on Powell ignored? The inclusion of A. Sivanandan and Stuart Hall was obviously designed to suggest that both men approved of the programme and to suggest that the programme was racially inclusive, yet Sivanandan’s comments were restricted to the present racial climate and Hall did not have a significant period on camera. Roy Hattersley’s comments on Powell were welcome, but offered little challenge to the views of Nicholas Winterton and the other White faces on parade. Hattersley’s conclusion – that he hated Powell then and hates him now – was presented as a forlorn gesture by a defeated politician.

Overall, this programme seemed designed to suggest that Powell was right, and that he was speaking up for the working classes who had been excluded from political debate in the 1960s. While the latter contains a kernel of truth (both then and now) it does not excuse the programme’s suggestion that multiculturalism led to rioting in UK cities, and its approval of racist politicking by British politicians. Powell did not hope to provoke debate in the UK about race, but wished only to further his career. His speech was not a lost opportunity to re-examine the UK’s willingness to accept immigrants but an attempt to whip up racial hysteria among the White population. That there were few violent responses to Powell’s speech is an indication that the vast majority of British people firmly and categorically rejected his repugnant views, and the programme did nothing to suggest this was the case. Furthermore, that Nick Griffin said that if the BNP had made a documentary on Powell ‘it wouldn’t have differed too much from this’ says it all. (Quoted in the blog on 9.3.08 of the Deputy Leader of the BNP – Simon Darby – http://www.simondarby.blogspot.com/).

Shame on the BBC for broadcasting such a disgraceful mistreatment of our history.’

Related links

IRR News Comment: The beatification of Enoch Powell

IRR News Comment: Rehabilitating Enoch Powell

Joe Street is a lecturer in Modern American History at the University of Kent. He is the author of The Culture War in the Civil Rights Movement and 'Malcolm X, Smethwick, and the Influence of the African American Freedom Struggle on British Race Relations in the 1960s', Journal of Black Studies, 2007.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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