The CoBURN book: Labour's Nadia Whittome faced tabloid tactics from the 'impartial' BBC

Would she condemn, condemn, condemn? Meanwhile, Tim Davie was at the Trust In News Conference repeating his well-worn soundbites about impartiality...

Will you condemn this newsletter? Don’t think about it. Don’t wait to read what I write next. Condemn it. You must condemn because that’s big, grown-up politics. The journalist asks you if you ‘condemn’ it, whatever ‘it’ is, and you say the magic words, “I condemn it in the strongest terms.” And everyone smiles and nods, because you said the mantra. You did some politics.

On the BBC’s Politics Live yesterday, Nadia Whittome, the Labour MP for Nottingham East, was repeatedly asked by the presenter, Jo Coburn, to “condemn” the violent scenes during protests in Bristol on Sunday and particularly to ‘condemn’ protestors:

Coburn introduced her first attempt by saying:

Nadia, you’re a vocal critic of the bill, but there can’t be any justification can there to those scenes that I’ve just shown our viewers?

Whittome reasonably responded:

I was one of the people who attended the protests in London against police violence and against the policing bill. As you say, those protests in Bristol started off pretty uneventfully and they were very relaxed. And then something changed, and we need an investigation into what happened, and it’s not appropriate for me to comment on that until there has been and investigation because there has also been footage and reports of police violence; police using batons against protestors, horses and police dogs…

What we’ve got to be asking is why this is happening in the first place? And this is happening because Priti Patel is introducing the policing bill, another step in our descent into authoritarianism.

It’s a bill that would massively reduce and even criminalise the right to protest, it would criminalise Gypsy, Romany and Traveller communities, and it could mean up to 10 years in prison for damaging a statue, while we still have as little as 4 years for rape. That’s what people are angry about. These scenes are a symptom of the powerlessness people have been feeling, particularly young people.

Coburn immediately went to Damien Green, the Tory MP and former First Secretary of State, who called Whittome’s answer “disgraceful” and accused her of trying to blame the police and government for “hooligans”. He said, “You’ve got to condemn that kind of violence” and Coburn immediately echoed him:

Nadia, do you want to condemn the violence we saw in Bristol last night?

Whittome held her ground:

Until we know what happened, I’m not going to get into the business of condemning people. We need to remember what this is fundamentally about, it is about a bill that is taking away people’s right and this is a response to that. The things that people object to the most about the scenes that we saw last night — things like setting vehicles on fire, breaking windows — those things are already rightly criminal offences, and that’s not what the bill aims to stop. This bill is about criminalising the right to protest, criminalising certain communities, and it represents a descent into authoritarianism.

As she spoke, the programme ran a chyron that read “The violence has been condemned by Priti Patel who said ‘thuggery’ would not be tolerated.” and cut to footage of a burning police van.

Alastair Campbell, the former Labour spin doctor and representative of the Harrowdown Hill tourist board, immediately offered his condemnation and delivered a homily on how hard life is for the police.

Former Conservative special adviser Anita Boateng then got her chance to attack Whittome:

This is extraordinary …we have a sitting Labour MP, that is refusing to admit that this was selfish and dangerous behaviour, and actually seems to be insinuating some kind of conspiracy that perhaps was instigated by the police. I think this is really, really irresponsible language…

Yes, the police would never use undercover officers to commit crimes or incite violence during protests, would they? And since they never would, the government’s Spycops bill must have been totally unnecessary.

Again, Coburn rounded on Whittome:

Coburn: Nadia, do you want to take this opportunity now, having listened to the rest of the panel — Keir Starmer, your party leader, has also condemned the violence along with the Mayor of Bristol — do you want to condemn the violent scenes that we have just shown all our viewers, from last night?

Whittome: Of course Jo, I don’t want to see violence against anybody…

Coburn: (interjecting) So you condemn it…

Whittome: I wish everybody who has been hurt in this a speedy recovery. I’m not going to, as I’ve already said, get into the business of condemning protestors until we know exactly what’s happened…

Coburn: (interjecting) But if you’re condemning the violence, you do have to condemn some of those people that we can see quite clearly from the pictures were setting fire to police vans, police officers have been injured… responding to what Anita said, as a Labour MP, do you want to just straightforwardly say that was wrong?

Whittome: I don’t want to see violence perpetrated against anybody and I wish everybody who has been harmed a speedy recovery, but as I say, I’m not going to get into condemning protestors when we don’t know what’s happened yet. We need a full investigation into what’s happened, on the side of protestors — as is happening — but also on the side of the police. That’s just the function of a democratic society.

Coburn: Alright, well, people can make their own judgements about what you just said…

Having, just hours before, watched Tim Davie, the BBC Director-General, repeat his now hackneyed phrase that the BBC must be “activists for impartiality” during a conversation with Jon Sopel at the Trust In News Conference, I was particularly interested in Coburn’s approach.

She was far from an impartial chair, acting more like a ringmaster for a panel where Whittome was the only representative from the Left.

During the segment, Coburn doesn’t press any of the other contributors hard on their points but returns multiple times to whether Whittome will “condemn” the violence, seemingly obsessed with pushing the Labour MP to recite the ‘acceptable’ set of words.

It’s a tabloid tactic and a pretty lousy one at that. But it has done precisely what it was designed to do — producing a rash of tabloid news stories balanced on the notion that Whittome somehow gloried in the violence and drawing upon the predictable vitriol of the Guido Fawkes blog which quickly leapt on the exchange.

The Daily Mail headlines screams Labour MP Nadia Whittome REFUSES to condemn protesters over night of violence in Bristol that left 20 officers injured and a police station trashed while The Daily Express opts for the equally shrill Corbynista MP refuses to condemn Bristol violence against police 'The Bill is an assault'. The Spectator, the preferred fanzine of the multi-syllabic far right, went with a simpler headline — Watch: Labour MP refuses to condemn Bristol violence — and sneered in its copy:

… how long it will be before the 24-year-old follows her 'hero' Jeremy Corbyn in having the whip withdrawn...

Funnily enough, that line was parroted by other contemptible characters in the British media including Desperate Dan Hodges and sweaty-handed retweet chaser Rupert Myers:

It’s 6.35 am on the following day as I write this sentence and Nadia Whittome is still a Labour MP, so I guess there’s a nice big building that’s just been freed up in London. Either that or Dan Hodges is talking abject horse shit again.

Whittome calmly reiterated her position again on Twitter. If we lived in a sane political culture her comments would not have been controversial. She called for a fair and even-handed investigation. But we live on the curséd island where politics is about offering the media a series of symbols that it will then interpret for the public, deciding whether you get a thumbs up or thumbs down.

If Whittome had simply jerked her knee and said that, of course, she condemned everything, she would have had an easy ride. But instead, she decided to actually present a nuanced argument based on what she believes. And now, we must condemn. Condemn or be condemned!

Those on the Right are never asked to condemn police violence or closely interrogated on their positions around law and order. Despite a brief outbreak of questioning around police powers after heavy-handed response to the Clapham Common vigil — largely because the columnists and commentators saw ‘people like us’ being roughed up by cops — the discourse has snapped back into its usual shape: Police = good, protestors = bad, no further questions.

Journalists and news executives, like Tim Davie, love to harp on about the need for impartiality and how there are at least two sides to every story, but that’s only the case when they feel like it.

Whittome attempted to take a reasonable and reasoned view on the events in Bristol but the line for the discussion had already been defined — the panel was expected to condemn and she wasn’t falling in line. The producers of Politics Live knew that would happen when they booked her and that’s precisely why they booked her.

It was a tabloid circus. And you must condemn…