"You can't sit with us!" While Emma Barnett 'impartially' sneers on BBC 5Live, Allison Pearson is still Britain's worst columnist

The Telegraph is a fanzine for racists and conspiracists and BBC News' 'impartiality' is becoming increasingly unbelievable.

Allison Pearson is a fiction writer, but her best confections do not end up between the covers of ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’ and ‘How Hard Can It Be?’, but in her Telegraph column and its ironically named podcast Planet Normal. Pearson’s record of falsehoods, conspiratorial thinking, and downright dangerous claims is long. I know how she does it: She lies. Often and comprehensively.

Having been thoroughly taken in by (and heavily promoted) the false and fantastically irresponsible anti-MMR vaccine campaign in the 2010s, Pearson has continued to pedal fringe claims in the pages of a newspaper which still purports to be one of the great broadsheets. The truth is that with owners so malicious they recently sued each other, The Daily Telegraph has become nothing but a feverish fanzine for bastards. Pearson is its undisputed queen of disinformation and discord.

In 2016, in the immediate aftermath of the Belgian bombings — less than an hour after they occurred — Pearson said they justified voting Leave in the upcoming Brexit referendum. She tweeted, “Brussels, de facto capital of the European Union, is also the jihadist capital of Europe. And the Remainers dare to say we’re safer in the EU!” Continuing her theme of horrendous takes after terror attacks, following the Manchester Arena Bombing in May 2017, she called for internment to be introduced.

Notoriously, in December 2019, Pearson falsely claimed that a photo of a child lying on the floor of a hospital had been staged for election reasons. She purported to have received “a detailed explanation” from a ‘source’ that proved the scenario had been set up to make a political point. She assured her Twitter followers and Telegraph readers that the photo was “100% faked”. The trust that runs Leeds General Infirmary put out a statement confirming that there weren’t beds in the room where the boy was being treated and the hospital’s chief medical officer apologised. Allison Pearson did not.

Which brings us to yesterday’s column, in which Pearson rode to Priti Patel’s rescue on a horse called Bullshit. She wrote, “It does beggar belief that a woman who is barely more than 5ft tall managed to terrorise all those 6ft 3in public school mandarins” as if diminutive stature means you are incapable of wielding power in a bullying way. The punning side of me wants to say something about it being ‘a stretch’ but really you deserve better than that.

Of course, Pearson has form for writing columns that defy belief but this one was a classic of her farcical form. For reference, Stalin was 5’ 5” — shorter than Napoleon (5’ 7”), who was the victim of francophobic fake news. But then Pearson knows that it is power and not height that is at the heart of bullying. She is merely pretending to be ignorant of the idea for money. As Professor Priyamvada Gopal noted, the height thing was a mere distraction — Pearson’s column rested on a stereotype of Asian women as small and demure.

Priti Patel is accused of, among other things, contributing to a senior official fainting after berating him following an all-nighter work session and being a factor in another official contemplating suicide. But to the right, particularly those writing in their tame newspapers, race is a weapon and their intention is to cast anyone criticising Priti Patel as a racist rather than, as is true in most cases, someone who doesn’t want a proven bully to hold one of the great offices of state.

On the topic of Telegraph staff, present and former: While Pearson’s column was being pulled apart on Twitter yesterday morning, Emma Barnett — a former Telegraph women’s section editor among many other things — was on BBC 5Live showing her usual disdain for the spirit of BBC News impartiality. As she interviewed one of the founders of Extinction Rebellion about a new protest campaign, Money Rebellion — which encourages financial disobedience, including refusing to make mortgage payments — the sneer was audible.

As it goes, I think Extinction Rebellion’s protest tactics have veered from the unwise to the downright dismal. The Money Rebellion call has been good for gaining it airtime and column inches again but will likely put some vulnerable supporters in even more vulnerable circumstances. But I’m not a presenter on a BBC news radio station, operating under the requirement to offer impartiality and objectivity. Barnett’s style — famously demonstrated in her demand of Angela Rayner, “Would you nationalise sausages?” — ranges from robust to outright rude. Her sneer was audible as she interviewed the protestor.

The issue with this is that while it might be supremely arguable that most listeners would consider Money Rebellion to be a bit of a stupid idea, it’s not Emma Barnett’s job as an interviewer to explicitly say that. Instead, she’s there to elucidate what’s going on for her listeners and to give her interviewee the chance to express their intentions, so long as they don’t breach any broadcasting rules or cross legal lines. But while ‘editorialising’ from BBC presenters — see the recent uproar about comments made by Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis — is castigated by the right when it involves figures from their side of the spectrum and topics they care about, anyone on the left is subjected to eye-rolling, tutting, and sneering.

British publications and broadcasters have one set of views and positions that are ‘acceptable’ and another which are entirely verboten. Since so many people in the media are in the upper tax bracket and own buy-to-let property, the idea that landlordism is a scourge is given very short shrift. And it follows that a presenter like Emma Barnett, who specialises in moral cant and censoriousness, would be horrified at the notion of not paying your mortgage. That her own moral positions have been flawed, to say the least, doesn’t seem to come into it (see here for details).

Listening to Barnett’s show — or those of many other presenters on 5Live and elsewhere across the BBC network — reveals that ‘impartiality’ is at best paper-thin as a concept. It is not evenly distributed. If BBC News is confident enough of its audience will dislike or disbelieve you, presenters pretty much have impunity to laugh at and lambast you. Meanwhile, fringe figures from the right are given gentle treatment for fear of the avalanche of complaints that is triggered every time the right-wing feel ‘conservative’ views have been traduced. Perhaps it’s time for the left to limber up and be a little less willing to take the beatings — whether they’re delivered in newspaper columns or through contentious radio shows.

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