Why should the BBC censor the public?
Credit: Jeff Overs/BBC via Getty Images   

If the BBC thought that its leadership debate would concentrate heat on those in the race, that backfired. The corporation did everything in its power to make things awkward for the candidates. They had to perch on high, thin stools with their legs awkwardly tucked up to make them look as uncomfortable as possible. Meanwhile, the usually excellent host, Emily Maitlis, also ensured that it was an occasion during which the candidates – Boris Johnson in particular – were not allowed to finish a single thought or sentence uninterrupted.

But it is the BBC, rather than the politicians, which has come under most pressure. An unlikely array of opponents have lined up to criticise the lamentable programme, including George Osborne’s Evening Standard and the Daily Mail. And the main subject of contention has been not the dire production standards, but the selection of guests. Members of the public were brought on during the debate to ask questions of the candidates, and two of them have now been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Most striking is Abdullah Patel, an imam who asked the candidates about ‘Islamophobia’ and demanded that they agree on the importance of words. It was an obvious attack on Boris Johnson and his almost unanimously misrepresented comments in his Telegraph column last year about Muslim women who wear the burka.

I say unanimously misrepresented because it has been forgotten in the intervening period that the article was a defence of people’s right to wear whatever religious garments they want. Furthermore, this mild criticism of the appearance of a burka has everywhere been turned into ‘an attack on Muslim women’, as though all Muslim women wear the garment. It’s a deliberate and dishonest misreading of the column.

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In any case, it transpires that he imam who asked the question has a somewhat chequered set of views himself. As the media have revealed in recent days, Imam Abdullah Patel is not what you might call a philo-Semite. In fact, he seems to have rather unpleasant views about Jews and Israel in particular.

On rape, too, he seems to have not entirely enlightened views. As he inventively put it in one Tweet, “it takes 2 to tango”. He was suggesting that if a woman is alone with a man, then rape should not come as a great surprise to her. Which tells us far more about the Imam’s views than it tells us about other women or men.

Questions have been asked, and not answered, about how somebody who holds such views could have been selected and passed screening by the BBC to then be asking a question (which was itself highly loaded and sectarian) of the men vying to be next UK prime minister.

The other questionable guest is one Aman Thakar. Mr Thakar, it turns out, is a Labour party apparatchik. That might explain why he asked a question which pushed the five contenders to commit to a national election. Mr Thakar – who is a solicitor by profession – has also been subject to scrutiny following his appearance, and, before it was taken down, his social media history combed through.

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To the delight of a certain number of people, one of his Tweets from earlier this year read “Hitler’s abuse of the term nationalism is, to me a nationalist, the most harmful part of his legacy”. This has been pounced on by those who would like to take down Mr Thakar and the BBC as well as anybody who is close to the current, rather morally compromised, Labour party.

It is harder to work out exactly what Mr Thakar meant by his Tweet, since his account no longer exists. But it is not quite honest to portray him as having sparked a ‘Nazi storm’ or anything else that should cause him to be suspended from his job, as he has now been. The law firm, Leigh Day, for whom he worked says that it is conducting an internal investigation into the Tweet. For no fee I think I can save them the time. The Tweet would appear to be a sarcastic response to comments made by the American commentator and activist Candace Owens which were themselves dishonestly reported.

In February, off-the-cuff comments by Owens at an event were dishonestly used to portray her as in some way pro-Hitler. People such as Aman Thakar leapt on the bandwagon and attempted to ruin the reputation of Candace Owens by falsely claiming that she – a black, female Republican – is actually a Nazi. And now it is Mr Thakar’s turn, in kind, to be dishonestly represented in the press as a Nazi, and to have his career destroyed in turn.

There are many attitudes one might take towards all this. Not least among them is to simply say ‘Oh, how the wheel becomes it’ and move on. One political side can chalk up its own dishonestly acquired set of corpses and the other can pile up theirs.

Except that in the days since the BBC debate, and the backlash to it, two things have begun to disturb me.

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The first concerns Imam Patel. It seems to me that the larger failing is not the imam’s nor even the BBC’s for having him on (wise though it may have been to have vetted his views in advance). The imam is a member of the public and should be as free to question politicians as anyone.

The disgrace was that, in answering, Sajid Javid advocated a policy (having a Conservative party ‘investigation’ into ‘Islamophobia’) which he does not believe in. And the Home Secretary was in turn able to persuade all four other contenders to agree to the same policy – even though most if not all of them were or are also opposed to implementing it.

In other words, the weak link that has been shown here is the politicians, and perhaps the political class as a whole, which finds it exceptionally hard to hold onto any principles at all in public. In that respect, you might argue that the BBC show did do what it was supposed to, and successfully exposed the candidates.

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The other qualm, which is linked to this – and which has been absent from the coverage – is that there is something slightly disturbing about all the background searches and potential career annihilation of all those who have (politically and religiously slanted though they certainly were) merely asked questions of politicians.

It has become clear in our politics in recent years that – fine though some people in politics undoubtedly are – we seem to be paying the price for making politics so unattractive. Why would anybody with a life, a history or any desire to enhance their standing in this world, want to go into politics?

Hot on the heels of this thought comes another. What happens when those who question their representatives are put through the same fine-toothed comb, and on occasions disingenuous, wringer? What effect will this have. Who will bother to engage with politicians and in our politics?

That’s what bothered me most about the BBC show. If the whole political arena is so dangerous an environment for public and politicians – for questioners and answerers – alike, then what kind of democracy will we have at the end of that process?