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Editorial We can't let the BBC off the hook over Question Time

THE accusation from sound engineer and The Human League founder Martyn Ware that Diane Abbott’s “microphone was deliberately turned down” during her appearance on last week’s Question Time shows that the BBC cannot simply wait for the scandal over the show to blow over.

We will probably never know whether Ware’s assessment is correct. As with the absurd kerfuffle in Parliament over what exactly Jeremy Corbyn muttered under his breath while sitting through the jeers and guffaws of the clowns on the Tory benches, experts can probably be found to defend various interpretations of the data.

But the fact that his accusation immediately went viral shows that for many on the left Question Time’s disgraceful treatment of the shadow home secretary is the final straw. 

For years the supposedly impartial public broadcaster, paid for by all of us, has vied with and sometimes surpassed its billionaire-owned rivals in anti-Corbyn bias, from the pre-arranged resignation of shadow minister Stephen Doughty live on air during the “chicken coup” of 2016 to the consistent promotion of backbenchers hostile to the left-wing Labour leadership.

All Corbyn supporters are used to being patronised by Establishment journalists who, like Establishment politicians, have struggled to understand the scale of anger at the status quo because their privilege has shielded them from the grim realities that fuel it.

Many have had to deal with outright slander, from the Momentum volunteers derided as bullies by MPs whose own conduct better merits the description, to the Labour leader himself who has been subjected to malicious slurs ranging from the entirely unfounded charge of anti-semitism to the farcical manipulation of photographs by The Sun to make it appear he was dancing on his way to the Cenotaph.

But none has faced consistent, horrendous abuse on the scale that Abbott does.

Abbott was the first ever black woman elected to Parliament, has continuously represented her Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituents for 32 years — her current majority is an unassailable 35,000, up from less than 8,000 when she first held the seat — and has held various shadow ministerial positions.

More than once she has been among a sharp-eyed minority of Labour MPs who have predicted the disastrous consequences of government decisions, as she did with her warning to then home secretary Theresa May in 2014 that the Immigration Act would facilitate the harassment and deportation of British citizens on racial grounds, an insight shockingly validated by the Windrush scandal.

And yet, if eyewitnesses in the Question Time audience are to be believed, she was mocked pre-show by implications that her shadow cabinet post was simply the result of her personal closeness to Corbyn. 

Presenter Fiona Bruce and the BBC deny this, but Labour’s request for the footage of Bruce’s “joke” should clarify matters. Such demeaning comments would be entirely consistent with a media narrative that constantly belittles this veteran MP in a way that can only be explained by racial prejudice. In any case, the evidence from the broadcast part of the show — the frequent interruptions, the contradiction of Abbott’s correct description of Labour and the Conservatives as neck and neck in the polls — is clear enough.

Socialists will face media bias in a capitalist country. As the 2017 election campaign showed, it can be overcome — when Labour was free to present its actual policies to the public directly under stricter laws governing media behaviour at election time, the surge in support for the party was astonishing. 

But calling out unfair treatment is important, especially so when the false narrative that Labour lacks the appeal to win a general election is being used as a reason not to campaign for one in line with conference policy.

Labour has rightly complained to the BBC and Abbott deserves a full apology from the broadcaster. Failing that, Labour should raise the way she was treated with Ofcom and press ahead with Corbyn’s plans to remove the corporation’s funding from ministerial control and look at electing its board members as part of the democratisation of Britain’s media under the coming Labour government.

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