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Home > Media

PC, the BBC and Littlejohn's Delight

30 August 2006

'Political correctness' has long been a gift to right-wingers, allowing them to have a dig at liberals and lefties by citing apocryphal examples, or things they've just made up on the spot, as though it constitutes a genuine point. What Littlejohn column would be complete without some comment like: 'What next? Will we be forced to call paedophiles “sexually-preferentially-challenged”?'

Back in Not-mad Land, we suspect political correctness as a concept is going a little out of fashion. Phrases like 'It's political correctness gone mad!' have firmly entered the realm of tired cliché. Similarly, people are more aware that when you delve into any contemporary tale of political correctness, like 'Baa baa grey sheep' or local councils banning the term 'Christmas', you quickly find the facts differ significantly from the story in the paper (in the latter case the phrase 'Winter lights' had been used in literature by a junior council employee - whatever their motivations, there certainly wasn't a ban on the word 'Christmas').

People are also slightly wiser to the fact that what is claimed to be political correctness often turns out to be jokes that have slipped into that grey area of widely-held but deeply suspect 'knowledge'. If pressed, people will concede that they've never heard the term 'vertically challenged' used in a real context to describe short people. Although some will respond with 'But it's the sort of thing these PC types would say', at which point you may as well abandon rational debate and start a discussion about whether Mr Tumnus would win a fight with Frodo. (Our money's on Mr Tumnus. He'd get Frodo on the floor and then lay in with those powerful Faun legs and vicious little hooves. Probably.)

However, while PC is looking increasingly like a lame duck (or should that be 'perambulatorily-challenged, differently abled water fowl' - feel free to use that, Richard Littlejohn, you cunt) you can bet there'll be someone feeding more ammunition to the right-wingers by pursuing PC in exactly the way they expect them to. And one organisation that never tires of flagellating itself over political correctness is the BBC.

This week the BBC's editorial executive of diversity, Mary Fitzpatrick, said there were too many white journalists reporting from non-white nations, particularly in Africa, resulting, she said, in programmes that give out the message: 'Here we are in Africa, and here's a white person saying, “Well, look at these people”.'

Ms Fitzpatrick's criticism would be more justified if the Beeb's foreign correspondents were indeed filing reports like: 'I've just seen a group of brown people chasing some other brown people, and they looked jolly angry. I think we can conclude that there's some sort of dispute happening amongst the natives. Maybe someone stole someone's cow. I don't know. I'm just praying they don't put me in a big cooking pot. This is Kate Adie in Sudan.'

But they're not. BBC News can be criticised for a number of things, but the
competence of its overseas correspondents is rarely one of them. Fitzpatrick
criticises the idea of white journalists reporting from Africa, not the quality of the reporting. And although TV news can often appear superficial, it's probably more due to trying to sum up a civil war in a three-minute report - more in-depth coverage from the same reporters tends only to get aired on longer shows like 'Newsnight'.

As an ideal, well-informed local correspondents isn't a particularly controversial idea. But whether the BBC's international news really *needs* homegrown, and presumably non-white, local correspondents in Africa is another matter. Surely the role of reporters is to interview people who *are* experts on whatever country they're in, or simply to be well-informed in the first place?

And relentlessly pursuing 'diversity' has some strange effects. A lot of the corporation's output has an air of tokenism about it: a feeling that a box has been ticked somewhere, whether it's a feisty female vicar, or bouncing African tribespeople or dancing wheelchair users in the breaks between programmes. And the difference between tokenism and substance is neatly illustrated by the BBC's attitude to disabled people. Everyone is familiar with the 'dancing wheelchair guys', but the corporation's only long-running show about disability is 'See Hear', which, with its air of bland worthiness, is more like children's TV. In fact, you get the feeling that the show would quite like to hand out badges for Triumph In The Face Of Adversity.

The irony of quota-filling is that the opposite of the aims of political correctness are achieved. One wholly worthwhile goal of what can loosely be called political correctness is that all sections of society are represented in the media, getting away from the era when the BBC genuinely *didn't* represent society as a whole, instead appearing to be being broadcast between courses from a particularly posh black tie dinner party. But by gluing a veneer of diversity and multiculturalism onto programmes, all you're doing is creating a world that's just as unrecognisable, except in the eyes of other diversity bean counters at the BBC.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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