Saturday, March 27, 2010

Kept Off the Air DIFFERENT PEOPLE, SAME TREATMENT? John McDonnell, MP, left, and right, Deborah Fink singing The Skies Are Weeping, cantata for Rachel Corrie.

AN Israeli artist friend, currently in the 'States, was pleased this weekend to discover her name had been added to the "S.H.I.T. list" , of supposedly "self-hating Israel-threatening" Jews, compiled by a group of mad Zionists linked with the right-wing settlers in the occupied West Bank.

I must admit I was relieved when I heard my name was on the list. After seeing younger friends make it before me, I was starting to fear for my street cred. My pride fell shortly after when I found Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was also listed, though what he did to deserve a place I don't know.

I guess I ought not to joke about these things. In the United States some people have received threats after being listed. Here in Britain, a trade unionist was attacked in his home after the far-Right list site Red Watch drew attention to him.

But I wonder whether the lists we should worry about most are not those published by right-wing nutters with nothing better to do, but the ones that secretly circulate among powerful companies and supposedly respectable institutions, which can do you more harm.

Steve Acheson, an electrician and member of my union, was thrilled last year by the information commissioners findings that 40 building firms acted wrongly in keeping files on people. But one year later Steve is still fighting to get his job back in the industry.

I was listening to poet Michael Rosen the other day, on his Radio Four programme Word of Mouth. He is due to pick up an award on behalf of his teacher parents, at the National Union of Teachers' conference in Liverpool. When Mike Rosen first entered broadcasting forty years ago his career at the BBC was cut short, someone deciding he should be kept off the air because of his politics. A film about the Shrewsbury building pickets was part of the indictment - or perhaps would have been, had they been honest enough to state the reasons for not engaging him. At the time, in gentlemanly British tradition, he was only told the corporation could not find a suitable place for him. Only much later did he learn that two departments had wanted to give him a job but were over-ruled at higher level.

You can read more about blacklisting at the Beeb and some of the people affected in Mark Hollingsworth and Richard Norton-Taylor's 1988 book Blacklist.

But are there some people, not just those seeking a broadcasting career, but people who happen to be in the news, or members of the public, whom the beeb will try to keep off the air as a matter of policy? (obviously Nick Griffin of the British National Party is not one of these. The Beeb acted as though it had a duty to place him in the Question Time programme).

The late Dr.Cyril Smith, then an academic at the London School of Economics, I believe, was walking down the street once on Budget Day, when the BBC was interviewing people about the chancellor's doings. The man with the mike was just approaching, when a bespectacled figure looking not unlike Cyril came hurtling from nowhere saying "Not him! Not him!", and guided the interviewer away. Cyril Smith was a Marxist, but his brother Tony who worked for the Beeb was "New Labour", though the phrase had not been invented yet. Thus the viewers were spared troubling ideas at teatime!

Deborah Fink is a music teacher and opera singer from Essex. Her comfortable Jewish family background and girl's boarding school education did not prepare her for radical politics; but her hopes for peace and justice in the Middle East were strengthened into a commitment by an olive-picking stay in a Palestinian village, and witnessing the Occupation. Her campaigning energy has been toughened into defiance by encounter with the Zionists in her own community, and manhandling from the Metropolitan Police (she was accused of assaulting two large police officers but the case was thrown out. She is considering bringing her own charges). Oh, and Debbie was well ahead of me in making that Zionist hate list. Fortunately she has a good sense of humour, and has even taken up comedy. You should see her impersonation of Melanie Philips!

In November 2007, Deborah Fink organised the 'Skies are Weeping' concert at the Hackney Empire, including the world premiere of Philip Munger's cantata in memory of campaigner Rachel Corrie, killed under an Israeli bulldozer at Rafeah. Deborah was the soprano singer. Rachel Corrie's mother Cindy flew in for the occasion. The BBC broadcast a report the night afterwards, focussing on controversy and giving the last word to Jonathan Hoffman of the Zionist Federation who had led a small if noisy protest outside, supposedly on behalf of the Jewish people of London. Deborah Fink had been interviewed, and made the point that she was Jewish, and so were many of those participating or sponsoring the concert, including some big names in the arts, and we may add much of the paying audience. But Deborah and what she had to say were simply cut out from what the BBC broadcast.

She did extract an apology from the BBC some time later, for the wrong impression their broadcast had given. So did I. And so did some Jewish anti-Zionists, supporters of the concert, whom the BBC erroneously described as supporting Hoffman's Zionist protest!

John McDonnell, the left-wing Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington,is the son of a bus driver and TGWU shop steward, and worked in various jobs before getting himself higher education and making his way in the trade union and labour movement. As deputy leader of the Greater London Council he wanted to continue the fight against Thatcher longer than Ken Livingstone thought could be done. As an MP he has campaigned for a trade union freedom bill and rights for agency workers. A member of the Labour MPs Campaign Group and founder of the Labour Representation Committee, he put himself forward on an anti-war, public ownership platform to challenge Gordon Brown's accession to the Labour leadership.

John McDonnell's campaign aroused enthusiasm among trade unionists and ordinary Labour Party members, whom he addressed at public meetings, but not enough support from union leaders, or enough MPs to endorse his nomination. Had his name gone forward he would probably have come well behind Brown in the vote. But by standing, along with his socialist manifesto "Another World is Possible", he would have placed the idea of a socialist alternative in people's minds and discussion, just as the economic crisis loomed.

Was that perhaps, as much as pressure from Labour officialdom, the reason why the BBC did not mention McDonnell or his campaign? When Michael Meacher announced his short-lived bid, BBC news reported this as though it was the first challenge to Brown's leadership.

John McDonnell has been campaigning with his constituents and environmentalists against plans to rip up homes and communities for a third runway at Heathrow airport. He was suspended from the Commons after lifting the mace to protest lack of democratic discussion on this. That was reported, of course:

Last week a high court judge, Lord Justice Carnwath, ruled that the Heathrow expansion plan must be referred back to ministers, because it took no account of concerns over climate change and the government's pledges to reduce carbon emissions.

On TV we saw campaigners coming from the court in celebratory mood, and pouring classes of bubbly, and in the centre of them was the familiar face of the Hayes and Harlington MP. But when it came for comments we heard from the Tory leader of Hillingdon council,Councillor Ray Puddifoot, who referred to the election coming, and from two MPs,Susan Kramer, Lib Dem (Richmond Park) and Justine Greening, Tory(Putney).

Perhaps there wasn't time for John McDonnell as well, perhaps he was too busy celebrating with constituents, perhaps unlike us the BBC reporter did not recognise him, and that's why they they didn't even mention his name? But while the other two MPs may be concerned about carbon emissions and noise, it is John McDonnell who has to weigh the issues of threats to constituents' homes and keeping contituents' airport jobs.

John McDonnell and Debbie Fink are two very different people, and if the BBC came under any pressures to keep either of them off air in 2007, the sources will not have been the same. But there is a repeated pattern of effect from the way the Hackney Empire concert then and Heathrow Airport row today are treated. In the first case by editing out Debbie and what she had to say, the BBC report conveyed the impression that you either sympathise with Palestinians and their supporters or with (Zionist) Jews. Forget the words "Nation shall speak peace unto nation" inscribed over the door at Bush House, home of BBC overseas services. In the second case, by not hearing from John McDonnell we were left to think only Tories and perhaps Lib Dems oppose the airport expansion which, we were told, "Labour and the unions" are determined to push through. And this with a general election coming up!

In neither case are the viewers supplied with the information, or perhaps, credited with the intelligence, to understand that it is not as simple as all that. And this is what "public service broadcasting" is supposed to be?

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At 2:27 AM, Anonymous Michael Rosen said...

Apologies, Charlie, but the award is actually for me! I mentioned my parents on facebook as a reminder to myself that I owe it to them and their activism in the union.

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