...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Day 5909: Mr John Humphrys in Muddy Waters


Today’s lesson: when @BBCR4Feedback call an hour early and say they can call back in an hour… they aren’t going to call back.

How did we get to there? Well, the usual start to the week – listening to Daddy Richard shout at the radio – was interrupted by a moment of shocked silence when, as he tweeted, THIS happened:

“Jaw dropping moment as John Humphreys asks: doesn't it muddy the waters if we call far right terrorist murder of Jo Cox "terrorism" #r4today”

Life in the Today Programme goldfish bowl...

That generated… a fair number of retweets and replies, one of which said we should make it a proper complaint to the BBC. So that’s what we did, and posted it up on the Facebook too:

“After a jawdropping moment on this morning's Today programme, I have submitted this complaint to the BBC, via

During an interview with Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, in charge of Counter Terrorism, Mr Rowley warned the public should not forget the terrorist threat from right-wing extremists, and cited the murder of MP Jo Cox.
John Humphreys responded by asking "didn't that muddy the waters" and suggesting that the murderer Thomas Mair was mentally ill.
The judge, sentencing Thomas Mair, said: "There is no doubt this murder was done for the purpose of advancing a political, racial and ideological cause namely that of violent white supremacism and exclusive nationalism most associated with Nazism and its modern forms."
Dismissing genuine terrorism as actions of "lone mentally ill person" is factually wrong and dangerous to public safety. And the implication that terrorism is something done only be foreigners / non-white people / Muslims is dangerously close to accepting the premise of the racists that Thomas Mair represents.
If the police are describing the Jo Cox murder as terrorism, the BBC should not be questioning that, but asking itself serious questions about the climate of right-wing hate that has been allowed foment in the UK, for which the BBC by airing or repeating (as here) the views of these people bears some responsibility.

And THAT generated another lot of traffic and clearly a LOT of other people were quite cross too, because that was when the Radio FEEDBACK programme got in touch and asked if they could talk about that Tweet and the reaction to what Mr Humphrys said.

So they said that they would call between 10am and 1pm, Wednesday. Actually they called at 9.15, just as we were getting on the Jubilee line.

So, IF this ever happens to you, do not let them say: “it’s fine we will call you back in an hour”. No! You say “I WILL TALK TO YOU NOW”!

Anyway, here is what we WOULD have said:

Why was I so taken about by John Humphrys suggestion that calling the murder of MP Jo Cox terrorism was “muddying the waters”?

The Facts – the police, the crown prosecution service, the sentencing judge all agreed that this was a politically motivated terrorist murder. These are not liberal snowflakes, they are serious people. Jo Cox’s killer, Thomas Mair, was psychiatrically examined and found to be in his own mind and fit to stand trial for his actions.

This is the BBC’s own report of the sentencing judge’s remarks: - note the emphasis on the high degree of planning and premeditation, as well as the political motivation. This was not the random act of a “madman”.

The right wing press – who have an agenda – might question this. But I expect very senior BBC journalists to know the facts and not repeat propaganda.

The Context – the interview was with Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley asking the public to contact the police with information if they are worried or suspicious about their neighbours. And as a Liberal, I’m not 100% happy with his “be afraid and inform on your neighbours” agenda here. So actually, I was giving him some credit when he was reminding people that there is far right political terrorism to watch out for as well. When Mr Humphrys interrupted. But if anything is going to “muddy the waters” it is the suggestion from the interviewer that some terrorism isn’t as worth while contacting the police about because it is a fascist rather than ISIS who is threatening people’s lives.

And I think you could tell that the Assistant Commissioner was somewhat taken aback by this sudden derailing of the interview, too.

The Narrative – because it’s all very familiar to hear white terrorists described as “a lone wolf” or “mentally ill”. These excuses get repeated whenever a white person commits an atrocity like this. Anders Breivek who killed all those children in Sweden; Timothy McVeigh the Oklahoma bomber; Dylann Roof, the man who shot nine black churchgoers at a service in Charleston Carolina; the list goes on, back to the Unabomber and earlier.

The message is “white people don’t commit terrorism; only brown people do terrorism”.

And it’s wrong.

We don’t hear people challenging the idea that the murder of Lee Rigby was terrorism. We don’t hear people suggesting that the shoe bomber Richard Reid was mentally ill. And it’s not like we have no experience of white sectarian terrorism in this country.

The BBC has a responsibility not to perpetuate this myth, which leads to…

The hate crimes – we’ve seen a surge in attacks against women and minorities, particularly people who are immigrants or even just perceived as immigrants, fuelled by the xenophobic language of the Leave campaign and UKIP and now even the more right-wing elements of the government. The murder of Jo Cox happened at the height of the most horribly divisive and racially charged referendum campaign and on very the day Nigel Farage was unveiling his Nazi-imagery-evoking “Breaking Point” poster.

And people want to deny there is a connection.

The right wing, the nationalists, want people to think that only foreigners can be terrorists. They want people to be afraid. But they don’t want it to come back on them. And they won’t take responsibility. They want to deny that there are extremist views on their side, and that among those extremists are some people who use violence and murder for their political ends.

I do not expect senior BBC journalists to be giving support to these people.

The excuse – the excuse given in reply to my complaint was that John was just putting a challenging question. Well, firstly, it wasn’t a question. It might have had the form of a question, but it was just an assertion. It was not posed as a question, more a muttered aside. And it presupposes that Jo Cox murder could not be terrorism if the “question” put is whether that statement muddies the waters.

But also, if you’re going to ask challenging questions, why start at that point? Why not challenge the Assistant Commissioner over why the terror alert is still at the second highest level after years and years, and doesn’t that make it a bit pointless? Or challenge him on the threats that the police say that they’ve defeated – what sort of threats are we talking about: knife attacks, anthrax letters or something on the scale of 7/7? That would give the public a genuine insight into the threat level, in a way that questioning whether Jo Cox murder was terrorism would not.

The Farage agenda gets far too much of a free ride from the BBC already, with UKIP – or their proxies in the Tory Party – on the air far more often than their support however you count it would justify. But this was a particularly poor interview – unquestioning of the authoritarian agenda at the start and then then tossing in this unjustified assertion that would not have been out of place in the Daily Mail.

John Humphrys has a reputation to live up to. We should expect more of him.