An honest dishonest mistake

The BBC cenotaph cock-up was clearly an accident but it highlights a real problem

13th November 2019

One of the worst things about “The Discourse” is the way people will respond to a structural or systemic criticism by appealing to individual behaviour and intent. The archetype of this is the banal racism argument: “People of colour make less money and have worse access to services than those racialised as white” vs “but I’m not a racist!” But it crops up everywhere, and the news media is a particular hotbed.

This week the BBC found itself embroiled in another internet scandal over biased reporting after running footage of the 2016 remembrance service at the cenotaph rather than the recently shot footage. This seems as if it was simply an honest mistake – the wrong video file was loaded off the content manager and nobody noticed until it was pointed out. This happens. An initial suggestion that a specific shot had been edited in to a new report now looks as if it wasn’t accurate. There were simply two different files which got mixed up.

The mixup itself is small beans, but the background explains why it became a big issue. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, looking dishevelled and possibly hungover, had laid the wreath upside down this year. Again, a small mistake which, let’s face it, does not matter. However it is impossible for anyone with a working knowledge of the British press to imagine a world in which the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, could have made such a small error without setting off giant klaxons in every newsroom in the country.

We have chosen to obsess furiously about the poppy pin and the cenotaph ceremony, which we have transformed from emblems of personal remembrance to mandatory performances of devotion to the state

Hammering left or liberal politicians for infractions against the codes of patriotism is a well-worn tabloid tactic. Often these codes are either newly made up specifically to be broken, or the kind of thing more often honoured in breach than observance. For instance, in the USA, many cable news segments were devoted to Barack Obama’s precise level of patriotic observance during the many national anthems he attended while president, or the orientation of flag pins on his lapels – concerns which absolutely nobody genuinely held, but which were useful Trojan horses for the right’s attack line of “black president bad and illegitimate”.

In the UK we have chosen to obsess furiously about the poppy pin and the cenotaph ceremony, which we have transformed from emblems of personal remembrance to mandatory performances of devotion to the state. We can probably trace the origins of this transformation to Michael Foot and the infamous “Donkey Jacket” episode. Foot, then Labour leader, wore the wrong kind of coat to the remembrance day ceremony at the Cenotaph in 1981. Widely decried as scruffy and therefore unpatriotic, the media scrutiny of the donkey jacket incident was one more nail in Foot’s substantial political coffin, and a contributory factor to his disastrous defeat at the 1983 general election.

Having settled on an attack line that worked, the British establishment has gleefully tried to repeat itself ever since. Any deviation from whatever arbitrary standard of behaviour Paul Dacre has decided applies this year is turned into a scandal and a series of questions about the politician’s fealty to the crown, the troops, the state and the country. In general, although not exclusively, such attacks are targeted at the left, because, like Obama’s detractors obsessing over flag pins, nobody actually gives a crap about the issues they’re screaming about, but they do want an excuse to repeat “left wing bad traitor bad” as much as possible in the media.

A Conservative Prime Minister could fall over and shit himself on the Cenotaph and merit only ‘minor gaffe’ headlines

Possibly the greatest example of the genre was an article by Charles Moore in the Telegraph in 2015. After reminiscing over his own contribution to Michael Foot’s downfall, he starts off by recognising that Corbyn has given him no crack into which to insert a knife. He dressed well, wore the poppy, knew the words to the hymns. But then Moore suggests, on the basis of absolutely no evidence whatsoever, “a more worrying interpretation” of Corbyn’s performance.

“Could it be,” Moore asks conspiratorially, “that Mr Corbyn, or those advising him, are wilier than they have been given credit for?” How can we be sure, in other words, that Corbyn isn’t faking it? Because he’s on the left and the left are basically all traitors, so you know, being too good at this stuff is also suspicious. We’re onto you, Comrade Corbyn Stalin Hitler, if that’s even your real name!

The contrast between the way Corbyn and Johnson are judged at the Cenotaph is informative because it demonstrates how concerns about adherence to arbitrary norms were never about those norms in the first place. Just as everyone has gone very, very quiet about flag pins now that President Donald Trump has slouched into the White House, a Conservative Prime Minister could fall over and shit himself on the Cenotaph and merit only “minor gaffe” headlines, while people still scrutinise the precise angle of Corbyn’s head-nod to criticise him for insufficiently respectful bowing.

A shabby Corbyn putting a poppy wreath upside down would have been the only news story of the day

This is why the coverage being accidentally switched raised so many hackles. A shabby Corbyn putting a poppy wreath upside down would have been the only news story of the day. It would have been almost impossible for the footage to be accidentally mixed up because rather than a simple report about the uneventful remembrance ceremony, the BBC would have been elbow deep into its 15th hour of “wreathgate” coverage.

The small mistake the BBC producer made did not matter by itself, but it was reflective of a difference in coverage that’s structural in nature. The absence of outraged coverage of Johnson’s gaffe is a simple indicator that all those other times a left winger has been “exposed” as a secret traitor for only wearing two poppies have been basically fake. If people cared about it as a matter of principle, they would always care about it. They don’t care about flag pins now that Boss Daddy Trump lets them be racist, and they don’t really care about putting poppies upside down if it might paint Johnson in a bad light for the election campaign.

That’s the real scandal here: the way that private remembrance and collective mourning has been debased so often by journalists who see it merely as a means of smearing politicians they dislike. The date of 11 November is chosen for our official remembrance services because it commemorates the end of hostilities in one of the most brutal and pointless wars ever fought on the continent; a war of such unrelenting horror that it shattered the nation. A country that had marched off in 1914, chipper and upbeat, was now nursing its shell-shocked soldiers and mourning the hundreds of thousands who hadn’t made it back. The mythology of glorious patriotic war had run into the reality of gas attacks and trench foot. To take this tragedy, or the horrors that would follow in the 1940s, and use it to goad anyone for not being blindly devoted to the state is to miss the point entirely. But we have decided that this tasteless routine is normal now. No longer about remembering those who died choking in trenches far from home, instead we take the opportunity to scrutinise those we dislike and scream “traitor.”

This episode gives us an opportunity to face up to the way we’ve been led along by a mendacious group of press barons

Johnson, like Trump, lacks the basic self-awareness to remember to play the game properly, and thus exposes it as having been a game all along. Rather than resorting to defences of individuals who may have made honest mistakes, the media in general – which includes the BBC – should look at the structural critique exposed by the way their coverage has differed. This episode gives us an opportunity to face up to the way we’ve been led along by a mendacious group of press barons and say “yeah that was shit, let’s not do that any more.” If you were so unconcerned about Johnson putting the wreath upside down that you didn’t even notice that you ran the wrong footage, then you shouldn’t be concerned about the next time someone at the Mail declares official open season on the Labour leader for some arbitrary “gaffe.”

Even better, perhaps we can take this opportunity for a period of self reflection about how we got here and allowed our remembrance services to turn into these gauntlets of scrutiny rather than opportunities to reflect on the war dead. Perhaps we can turn a lens inwards and ask if we should have gone along with the screaming hysteria so often in the past. Perhaps we could even look at those who have been responsible for it and ask them why they did it, what they thought they got out of it, whether they’re sorry.

I won’t hold out much hope, but perhaps if we’re only going to take one lesson from the BBC’s gaffe, it should be that small mistakes by people who are trying their best should not be turned into national scandals.

13th November 2019