BBC under fire from ex-MP and an al-Jazeera presenter over Tommy Robinson’s appearance on flagship programme
The BBC has been accused of giving an uncritical platform to the leader of the English Defence League, who was interviewed on the Radio 4Today programme on Tuesday morning.
The interview was branded “ludicrous” by critics on Twitter who questioned why Tommy Robinson, who is not an elected representative, was invited on the flagship programme at all.
He admitted that the organisation has “completely questionable” tactics and said “the non-Muslim working class don’t have a voice” and warned “it’s not going to end pretty”.
He also used the platform to deny his group was behind a blaze at an Islamic centre, which was daubed with the letters EDL, in London’s Muswell Hill last week.
He told the programme: “If something was set on fire and someone wrote ‘David Cameron’ on the side of it, does it mean he did it?”
Robinson told presenter Sarah Montague he wanted “all aspects of sharia outlawed” in the UK and explained that the idea that EDL initials were written on a mosque by his members “seems ridiculous”.
Former Labour MP Denis McShane said the BBC’s interview was misguided. “Now Today provides non-critical platform for EDL. Has she [Montague] ever seen them close up? Heard their racist insults? Violence threats?” he said on Twitter, adding: “Sorry forgot EDL is a gentle, peace loving, outfit. Everytime I saw fascist thugs screaming abuse at non white citizens it wasn’t EDL.”
Al-Jazeera presenter and Huffington Post political director Mehdi Hasanalso took issue with the BBC’s decision to give Robinson a platform without counterbalancing discussion of his own background. “EDL leader claims to be a peaceful protester on the Today programme. No mention of his own history of violent behaviour on air.”
The Mirror’s political commentator Kevin Maguire also criticised the BBC. “Woeful @BBCr4today interview with convicted footie hoolie Stephen Lennon aka EDL’s Tommy Robinson. He’ll laugh all the way to next EDL brawl.”
Other Twitter critics, including Louise Hutchins, said the interview was “irresponsible soft soap”.
A BBC spokesperson said: “Today’s programme looked at the recent rise in Islamaphobic attacks, such as the recent arson attack on a London mosque. The BBC has a responsibility to both report on the story and to try to offer insight into why it is happening. The EDL are a key part of the story and we believe it is important to reflect the fact that opinions such as those of Tommy Robinson exist. His views were challenged and we spoke to guests with alternative opinions elsewhere in the programme.”
It is understood that the interview, which was recorded on Monday, was given the green light by the acting Today editor, Jasmin Buttar. It is not clear whether Buttar sought advice from senior news bosses, as is common procedure for potentially controversial editorial decisions.
Buttar was made acting editor of Today on 18 March, when Ceri Thomas was promoted to head of programmes for BBC News. Jamie Angus, the former editor of Radio 4’s World at One, takes over as Today editor in September.
Kevin Marsh, the former Today editor, said the BBC was “absolutely right” to broadcast the interview but that the “tone and shape might have been wrong”.
He said: “Holding your nose while you interview the ‘quasi-unacceptable’ is no substitute for sharp, precise, difficult questioning. And that, I think, might have been the problem this morning with Tommy Robinson – it wasn’t a bad interview and I’d certainly have put it on air had I still been editor.
“But I might have been disappointed that we heard more of Robinson’s view of the world than we heard it challenged. And, yes, I would have liked to have heard more of him trying to explain some carefully chosen precise details of his and his group’s track records.”
Marsh added that he was glad the interview did not descend into a “shouting match” between Robinson and Montague. “The bottom line for me, though, is that it’s difficult to see how anyone hoping to understand Britain in 2013 can avoid having to get their head around a whole clutch of unpalatable realities,” he said.