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Dissenting voices

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 09:45 UK time, Thursday, 22 January 2009

On the day of President Obama's inauguration, The World Tonight, (listen here) did a special programme from Alabama where the civil rights movement was born in the 1950s.

The World TonightOur presenter, Robin Lustig, talked to veterans of the civil rights movement about their memories of their campaign for equality, their reactions to the installation of the country's first black president and their views on where civil rights go from here.

Given that Mr Obama did not win Alabama in the presidential election and in fact attracted only around a tenth of white voters, we believed it was important to hear from people in the state who were not supporters of the new president. In fact, across the southern United States, only about half as many whites voted Democrat last November as in the previous presidential election when the candidate was John Kerry.

Barack ObamaMany analysts in the US say the only logical explanation is that many southern whites find it impossible to vote for a black candidate. So Robin Lustig interviewed an activist with a right-wing group called the Council of Conservative Citizens who said he opposed Mr Obama's policies.

Robin went on to ask him if he had a problem with the new President's skin colour because the group he belongs to says it believes that Americans are a European people. The answer was that he regarded a black president as a "deviation" and he also said he would have preferred to live in the old, segregationist Alabama.

Some listeners found this interview offensive and have criticised our decision to broadcast it. One listener wrote: "It is unclear what type of editorial policy could possibly justify the decision to give a racist airtime."

We also received similar complaints before Christmas when we interviewed a BNP councillor in Barking and Dagenham during a report on the local economy.

I appreciate that some of the audience do find it unacceptable that we interview people with views they find offensive. However, if an organisation is legal, its comments conform within the law and reflect a view held by a significant number of people, in the interest of balance and accuracy we interview them when they are relevant to the story we are covering.

In these two cases, I believe both interviews were justified. The BNP is the second largest party on the council in the area we were reporting from; and the white activist in Alabama reflected a negative view of the new president which, judging by the voting patterns in the election, merited an airing.

The alternative is a form of self-censorship which is something, I'm sure, most of our audiences would not approve of.

Alistair Burnett is editor of The World Tonight.


  • Comment number 1.

    Dearie me - this kind of 'shoot-the-messenger' nonsense really gets my goat !!

    Are these whingers going to have a go next about Robin Lustig's excellent 'World Tonight' blog in which he reports very controversial issues, such as Gaza, in an intelligent, though provoking way, without fear or favour ??

    Do these complainers think that if we ignore the BNP they will just go away, relieving us of the need to expend energy on arguing the opposite point of view ??

    To these people I would say - "Stop whingeing about Robin Lustig, and start listening to him, and reading his reports, with a bit more attention - you never know, you may just learn something.."

  • Comment number 2.

    Sorry to go on - but in the post it refers to the number of Obama supporters in certain states being half that of the Democrat John Kerry.

    If these censorious complainers had their way this fact would just be left hanging there, and we would either jump to a possibly wrong conclusion based on our prejudices, or be left to speculate that, quite possibly, Mr Obama's age made many people think he just hadn't got enough 'life experience'.

    Or worse, we might get the impression that America had, overnight, been transformed into a place where racial stereotypes no longer exist and everyone is a latte-loving lefty-liberal. How on earth are we to find out how much further the journey towards equality has to go if Robin Lustig isn't allowed to report on the remainder of the journey and the obstacles and hurdles still to be overcome on the road in the next part of the map ?

    Maybe you are part of the problem here, Mr Burnett, in that Mr Lustig's light is being held under a bushel somewhat, and if he was 'marketed' a bit more with trailers on the telly [which fess up, you do for the likes of Eddie Mair et al] people would find out more about his curiosity and circumspect reporting and thus be less likely to risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think it's very important that the we and fully understand that racism is sadly still part of our society. I'm sure many people suspect it is, but to have it confirmed so blatantly in interviews such as those broadcast is a crucial step in encouraging the masses to take their collective heads out of their very large bucket of sand.

    Pretending racism doesn't exist by hiding it entirely does nothing to further the cause of those trying to change views for the better.

  • Comment number 4.

    I heard the interview and my jaw hit the floor. It was so dreadful that I had no words to describe the horror I felt.

    Robin Lustig interviewed sensitively but probingly, and was a credit to his impartial profession.

    The World Tonight was absolutely right to broadcast the interview, and I'm so pleased you did.

    Just because you don't like the views doesn't mean you have a right not to hear them, and certainly does not allow the BBC not to broadcast them.

    Thank-you for the item, and I have no concerns that you will shy from such broadcasts in the future.

  • Comment number 5.

    When reporting don't be:
    a) Scared of the world. There are some unpleasant things out there, it's best that we understand what they are.
    b) Don't be afraid of debate. Censorship doesn't make these views disappear simply because you can no longer hear them.
    To counter something you first have to understand the arguments.
    c) We live in a pluralistic democracy, groups and individuals operate within the bounds of civil and criminal law. A pluralistic democracy has to allow for many disparate views, even though some will be ignorant, unpleasant or even offensive.

  • Comment number 6.

    See it as it is. Report it as it is.

    Leave the rest to the viewer. Imv.

  • Comment number 7.

    Definitely the right move to broadcast it. As you say, the comments were legal although distasteful. The BBC is not to ever act as a censor, and if you didn't broadcast these comments you would give credence to those who think you try to censor other views.

    Free speach and healthy debate is the key to a free society - defeat the argument with reasoned commentary not by shutting people up. I disagree with certain comments, but if they are legal to be given then I shall defend unto death the right for people to speak them.

  • Comment number 8.

    "The alternative is a form of self-censorship which is something, I'm sure, most of our audiences would not approve of. "

    Quite. So why do we get such one sided views on, for instance, anything to do with

    1) Global warming?

    2) The EU?

    3) The war in Gaza?

    Or do you confuse self-censorship with bias?

  • Comment number 9.

    I personally could not agree with voting on the grounds of race, however....

    It is refreshing to hear that the BBC can give some coverage to the more than half of Americans who did not vote for the new messiah.

    People find the views offensive? Get over it. This was a democratic country: a while ago people had to listen to a range of opinions, sometimes get offended, then argue back.

    It would be interesting to know why you picked this particular person to interview - an attempt to portray anyone who doesn't worship the messiah as racist? How about more from the perfectly ordinary Americans who don't like him?

  • Comment number 10.

    Walrus - I agree completely. Don't get me wrong I think it's rotten that people can still hold such bigoted opinions but I fully defend the BBC and other reporters that cover these opinions; and the holders of these opinions the right to maintain their views.

    I am particularly sensitive to this issue as a black person coming from South Africa. People's opinions and viewpoints need time to change and the role of the media is to be fair in their coverage from relevant points of view. I would rather have freedom of expression than censorship and I think most readers/ viewers are capable of making up their own minds having seen the variety of different views reported.

    I find BBC coverage to be quite fair when it comes to such controversial reports. Sadly in South Africa, some journalists introduce their own bigoted views directly into their columns which is far from acceptable. A recent occurrence of this inspired a cartoon on the Wonkie blog on exactly this topic. The issue at hand was ANC president Zuma's polygamy - simply reporting on it would have been fine but publishing that journalist's view that this aspect of the Zulu culture is "abhorrent" as a fact is simply not on. This is something I gladly do not see on BBC.

  • Comment number 11.

    On the one hand, I do have to thank the BBC for helping expose the racism that still exists here in America.

    On the other hand, it does a disservice to opponents of Obama by tarring them with the brush of racism. While some opponents are motivated by race (or influenced thereby), most are not. Further, this only takes into account Obama's right-wing opponents. He has quite a few opponents/critics on the left, who are mostly ignored. (Perhaps you can talk to former Democratic Congresswoman and Green Presidential Candidate Cynthia McKinney, who is African-American.)

  • Comment number 12.

    I find the war in Iraq offensive
    I find crime offensive
    I find a lot of things offensive.

    Not to report them would be even more offensive

  • Comment number 13.

    Personally, I really want to hear what people from outside the narrow establishment think. I believe that 'political correctness' (e.g. 'Don't give racists/nazis/stalinists/morris dancers' a voice) does much more harm than providing them them a forum in which to air their views.

    How else can we decide whether or not we agree with them?

    I don't think I agree with the BNP, but how can I know for sure if everything I hear about their policies is second-hand? And for the BBC to refuse to let them speak because the BBC disagrees with them is to forget what the BBC is there for.

  • Comment number 14.

    I quite agree with Kamensk and there are a lot of things I find offensive which should also be aired. Part of the problem with Political correctness is it tries to mask the differences between us all in the hope that the problem will go away. The Lawrence enquiry started that process of political correctness. Frankly the vote for OBama was primarily a need to change to staus quo which was why Blair got in in 1997. I only hope for the US that OBama is not another Blair. Louis Hamilton won the F1 championship. Yes he was outwardly black, however he was a driver who got a good drive in a team that was funded. I doubt if he compares himself with Schumacher, Alonso or Senna. It's time we stopped all this navel gazing and just treated eachother like human beings and for their own strengths.

  • Comment number 15.

    It is long past due for the BBC or some other media organisation to point out the racism of African-American voters in only voting for black candidates

  • Comment number 16.

    I do find your article a little disingeneous in that you are stating that the licence fee funded bbc offered controversial coverage of the Obama election.
    The bbc has an acknowledged left wing agenda, and its praise of Obama was truly sickening especially as we still know so little of this man, and the bbc certainly does not.
    Did I ever see a bbc complaint on black block voting in the election? -No.
    Did I see any investigation into his contacts and relationships with Moslem Kenya, Odinga, and the most politically corrupt city in the USA, Chicago? -No
    Did I see any criticism of Obama spending $170 million on his inauguration? -No - but there is bbc criticism of Bush spending one quarter of this amount.
    What the British Public expects for its £3+billion, and does not get from the bbc, is critical, objective, and balanced reporting of all the major UK and world events as per its charter.
    Your article is rather holier than though in promoting bbc overt bias by providing a miniscule balance.

  • Comment number 17.

    Rare for me to agree with anything that old harridan Melanie Phillips says, but does she have a point that whilst Geert Wilders is not the most tactful or 'diversity-friendly' of people, putting him on trial for his views is not doing the cause of free speech any good ?

    Or has his behaviour really crossed the line into incitement ? I'm not sure that it has which may have worrying implications for healthy and robust debate.

    But there is a lot more to this story - perhaps one for Robin Lustig to bring his forensic skills to bear on ?

  • Comment number 18.

    @dhimmi (#15)

    It is long past due for the BBC or some other media organisation to point out the racism of African-American voters in only voting for black candidates

    Ah yes, these voters presumably being the same African-American population 90% of which voted for the, umm.... white Democrat in 2004. Yes, what dreadful racists they are!

    I put it to you that most of these charges of 'reverse racism' are no more than the combination of sour grapes and the quest for a slice of the victimhood pie on the part of the people complaining. The classic "but what about the poor persecuted white man?" routine, so stoked by sections of our press.

    I also put it to you that such calls are not rooted in a genuine opposition to discrimination; they are rooted in envy and spite. And they are wholly transparent.

    Here's the point, dhimmi. Even if black voters did vote for Obama primarily in the hope of seeing a black man in the White House, that is still utterly utterly different than the kind of racism that black people themselves are typically accustomed to enduring - the kind that most white people do not.

    As a white man myself, it wouldn't bother me in the slightest if black voters chose Obama because they were voting for the historical and symbolic significance of seeing a black (or if you prefer, non-white) man in the White House. So what? That's completely different to voting against someone purely because of their race, where there's an actual antipathy to the other candidate because of his/her ethnic background.

    So sure, some black people will have voted for Obama because they wanted to see a black man achieve the top job at last, and for all the history and symbolism that can come from that. But if you want to bring racism into this, then I suggest you ask yourself two questions:

    How many black people who voted for Obama do you think did so because they would never vote for a white candidate?

    How many white people who voted for McCain do you think did so because they would never vote for a black candidate?
  • Comment number 19.

    I accept the value of airing interviews of undoubted racists, if only to confirm the fact they really don't have two brain cells between them. What I can't understand, though, is why an American white supremacist calling Pres. Obama a "deviation" in an interview, knowingly made to be broadcast, is regarded as an acceptable and legitimate comment to make, yet Harry Wales calling a fellow Army officer "Paki" in a private video made three years ago gets the full "shock, horror, he's not fit" treatment. Actually, if enough white supremacists use the words "deviation" or "deviant", will those words become unusable in polite company, in the same way as "Paki"? I'm not suggesting the latter is suitable, by the way.

    By all means treat with respect real, true, open racists. And continue to show full solidarity with the likes of the "Muslim community leaders", Goofball Brown, Trev Phillips etc, in fighting the racism that really matters, such as Harry Wales. It must really take brave, dedicated, fearless journalists to denounce a person who, by virtue of his position (Army officer rather than 3rd in line to the dressing up box), cannot answer back, and at the same time legitimise people describing the President of the United States as a "deviation".

    I think your justification of broadcasting racists is pathetic, as was your treatment of Harry Wales. I'm sure the Klan in Alabama and BNP in Barking will join together to toast the BBC.

    Incidentally, isn't it appropriate that the BNP is strong in Barking? Might I suggest it would be equally appropraite to relocate the BBC to Barking, as that describes your editorial policy on these matters. Or maybe even Upminster?

  • Comment number 20.

    Thanks for all the great news reporting over the years. Sorry things have changed so much. Last Tuesday The United States inaugurated a new President, Barrack Obama. Change and Hope turned the nation's people to look on the future with a pride and vitality not seen since the 1960's. The BBC reported on NPR radio during the inaugural balls, at 9:00 pm. MST, a story of an ignorant Alabama hick, with the brains of a turnip, and his modern views on American politics. Your investigative reporter really missed the mark when he went to interview this retarded Rush Limbaugh-esk CCC member, (KKK), cracker at the bowling ally. With stories of millions of jubilant people, Republicans that I know crying at Obama's acceptance speech, an uncountable sea of people coming to the Capital for just a glimpse of history in the making. BBC reports: "Racism and stupidity are still alive and well in the States". Brilliant! Did your reporter get paid to come to America and dig up such rubbish, was it planed by BBC executives and editors weeks or months ago? Maybe he can come back for the Masters and interview someone who doesn't want to see, "a n. hitting a little white ball around a field with a stick and into a hole". Maybe the Paris Air Show to report on some color story of how if man were meant to fly God would have given him wings. Manchester United /Arsenal match; "I really don't care to much for football, I just clean the pidgin shit off the seats before and after, it's a childs game, who cares?" Investigative NEWS Reporting really has becomes quite easy since the advent of government sponsored Entertainment Tonight type tabloid news here in the U.S. The BBC used to provide a more balanced and straight forward news, I would hope change, back to the news, is in your future. The BBC should fire the reporter, and his senior editor, not for racism and bad taste, for just flat out missing the point. Poor work skills, Pathetic!

  • Comment number 21.

    This interview is one more example of BBC's gratuitous America bashing. It is always possible to find an extremist view anywhere, especially in a very large population like the US. This group's views represent only a tiny fraction of the populations of the US and of Alabama.

    There are other far more plausible explanations for why many Alabamans did not support Barack Obama. Alabama is traditionally a conservative state where there is much support for a strong defense policy. Barack Obama had a record for being the most liberal Senator in the Senate and he appeared not to have supported the military. Senator Hillary Clinton said during the campaign that he was not qualified to be the Commander-in-Chief and Senator Biden agreed. It appears to many including me that many African American voters voted for Obama simply because he is part African American and you could hear this point of view expressed in many ways during the campaign and on inauguration day. That is not what democracy is supposed to be about. Democracy only works well when the majority of voters select a candidate because they think he is the best candidate, not because of his ethnicity.

    BBC unashamedly exploits lunatic fringe Americans by presenting them as representative of mainstream America by never stating that their views are not representative of the average American. The interview aired yesterday with Gore Vidal is a case in point. Prior interviews with Vidal and others with the radical Noam Chomsky are others examples. As usual, BBC makes it points by taking what it presents out of context to deliberately distort its significance. In this case, the presentation of a small lunatic racist fringe group as representative of an entire region of the US may be a way for BBC to cover up, mitigage, or rationalize the distinction of what American is really about from the far more widespread racist culture which is the reality of the UK and the rest of Europe.

  • Comment number 22.

    colodog / MA2 - It really is not going to easily be possible to 'square the circle' of your two views.

    If you think the BBC is 'anti-American' I would ask why Justin Webb has written a book about America and its people, and urging people in Europe to avoid the usual knee-jerk reactions.

    As for colodog's point, if an American reporter had come over to Britain in 1997 when Tony Blair came to power and found someone not swept up in the euphoria, we might have been cross and thrown a tantrum.

    But right now [or even two years ago] we may have recognised that he/she would have been right to try and understand that not everyone thought Tony Blair was going to change the country in a '100 days'.

    You see, you have to take BBC coverage in a wider context - if this piece hadn't run, then many people would have echoed the complaints on the later 'Editors' Blog' piece that the reporting was totally uncritical and not asking searching questions about what Obama's plans would be in the area of the economy and foreign policy.

  • Comment number 23.

    No 18 - One suspects you are an extremely naieve person! Then again, it has been said many times: we get the government we deserve.

  • Comment number 24.

    20 & 21:

    Did you listen to our programme? If not, please do -- there's a link to it in Alistair's piece. The interview with the white activist took up approximately 3 minutes in a 45-minute programme.

  • Comment number 25.

    meltonmark (#23)

    No 18 - One suspects you are an extremely naieve person! Then again, it has been said many times: we get the government we deserve.

    If you disagree with my post meltonmark, how about you use reason to clearly explain the point of disagreement? Relying on ad hominem is desperately cowardly and does your stance no favours!

  • Comment number 26.

    #9 is spot on.

    You are not going to change the minds of those with entrenched views by attacking them, telling them that they are wrong, or pretending they are not there. There may be many reasons why people chose not to vote for Obama and one interview is nothing in a world full of variety (thank goodness) and mixed experiences.

    The state of not being racist is in the heart as well as being in the mind. It cannot be play acted and all of us should be sharpened up by that fact. If you drive something underground (or out of sight) it will grow bigger and more vicious in another carnation. And why cannot people deal with offense as they always have done? Why do we have to have the entrails dragged out until they putrefy? We can only ever change ourselves - changing another is beyond all of us.

    If we pay more attention to how we think, feel and do, then we may have a much better understanding as to why others are as they are. The people who did or didn't vote for Obama because he is of mixed race are the same - they are people with opinions and views - and it is our duty to ourselves to pay attention to what all the different sides say.

  • Comment number 27.

    Alistair:You can find racist hate groups in any country in the world so why focus on Alabama?Since I live in Alabama I think I have more insight clearly than you do.Alabama is a very conservative state (bible belt) and strongly support the right to bear arms.So it was no surprise Alabama went with the republican candidate.Why don't you investigate anti-racial discrimination to see what kind of racial discrimination is really going on and backed by federal laws.Have you lost a job that you were better qualified at because you were white and the other employee told the employer that they would file a racial discrimination law suit and sue the company? I bet you haven't.Not being born and raised here I didn't fully understand what really happened here before the civil rights movement . The discrimination of the blacks by whites and the stories that I have heard made my stomach turn. I then realized I was paying the price for what our bigoted racist forefathers did.Racism is racism no matter what color you are and until we deal with it at all levels it will remain a part of our society.

  • Comment number 28.

    There's a difference between justifying reports on the BNP or American racists: the BNP are a part of British political life, like it or not, and therefore it is proper for the BBC to report on them. Travelling to the backwaters of the American South to find right-wingers is probably not needed.

  • Comment number 29.


    This post highlights the real problem with racism and that "reverse racism" (positive discrimination) is a boil that will fester and burst upon later generations. If only our laws really did give freedom and equality to us all; but they do not. The laws grant freedoms to the haves, whilst those who do not have find themselves imprisoned by them and an economic system that seldom provides a way out.

    Racism is a symptom of a dysfunctional society and it will only ever be cured by willing action. The law will never succeed in tearing out the heart of the racist but it will always harden it. We should also all remember that there is racism across all colours and cultures. It has varying degrees typified most often by furtively speaking in a language foreign to the country in which the person lives.

    The BBC may care to reflect on the many comments suggesting that those who have voted against Obama are racist since it is a circular argument. The same can be said about holding up the inauguration of Obama as an "historic" moment. Think about it.

  • Comment number 30.

    Is the BBC ever going to stop banging on about this leader of a FOREIGN COUNTRY.

  • Comment number 31.

    That's a tough call on what to do in that situation. I think it depends on what you think the interviewee is going to say.

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]


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