The surprising lack of reporting of the Podesta emails released by Wikeleaks on the BBC and its focus on the recordings of Trump’s lewd comments about women (which I describe in a longer post from which this post is an extract) was in fact discussed on the BBC’s Feedback programme (14 October 2016), which airs critical comments from the BBC’s audience and allows the BBC to respond. The man charged with responding on behalf of the BBC was their North America editor Jon Sopel. Here he is on 29 July 2016, in the aftermath of the Democratic Party Convention, reporting in typically unbiased (cough) BBC fashion:

The Democrats leave Philadelphia with a sense of mission accomplished. Hillary Clinton’s speech was well received. The big guns were united … there was a coherence in messaging, and Bernie Sanders came on board. But what we don’t know is whether this has shifted opinion in the country. There is very wide mistrust of Hillary Clinton, and one speech is unlikely to change that. Interestingly she didn’t dwell on the trust question, and focused instead on competence and experience. And she had to perform a balancing act on policy. Offer up red meat policies to the left, who’d backed Bernie Sanders, which she did through a pledge on [tuition fees, minimum wage], while appealing to the undecided voters in the center ground, who could determine the outcome in November. If elections were won on who had the best convention, the Democrats would storm the White House. But Donald Trump plays politics by different rules, with social media his chief communication tools. The Democratic party is like an old fashioned army lined up in battle with a guerilla fighter that prefers asymmetric warfare. With an American electorate in a restive mood, there is much still that is unknowable (my emphasis).

Apart from the Clinton cheer leading highlighted, note Sopel’s disquiet at the guerilla use of social media to circumvent official broadcasters like the BBC. His disquiet must have seemed prophetic when two BBC Radio 4 listeners made these crisp and devastating criticisms of the BBC’s coverage, using the publicly available information disseminated by the social media with which Trump circumvents mainstream media:

  • Mel Platts: “The BBC is so very obviously pro-Clinton that it’s a joke, a pretense of impartiality. We’ve heard about hacking, but we’ve not heard anything about what they’ve uncovered, or what Wikileaks have uncovered. The cover-ups, the bias, it’s incredible.”
  • Ian Grinwood: “I am no fan of Donald Trump, but even a cursory investigation into Hillary Clinton’s past turns up allegations of criminal activity, blatant lying, witness intimidation and corruption. The public have a right to evaluate these candidates using all the personal information available. This is impossible due to the fact that the information is simply not being presented in a balanced manner.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. What these responses demonstrate more than anything is that the attempts by James Naughtie in another BBC broadcast to hide the real issues in the US elections with subterfuge words like “chutzpah” are not succeeding. The public, by and large, sees through the obfuscation.

What does Sopel respond?

To Mel’s question first of all, I think that there is maybe a shred of fairness there, she hasn’t been subject to the same scrutiny. I mean for example, if you talk about the leak of her speeches, that Hillary Clinton made to Wall Street … the leak of those … actually I think that Hillary Clinton was unbelievably lucky that that fell at the same time, exactly the same time, as Donald Trump’s tape emerged from a decade ago, so I think on that point, that is fair.

Unusually for a BBC representative, Sopel admits failure to a certain extent here (“maybe a shred of fairness”). He concedes that Mrs Clinton “hasn’t been subject to the same scrutiny.” That is quite some admission of a lack of balance on the BBC’s part.

But his excuse for this lack of balance is simply jaw-dropping: “Hillary Clinton was unbelievably lucky.” So it was a just stroke of good fortune that the Trump tapes were released at the same time and so the BBC couldn’t investigate or report on the Podesta emails? Really? She just got lucky? Oh well, fair enough then, these things happen. Really? Anyone listening to this absurd excuse would naturally have a few questions:

  1. Is the BBC, with its vast budget and army of correspondents, really incapable of covering two stories at once? Could it not have covered both the Podesta emails and the Trump tapes? There are blogs out there with no resources at all which have managed it pretty well. Sopel is effectively saying “the tapes ate my homework.” This is a pathetic excuse.
  2. It is common practice when one news story dominates the agenda to the exclusion of other important stories to return to them in later bulletins. The presenter might say “with news of last week’s US election dominated by the release of the Trump tapes, it would have been easy to overlook …” before running a report on the Podesta emails. Why did the BBC not do so?
  3. A fresh set of leaked emails were subsequently released by Wikileaks, which resulted in the Ecuadorian embassy denying Wikileaks’ Julian Assange internet access in the embassy (where he has been seeking asylum). The BBC reported that the Ecuadorian embassy had done so because Wikileaks had released “documents that impacted upon the US elections.” Unfortunately, that impact – reported by the BBC – was not evident in any BBC coverage. The BBC continued to ignore the leaks, just as before, despite reporting themselves on how significant they were. If the lack of reporting before was due to Hillary’s luck, why did the BBC not report later when the coverage of the Trump tapes was no longer the top news story? This is a blatant inconsistency.
  4. Is it really a lucky coincidence that the Trump tapes emerged at the same time as the Podesta emails? Or were they deliberately leaked to bury the Podesta emails? Any self-respecting journalist with a critical faculty would want to investigate.
  5. Are Trump’s private boasts really more newsworthy than emails which demonstrate corruption of public officials and rigging of the Democratic primary?

The rest of Jon Sopel’s response is fascinating in how deftly it buries the important foreign policy issues, just as James Naughtie did with his “chutzpah:”

With regards to Hillary’s emails, I have repeatedly covered that story and the damage that has done her, and her inability to give straight answers to the questions about why she had a private email server. After the most recent debate I said that Donald Trump scored very well on that particular point, when he attacked her for it in the debate that we’ve just seen at Saint Louis. With regards to Ian’s point, I think there are a lot of conspiracy theories about blatantly illegal activity, about witness intimidation. I have not seen much evidence of any of that and I think that it’s not our job to peddle every conspiracy theory that goes. I think our job is to hold them up, both candidates, to fair scrutiny, and I believe that we have gone out of our way and fought very hard to try to do that.

What is noticeable here is what Sopel does not discuss. He mentions Mrs Clinton’s use of a private email server, not the detail of what was revealed in the emails sent from that server. And he dismisses the allegations of illegal activity and witness intimidation as “conspiracy theories.” What he doesn’t refer to is the “corruption” which Mr Grinwood speaks of. That doesn’t get a mention. What Sopel manages to ignore with this answer is precisely the emails about Mrs Clinton’s involvement in the disastrous coup in Libya, her collusion with Jihadists in Syria, or her receipt of donations from corporations and foreign governments, many of whom Islamic governments supporting the same Jihadists as the United States in Libya and Syria. Sopel’s maneuver is impressive in a grim, cynical fashion. While appearing to be open and frank, he dismisses the easier allegations explicitly while ignoring the more serious ones, effectively brushing them under the carpet. And those serious allegations – of corruption by foreign governments, of allegiance with Islamic governments like Qatar – are all part and parcel of the neocon agenda whose pursuit by Mrs Clinton James Naughtie tried to hide with his use of the word “chutzpah.”