Justin Webb: Broadcasters must stand up to the “keyboard warriors”

The BBC Radio 4 Today presenter says that the idea that the BBC is part of some national conspiracy is "actually barmy"

(Getty, JG)

The BBC’s entertainment correspondent Colin Patterson was in a state of high excitement the other day. Just as the Baftas were winding up he managed to fight his way to the front of a gaggle of hangers-on and came face to face with Winston Churchill or, as he is sometimes known, Gary Oldman.

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The Bafta-winner had made a sweet but conventional speech about Churchill. But our man Colin was having none of it. Faced with Oldman, he posed a killer question: what would Churchill have made of the Time’s Up campaign against workplace sexual harassment?

Colin told me, in his early morning interview for Today, that Oldman had been forced to think quite hard before suggesting that the great man, “was fascinated by the new. I’d like to believe he’d have supported it.”

Oh, pull the other one, Gary.

And Colin: nice question – a real gotcha moment – which made for a lively segment on Today. But really? What are we all on?

Where does the politicisation of everything end? The answer is, in a generalised madness that subsumes us all.

Here’s an example. Shortly after I had announced the latest twist in the Oxfam saga the other day I received a message from a listener.

“How convenient that all this Oxfam publicity comes just as Brexit is going wrong,” she suggested. “Were The Times and the BBC keeping it up their sleeve?”

Here’s the reason the message was so concerning: it was written not by some fanboy or fangirl of some “ism” that might change the world. Her online profile seemed to describe a thoughtful person living a moderate life with a non-political hinterland; actually it reminded me rather of my late mum. I think the writer keeps bees. Loves people. Travels.

But she seriously thinks that the BBC is attacking Oxfam in order to cover up the government’s troubles over Brexit. We spend a good deal of time discussing online abuse. But we spend less time worrying about the fundamental views that underpin that abuse. Perfectly nice, ordinary people – your neighbours, gentle Radio Times readers, and mine – have lost their marbles.

The Today programme’s online “postbag” was split between this madness and another equally unhinged take: that the Oxfam news revealed some great conspiracy on the left to abuse people around the world (using tax-funded aid money) and do so with the willing connivance of the media.

Of course the BBC should be open to scrutiny and criticism and the case can be made that it is too left wing or too right wing, too sceptical of climate change or too beholden to the green lobby, too fawning with the royal family or too disrespectful of national icons, but to believe that it is part of a national conspiracy is actually barmy. Years ago the people who believed it might also have worn tin-foil hats to protect themselves from sonic booms.

Now they are living perfectly ordinary lives. You may even be one of them. And it frightens me. Because the risk is that it begins to have an impact. That broadcasters – in this atmosphere of politicisation of all of human life – become cowed and frightened of pursuing news for fear of being bullied. If we take too much notice of the keyboard warriors, we’ll lose our bearings, too.

When Richard Nixon (in somewhat different circumstances, I grant you) wanted to change the course of debate in the USA he announced that there was a “silent majority” who were not particularly political, but whose views ought to count. He summoned them and they came.

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Where are they now?