Be a Voice: The Mistreatment of Diane Abbott on Question Time

By Senior Campaign Agent Sam Jacobsen

The disgraceful bullying of Diane Abbott on Question Time is emblematic of how disrespect towards the left-wing Labour leadership has become normalised.

Politicians are supposed to face tough questions; journalists are not meant to give anyone an easy ride, especially when they believe their interviewee is evading their questions. However, the treatment of Diane Abbott on Question Time last week crossed a line. The BBC needs to issue a proper apology.

Following the broadcast on Thursday 17th January, the Labour Party accused the BBC of creating a ‘hostile atmosphere’ against the shadow home secretary, ‘legitimising mistreatment, bias and abuse against Ms Abbott as a black woman in public life’. Labour claimed that the audience were deliberately turned against her before the show even started, by a producer who made a ‘sexist’ joke, implying that she owed her position as shadow home secretary to a past romantic relationship with Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. 

Abbott was interrupted repeatedly, not only by the presenter Fiona Bruce, but also by right-wing pundit and Brexiteer, Isabel Oakeshott. One particularly nasty exchange happened near the top of the programme, when Oakeshott and Bruce took their own separate cheap shots at the Labour politician within a five second period. Oakeshott made a childish jibe, insinuating Abbott was taking too long on her answers, shortly before Bruce accused Jeremy Corbyn of being more open to speaking to Hamas and Hezbollah than Theresa May. If the programme had been balanced, Fiona Bruce would have levelled a personal insult at Conservative prisons minister Rory Stewart, who was also on the panel.  Something like: “Perhaps you could allow criminals and gang members to take over the Brexit negotiations, after all they’ve done a pretty good job running prisons all over the country under your watch.” Of course, bringing up an unrelated fiasco involving the security company G4S, which broke six months ago, would have been irrelevant and vindictive. But so was bringing up Jeremy Corbyn’s remarks about Hamas and Hezbollah, made all the way back in 2009. It would not have been irrelevant to draw attention to the current government’s humiliating record defeat in the Commons last week, having had more than two years to negotiate a Brexit deal. Instead, Labour were repeatedly pilloried for refusing to enter into negotiations with Theresa May, as if responsibility for sorting out this mess lies with the opposition, and not the government who created it. 

When the Labour front bench is criticised, it seems it is fair game to automatically question their competence. The implication is that any issues or contradictions in their policy is proof that they are unqualified children, unfit for office. Their past mistakes stick to them like glue, when other politicians, Boris Johnson for instance, are repeatedly forgiven their transgressions and given a clean slate. When establishment politicians are criticised, their credentials as adults are not questioned in the same way. 

The media is an echo chamber. Producers, editors and presenters derive a sense of what is acceptable from other news programmes and newspapers. If the general consensus is that Diane Abbott is belligerent and incompetent then they will continue to portray her as such. As a veteran leftie who has spent her political career on the fringes, fighting for what she believes in, it makes sense that the media elites have been so resistant to treating her as a genuine candidate for a major ministerial position. These media professionals have spent years reporting on the nuanced differences between Blairites and Brownites, only for a radically left-wing Labour contingent to come along, and render all that painstaking analysis pretty much irrelevant. Instead of admitting that they overlooked the sort of seismic shift only seen once or twice in a generation, it seems many journalists want to double down on their condescension. Their plan is to mock and belittle the lefties until they fade away, proving that they were never worth taking seriously in the first place. Of course, this attitude is not reflective of every journalist, but it has gained enough traction to have a serious impact. 

Whether Diane Abbott will ever be home secretary remains to be seen. However, the very least she deserves is the same respect afforded to every other guest on news panel shows. The bias she faces for being a socialist is compounded by the hate she receives for being an outspoken black woman in politics. The BBC must accept the integral role it plays in defining the political debate in this country. When they tacitly invite panelists and audience members to deride their contributions, it warps the debate, and threatens the BBC’s legitimacy as an impartial state broadcaster. On the most recent edition of Question Time, Fiona Bruce admitted she had falsely corrected Diane Abbott the previous week about Labour’s position in the polls. Although necessary, the correction was not enough. There needs to be a sincere apology, and a commitment to being more even-handed in the future.

Image: Overseas Development Institute @flickr