DOMINIC SANDBROOK: Why should we be forced to pay for a BBC that portrays Winston Churchill as a mass murdering racist?
On the evening of Sunday, January 24, 1965, the BBC made a last-minute change to its schedules.
Following Winston Churchill’s death, Prime Minister Harold Wilson had asked to address the nation.
Wilson’s opening words set the tone. ‘Tonight,’ he said simply, ‘our nation pays its tribute to the greatest man any of us have known.’
The BBC’s message was clear. Churchill was a racist and a villain — and if you don’t agree, then so are you
Over the next few days, the BBC’s coverage reflected the national mood. Bulletins faithfully reported the words of Churchill’s old rival, Labour’s Clement Attlee, who thought the wartime leader was ‘the greatest Englishman of our time — I think the greatest citizen of the world of our time’.
And at Churchill’s funeral, the BBC’s cameras captured the scene as dockers’ cranes along the Thames dipped in a collective salute.
That was the BBC half a century ago, a broadcaster that spoke for the nation. But its attitude to Churchill today could hardly be more different.
On Tuesday morning, Radio 4’s Today programme devoted a long segment to an attack on Churchill’s record in India.
Then, later that evening, BBC One’s flagship News at Ten gave the impression, incredibly, that Churchill bore personal responsibility for the deaths of three million people in the Bengal famine of 1943.
What made the famine of 1943 so dreadful was the context. Japan’s invasion of Burma had driven hundreds of thousands of starving refugees into India. Meanwhile, Japanese ships had sunk an estimated 100,000 tonnes of Allied shipping in the Bay of Bengal
One Indian academic maintained Churchill had been the ‘precipitator’ of terrible mass killings, while Oxford historian, Yasmin Khan said Churchill was guilty of ‘prioritising white lives over Asian lives’.
Watching in disbelief, I wondered which historians the BBC had lined up to counter these arguments.
Sir Max Hastings, one of our leading experts on Churchill and World War II? Andrew Roberts, whose recent biography of the great man won countless awards?
The answer was: nobody. No mention of the complexities of wartime; no mention of Churchill’s national service.
The BBC’s message was clear. Churchill was a racist and a villain — and if you don’t agree, then so are you.
Not surprisingly, viewers have been up in arms. So too have been those historians who know most about Churchill, the war and 1940s India.
With the BBC facing the greatest challenge in its history, with millions defecting to Sky, Netflix and Amazon, and elderly viewers outraged about the withdrawal of their free licences, it seems incredible that the corporation should wilfully smear Britain’s most revered patriotic icon.
What’s more, has the BBC no sense of civic responsibility? It’s only a few weeks since, humiliatingly, both the Cenotaph and Churchill’s Parliament Square statue had to be boxed up to protect them from screaming mobs. Is the BBC hoping to whip up a repeat performance?
But I’ll come back to the BBC. First, a bit of history.
There’s no doubt the Bengal famine, which killed perhaps three million people in 1943 and 1944, was a horrific business.
It was one of dozens of famines that have stricken the subcontinent in recorded history, such as the Deccan famine of 1630 to 1632, in which some seven million died.
The common denominator is the climate. With its teeming population, India desperately needs water to irrigate crops.
What made the famine of 1943 so dreadful was the context. Japan’s invasion of Burma had driven hundreds of thousands of starving refugees into India. Meanwhile, Japanese ships had sunk an estimated 100,000 tonnes of Allied shipping in the Bay of Bengal.
Above all, the Japanese had cut off the flow of Burmese rice, on which so many Indian families depended.
The British authorities handled the famine very badly. Bengal’s colonial administrators were disastrously slow to realise the scale of the problem, and far too slow to lower trade barriers and bring in food imports from overseas.
But was the famine deliberate? Was it ‘mass murder’? No, quite obviously not. As for Churchill, no serious historian blames him personally for a famine thousands of miles away. He was not running Bengal. He was in London, struggling to win a world war.
According to the London School of Economics’ Professor Tirthankar Roy, author of the definitive economic history of modern India: ‘Churchill was not a relevant factor behind the 1943 Bengal famine. The agency with the most responsibility for causing the famine and not doing enough was the government of Bengal.’
In reality, Churchill specifically told the Viceroy of India, Lord Wavell, that ‘every effort must be made, even by the diversion of shipping urgently needed for war purposes, to deal with local shortages’.
And although it’s true Churchill could have diverted more ships, there’s a glaringly obvious reason why he didn’t. For much of 1943, Britain was locked in the Battle of the Atlantic, a life-or-death struggle to get supplies past Hitler’s U-boat wolf packs.
As the historian James Holland writes: ‘Britain and America were fighting in Sicily — an island that could be supplied effectively only by ship; they were about to invade mainland Italy; they were preparing for the invasion of north-west Europe; and fighting the Japanese throughout the Pacific.
‘Was Churchill really expected to interrupt the war effort, with millions of lives at stake around the world?’
Of course historians will always debate these things. But the BBC left no room for nuance. Instead, it presented a one-sided, almost deliberately misleading account, utterly divorced from context.
Was it ‘mass murder’? No, quite obviously not. As for Churchill, no serious historian blames him personally for a famine thousands of miles away. He was not running Bengal
Why on earth would the BBC do this? I’m afraid the answer is obvious.
As a patriotic hero, Churchill has become a prime target for ‘woke’ activists who dream of rewriting Britain’s history as a dreary saga of racism and oppression. And in the media and in our universities, bashing Churchill has become an easy way for attention-seekers to pander to the mob.
‘Churchill was a racist. It’s time to break free of his “great white men” view of history,’ the University of Exeter’s Richard Toye told the American network CNN last month — which is pretty rich, given he has written five books on the subject.
‘We celebrate the war an awful lot,’ moans another historian, Keith Lowe, in an interview about Churchill and Bengal for the BBC’s own history magazine. ‘Are we remembering the Allied victory through rose-coloured glasses?’
This attitude has deep roots. Even before the war, George Orwell, who loathed the high-minded Left’s sanctimonious self-flagellation, complained: ‘Almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God Save The King” than of stealing from a poor box.’
Today’s equivalent is saying anything complimentary about Churchill.
That such attitudes have penetrated the BBC is a tragedy. The outlook for our national broadcaster is already bleak enough.
Are BBC producers unable to see that if they keep lying about Britain’s history, they will lose popular support? Do they really care so little about the truth of our past?
And are they really so cocooned in their smug metropolitan prejudices they can’t see how deeply they are offending millions of people?
The answer, I fear, is clear. But this will not end well for the corporation.
Most of us still look to the BBC as the voice of the nation, just as our predecessors did in 1965. We expect it to ask tough questions.
But we don’t expect it to smear the dead, distort our past or pander to prejudice.
Many people have already lost patience, and would love to see the end of the TV licence. My own view is that the BBC remains — if only just — a precious national asset, and that Panorama and the Proms are still worth paying for.
But my tolerance isn’t inexhaustible. And if the BBC continues down this road, there’s an obvious remedy. It’s called the off-switch.
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