For those of you who don’t know, a ‘stringer’ is a freelance journalist hired by a news network to report on a certain area. Instead of a regular wage they’re paid by the piece, and Malcolm Brabant is their God. He’s been the BBC’s man in Athens for an age, before that covering Sarajevo and Bosnia at the height of their conflicts. He’s as bluff as his photo suggests, almost a Rumpole of the BBC, and he’s not afraid to cover controversial stories.
He’s currently embroiled in a personal battle to get the Corporation to air one of his packages. The problem? It’s an interview – the first ever in English – with Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, one of the figures at the centre of the Muslim Cartoon row that threatened to engulf Denmark back in 2005. Click here to read Malcolm’s text-only report on the BBC Website.
Now normally such a package would get its first airing on BBC World TV’s ‘The World Today’ bulletin at five o’clock in the morning and then run throughout the day, possibly being picked up by the News Channel (ex-News24) along the way, but when he filed this particular piece back in March no-one, for some reason, wanted to see it on air. It’s been shelved, possibly indefinitely, amid claims that the Beeb is scared it will “inflame” Muslims around the world.
The Daily Mail (obviously) were the only tabloid to pick up on the story. They interviewed Westergaard themselves, although this time the subject was his disgust with the BBC’s apparent ‘appeasement of radical Islam’:
Mr Westergaard told the Daily Mail last night: ‘I am disappointed on behalf of the freedom of speech. Every time you are afraid I think you make a step backwards. That is depressing me.’
He compared the BBC’s behaviour with the way countries tried to appease Hitler before the Second World War and added: ‘If you have an appeasement policy towards the radical Muslims then you are on a very wrong way and you have to start marching backwards.’
A BBC spokesman said last night: ‘No decision has been made yet. As and when one is, it will be based, as always, on editorial merit.’
Well they’re leaving it a bit late. Although the story’s not particularly time dependent, frankly the older it gets the less likely it is to run. Mr Brabant is claiming that they’re refusing to screen it and has lodged a formal complaint with a parliamentary committee about alledged pro-Muslim bias, but the BBC maintains that “discussions are continuing.”
I’ve seen the piece. It doesn’t show the cartoons, includes one clip that labels Westergaard a ‘right wing Muslim basher’, and shifts the focus of the argument on to free speech. It paints Westergaard as a defender of ‘unfettered freedom of expression’ who is tragically a prisoner in his own home because of fundamentalism. In one section in particular, Malcolm says that the Danish Muslim minority claims to feel ‘demonised’, but then wonders if it isn’t trying to impose a veto on a fundamental Western principle.
Perhaps even voicing this apparently minor criticism of Islam was enough to spook the Beeb bosses. Personally I think that the heart of the piece – Malcolm’s heart – is a touch too obviously perplexed by the madness of an old man having to live in a fortress because he drew a picture, and so it ever so slightly favours the Western view more than editorial policy might recommend.
It’s natural, but it’s not objective. Much as people will rail against the BBC, claiming that political & social bias is endemic, our guidelines are still our guidelines, and on a story like this – where lives are genuinely at stake – they’re more important than ever.
None of that stops Malcolm Brabant being the King of the Stringers. On the contrary, teetering on the line just confirms that he’s still one of our finest, most fearless reporters, and he stands up to be counted amongst his breed. It was Malcolm who orchestrated the rebellion when the BBC revised the freelance contracts so the Corporation had more or less exclusive rights to all freelance product, regardless of whether or not it was broadcast and, consequently, regardless of whether or not the stringer was paid. The BBC memo was unequivocal:
‘It is understood, of course, that you will be working as a journalist offering material to other organisations, but we do not want you to do so for any which are in direct competition with any part of the BBC’ s output.’
Which covers about everybody who’ll pay a decent price. Malcolm’s response to his colleagues, and the BBC’s Head of Contracts, was rather fruity.
“In layman’s terms, what it means is that the BBC is offering freelances absolutely nothing and yet is restricting our ability to earn a living. At the moment, with the current BBC orthodoxy of only covering ‘headline’ news, it is becoming increasingly difficult for freelances in unusual parts of the world to get good stories on the air.
“In addition, given the job cuts, which have removed experienced personnel from news and commissioning desks, there are some extremely poor decisions made in London about which stories are worthy of being transmitted.
“It has reached the bizarre stage where foreign based freelances of many years experience are having their ideas rejected by very junior journalists who wouldn’t recognise a story if it fellated them and called them Doris.
“Now just because some junior Johnny in short trousers rejects a freelance idea, it doesn’t mean it is not a story. And in the current climate, where the BBC states that the contract provides no guarantee of work, then surely it is not in a position to dictate whether a freelance can offer a story to a rival network, if one of its so called commissioners has rejected that idea.
“Not only is the BBC offering nothing… but when you actually do get a story commissioned… you do not get paid for it. And the last time I looked, there had been no resolution of the non payment issue.
“So as I said before, this contract needs to be renegotiated and in its current form should be completely ignored.”
Thanks to Malcolm the BBC backed down and are now allowing freelancers to sell their pieces to other major networks should the BBC pass on them. With that concession, Malcolm has almost single-handedly saved foreign freelance journalism on BBC News, and that makes him a no-BS God whom we should all hope & pray to see on our screens for many more years to come.
And he can file a great peace on piles. Click here to watch Malcolm’s classic package that begins – uniquely – with a piece to camera delivered barely seconds after wiping his luxuriously extensive backside.