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Coffee House

James O’Brien spreading ‘fake news’ via the BBC is a must-watch

17 February 2017

12:36 PM

17 February 2017

12:36 PM

The row about ‘fake news’ and the ‘crooked media’ appears to be ongoing.  And every time the BBC and other mainstream media mention it they present themselves solely as the victims of such phenomena.  So let us turn to just one edition of the BBC’s Newsnight.

On Wednesday of this week the programme was presented by James O’Brien.  Now in the first place Mr O’Brien is a strange choice to present this programme.  Not just because his awkward, cut-out, Lego man gait makes it obvious why he has made his career in radio, but because he is the sort of hyper-partisan figure who, if they came from the opposite political side, would never be hired by the BBC.

But back to Wednesday’s Newsnight. Just after a ‘Viewsnight’ slot given to Tariq Ramadan – dauphin of the Muslim Brotherhood – it was back to the studio for a discussion about President Trump with two guests down the line from Washington.

Here is how O’Brien introduced them: ‘Anne Gearan from the Washington Post and Asra Nomani who has written for outlets such as Breitbart and The Hill.’  To say that the way in which O’Brien introduced the latter was acidic is to understate matters.  Even on the Cathy Newman scale of ‘ostentatiously introducing someone as though they are a bad smell’ O’Brien excelled.  ‘Here’ – he was clearly saying – ‘is a really reputable woman.  And here, by comparison is a lowly, nuts-oid blogger lady who we can all interrupt and laugh at.’


Unfortunately for O’Brien the technology failed and we lost Anne Gearan.  Then, even more unfortunately for O’Brien, Nomani used her opening moments to politely correct the BBC’s introduction of her.  An introduction that had indeed been fake and crooked.  For as Nomani informed O’Brien, she is not just some broad who has ‘written for outlets such as Breitbart [lemony face] and The Hill [expectorate]’.  On the contrary, as she had to waste her opening moments explaining, not only has she never ‘written for Breitbart’, the more pertinent fact about her life is that she spent fifteen years at the Wall Street Journal.

So why did Newsnight’s James O’Brien – in a discussion about ‘fake news’ – spread false information about Nomani before he had even begun his first question?  Why did it not concern him that any fair-minded viewer might easily come away with the impression that O’Brien knew nothing about his guest and that he or someone else from the Newsnight team had simply spent the period before transmission lazily searching Google for the most hostile intro they could put together?  Might precisely this type of media ‘bias’ be one of the things that fuels the perception that the mainstream media are intent on bringing down everyone and everything associated not just with Trump but with any of the arguments he makes?

For her part, Nomani went on to calmly explain her concerns about ‘The vilification of both the Trump administration and anybody who might say that there’s any rational discourse to be had about the administration and its policies.  That’s what really concerns me as a journalist.’

As it happens, I am fairly sure that the reason why Nomani came across the BBC and James O’Brien’s radar would have been for a piece she wrote in the Washington Post after the election titled ‘I’m a Muslim, a woman and an immigrant.  I voted for Trump.’  The piece got a justifiable amount of attention and a disgusting amount of vitriol.  But there is something I would like to add about her.

Nearly two years ago Nomani and I shared a platform in Brooklyn in a debate against a number of Islamists including the vile (apparently now leading feminist icon) Linda Sarsour.  I already admired Nomani and her work, but nothing prepared me for the woman herself.  I trust readers know I’m not given to overpraise.  But as I related in a column at the time, Nomani and I appeared that evening under somewhat strained circumstances.  Our event took place just days after two jihadists had attacked an event in Garland, Texas, and as a result the third member of our team – Ayaan Hirsi Ali – had been advised that it wasn’t safe to join us.  With considerably heightened amounts of security Nomani and I appeared as normal.  But one detail sang out.

In the days before the event Nomani had received a highly specific threat to her life.  And the person who had promised to punish her for her alleged ‘heresy’ turned out to have RSVP-ed as an attendee at our event.  Despite being warned off, Nomani insisted that she would still be there.  Near the start of the event, in the face of mocking opponents and a deeply hostile crowd (and with her young son in the audience) Nomani called out this would-be assassin.  She insisted that she would continue to say what she did, whatever they tried to do to her.  She did all this calmly, and without any ostentation.  It was one of the bravest things I have ever seen.

As I say – James O’Brien doesn’t know any of this, or doesn’t care about any of this.  He saw a woman he felt he could belittle and diminish as though she were calling in to one of his daytime phone-in shows.  O’Brien and Newsnight don’t need to ask why people are losing trust in mainstream media.  Programmes like theirs on Wednesday night – and their treatment of one guest in particular – are the reason.

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