JENNI MURRAY questions BBC's impartiality after film on the royals

JENNI MURRAY: If BBC bosses really believe in impartiality, how can they let an overt republican like Amol Rajan make a film on the royals?

A year ago, many people would have struggled to place Amol Rajan. As the BBC’s media editor, he was a solid middle-ranker rather than broadcasting A-List.

Now it’s hard to miss him. He is on the presenting roster for Radio 4’s Today programme — and during the past two weeks his profile has risen even higher with his controversial royal documentary The Princes And The Press, in which he appeared in front of the camera rather more than is usual for an interviewer.

It’s clear he is the BBC’s new golden boy.

There is plenty of evidence he’s a talented broadcaster. Rajan’s breezy informality on Today makes a refreshing change from the sometimes hectoring presenting style of the past.

With his relaxed demeanour, it’s easy to imagine him putting guests at ease — often an extremely effective way of lulling an interviewee into revealing more than they had intended.

Rajan is also perfectly capable of grilling a politician or other public figure, as the audience expects from Radio 4’s flagship current affairs programme. He is clever, well-informed and warm.

By all accounts, his ability to make friends has made him a skilled networker, an attribute that’s vital if you want to get ahead in broadcasting.

He is said to be so energetic that he has been nicknamed ‘Amol Nitrate’ (after the stimulant drug amyl nitrate).

And while he is obviously ambitious, condemning someone for having sharp elbows in TV and radio is like accusing Lewis Hamilton of driving too fast.

Most recently, a photo has come to light of Amol Rajan (second from left) with the Duchess of Sussex’s close friend Misha Nonoo (second from right) at a fashion party in 2015, though he says he has no recollection of ‘exchanging a word with her. Pictured, from left to right, Evgeny Lebedev, Amol Rajan, Misha Nonoo, Alexander Gilkes

Yet over recent days, I have become increasingly troubled. In particular, one word has repeatedly come into my head: impartiality.

Because while I felt I had to leave the BBC after a long and respected career because my impartiality on air was doubted as a result of my personal views, questions over Rajan’s impartiality seem to be no barrier to his inexorable rise.

Over the past week, the allegations have come thick and fast, particularly in regard to his feelings towards the Royal Family, in view of his documentary which delved into the sensitive area of relations between William and Harry.

Most recently, a photo has come to light of him with the Duchess of Sussex’s close friend Misha Nonoo at a fashion party in 2015, though he says he has no recollection of ‘exchanging a word with her’.

It has also been revealed that he once described the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s public role as ‘a total fraud’ and called Prince Philip a ‘racist buffoon’.

These remarks, surely the very definition of partisan, were made in 2012, during his time as a writer for The Independent.

He had joined the newspaper as a reporter in 2007 and held various jobs before being appointed editor at the age of only 29 in 2013.

And yesterday it emerged that he also posted around 20 tweets that were critical of the royals between March 2010 and January 2013, including criticising the Duchess of Cambridge during her wedding for her ‘false royal wave’, which he said was ‘desperately sad’.

Rajan has now apologised fulsomely, tweeting that he ‘deeply’ regrets what he wrote, adding: ‘I’m completely committed to impartiality and hope our recent programmes can be judged on their merits.’

That word again: impartiality.

I don’t doubt his sincerity and it’s fair to point out that these comments were made some ten years ago.

Still, I think the issue of Rajan’s personal views raises doubts not only about his impartiality — his columns were, after all, written for a national newspaper rather than views expressed privately — but, just as pertinently, about how the BBC applies its policy on impartiality.

The BBC has so far only expressed its support for Rajan, saying: ‘Once journalists join the BBC, they leave past views at the door’ — but what concerns me is that the latest comments did not come in a vacuum.

Last weekend, there were allegations made in The Mail on Sunday that he made a somewhat bizarre and political move during his time as editor of The Independent. A ‘senior political source’ claimed to the MoS that Amol changed his newspaper’s political stance, swinging its position away from Labour to back David Cameron’s Conservatives two days before the 2015 general election.

Why? The source claimed that Rajan, who denies the allegations, had agreed to support the Tories if David Cameron said he would attend the 35th birthday party of Rajan’s boss, the newspaper’s proprietor, Russian businessman Evgeny Lebedev.

Readers of The Independent, who tend to be Left-leaning liberal types, were both bemused by the dramatic shift in position and not best pleased to find their daily paper’s editorials suddenly switching from severe criticism of Conservative influence in the coalition government to praising Cameron’s ‘exceptional achievement’ in creating jobs.

If true, this would show at the very least extremely poor judgment by Rajan.

And this revelation came at the end of a week when Rajan was also said to have caused deep disquiet within the Royal Family with his BBC2 series.

While Meghan’s lawyer Jenny Afia was given extensive airtime, the Palace were said to be unhappy that they had not been offered a preview.

The royals were given a kind of ‘right of reply’ at the end of part two, which aired on Monday. The Palace said in a statement: ‘Too often, overblown and unfounded claims by unnamed sources are presented as fact and it’s disappointing when anyone, including the BBC, gives them credibility.’

It has also been revealed that Rajan once described the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s (pictured, right) public role as ‘a total fraud’ and called Prince Philip a ‘racist buffoon’. Pictured: Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge watch a flypast to mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force from the balcony of Buckingham Palace on July 10, 2018

I spent half my life at the BBC doing my level best to stick rigorously to that essential Reithian command: The BBC must be impartial.

Of course, like every journalist at the BBC, I have opinions and have at times expressed them in public. But I defy anyone who listened to me day after day in the 33 years I hosted Woman’s Hour to have any idea which way I might have voted.

My questioning of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg, Theresa May and the many other politicians I interviewed was equally challenging, because that was my job.

I never expressed a view on the Royal Family, except to say how much I wished the Queen would agree to be interviewed on the programme. She never did, although I know she had been a listener.

I did, however, fall foul of the impartiality rules when I wrote about my belief that sex is more important than gender and that while trans women deserved respect and protection, we needed to be wary of them being given access to women-only spaces.

For that I was branded a TERF — trans-exclusionary radical feminist — and received death threats.

Not quite enough to paper my house with — as JK Rowling says she could have done — but a relentless Twitter-storm of them.

I had said nothing of my view on air, but the BBC banned me from chairing any interview or debate on the subject.

A year after that unnecessary humiliation, I was banned from appearing on Woman’s Hour for the six weeks leading up to the 2019 General Election. Again, I had said nothing on air of my views on leaving the European Union.

I had, however, written a short essay for a book giving different views on the result of the referendum, in which I described how important the freedom to travel and be European had been for my postwar generation.

Accused again of failing to be impartial and denied the right to do the job I had done well on so many occasions in the past, I decided I’d had enough of the employer I once loved.

I needed to get out and be free to find my voice again.

I am not alone in this. I hesitate to blow my own trumpet as one of the ‘broadcasting greats’ who have now turned their backs on the Beeb, but Andrew Neil and Andrew Marr come to mind at once. Less than two weeks ago, Marr expressed exactly the same reason as mine for quitting — the need to find his own voice again.

He has now announced that he will become chief political commentator for the Left-leaning New Statesman magazine. So what of Mr Rajan?

Even taking out of the equation the comments he made when he was at The Independent, it all raises the question: where is the impartiality in a journalist who is a self-confessed Republican being asked to make programmes about the Royal Family’s nightmare of recent years?

During the past two weeks, Rajan’s profile has risen even higher with his controversial royal documentary The Princes And The Press, in which he appeared in front of the camera rather more than is usual for an interviewer

In his documentary, we learned nothing we didn’t already know about William and Harry going their separate ways with a lot of pain and upset.

The Queen, grieving for her husband and facing her 70th anniversary on the throne, doesn’t need to hear from an anti-monarchist journalist probing who leaked what to the Press from whose household.

It’s a big mistake by the BBC management who, it seems, have lost any co-operation from the Palace and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in the immediate future. That is a pity, when the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations are just a few months away.

Of even more concern is the rumour that Rajan is strongly tipped for the role of political editor when Laura Kuenssberg moves on, a position that necessarily requires a reputation for absolute neutrality.

There is no doubt Rajan is a talented broadcaster, and bringing in new voices from a range of class and cultural backgrounds is vital.

Still only 38, the father of two, who likes to sport a diamond ear stud, is the opposite of a boring old duffer.

He’s no Old Etonian either, and attended state schools before university, although arguably his Cambridge degree — he studied English — still makes him more Establishment than those of us who graduated from redbrick institutions.

Maybe the trans debate and Brexit were more sensitive subjects for the BBC than the Royal Family, whose support has been taken for granted.

But it makes me uncomfortable that his impartiality continues to be a cause for concern. And if nothing else, he has already broken the number one rule for journalists: ‘Don’t become the story’.

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