BBC and Bias: The Modi documentary, the ‘prejudiced’ lens on India, and other controversies

‘India: The Modi Question’, the controversial documentary on the 2002 Gujarat riots, is not the first time the BBC has triggered an outrage in the country. Earlier, ‘India’s Daughter’, a film on the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder was banned. During the Emergency too, BBC broadcast was restricted

FP Explainers January 27, 2023 12:43:07 IST
BBC and Bias: The Modi documentary, the ‘prejudiced’ lens on India, and other controversies

The BBC is not new to controversy. Before India: The Modi Question, the documentary on the 2002 Gujarat riots, India's Daughter, a film on the 2012 Delhi gang rape, was banned. AFP

India: The Modi Question, the controversial BBC documentary, which revisits Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, continues to fan tension in India. The government has blocked the film, branding it as propaganda, but that has not stopped attempts to watch it. The Kerala unit of Congress held a screening in Thiruvananthapuram. In Tamil Nadu, a councillor was detained for watching the documentary on her phone. After Jamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Students Federation of India screened it in Hyderabad.

The BBC film has got the publicity it craved for. However, this is not the first time the broadcaster has rubbed India the wrong way. The BBC is also no stranger to controversy in the UK. We take a look.

BBC vs India

The Kashmir coverage

After India decided to scrap Article 370, which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, the BBC came under fire for this coverage.

On 10 August 2019, the BBC published an “exclusive video” from the region that showed large groups of men running and taking cover as the sound of gunfire, echoes in the background filled the air.

The government officially denied the BBC report, even as its South Asia chief Nicola Careem posted “exclusive” videos from Saura in Srinagar.

The Centre had imposed a complete communication blackout in Jammu and Kashmir, suspending internet and landline services. A report by Reuters on protests was also rubbished by the home ministry, which said the coverage was “completely fabricated” and “incorrect”.

The documentary on the 2012 Delhi gang rape

It’s not the first time that the BBC has made a documentary that has angered India. In 2015, India’s Daughter, a film on the 2012 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi, stirred outrage. The BBC-affiliated documentary was banned in India for “objectionable content”. However, it left the country divided with many protesting the governments decision.

A global telecast of India’s Daughter documentary directed by British filmmaker Leslee Udwin was planned on 8 May 2015, Women’s Day but the Delhi Police obtained a court order that restrained its release. However, it was aired on 4 March 2015 in other countries and the BBC said that given the “intense level of interest” they brought the transmission forward.

BBC and Bias The Modi documentary the prejudiced lens on India and other controversies

Students participate in a silent march urging the government to lift the ban on the documentary film ‘India’s Daughter’, in Bangalore on 13 March 2015. AFP

According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the filmmaker had violated a condition that prohibited the use of the documentary for commercial purposes. It added that the clause was the reason why the Tihar Jail authorities had allowed her to record the interview of gang-rape convict Mukesh Singh, according to a report in The Indian Express.

Also read: Here’s why I wish I hadn’t watched Leslee Udwin’s BBC documentary ‘India’s Daughter’

After the massive uproar, the BBC said that it had no plans to telecast the documentary in India. Rajnath Singh, the then-home minister, said that the Ministry of External Affairs and the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had been asked to ensure the film was not broadcast on any platform anywhere in the world.

BBC and fake news from Bengaluru

In June 2008, the BBC’s current affairs programme, Panorama, aired a documentary which claimed that the retailer Primark used child labour at a workshop in Bengaluru. It showed footage of three boys working on garments for Primark, which lead to massive outrage. The claim, however, turned out to be fake.

The BBC apologised saying that it may have made a mistake. The media company conceded in a report that the footage was likely to not be genuine after conducting a three-year internal inquiry.

When BBC was banned in India

In 1970, BBC Two, a channel run by the media house, broadcast two documentaries by French filmmaker Louis Malle, Calcutta and Phantom India, which gave a peek into everyday life in India. The films angered the Indian government and the diaspora in Britain as they showed the country in poor light.

The BBC was expelled from India until 1972 and the documentaries were banned. During the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, all BBC broadcasts were stopped.

The controversies in the UK

Another scandal involving Boris Johnson

The BBC is a household name in the UK, having been around for more than 100 years. However, its record is not spotless.

Even as the Modi documentary creates a furore in India, the Corporation is doing its share of firefighting back home. Richard Sharp, the chair of the BBC, is under investigation in two separate cases. There are allegations that he helped Boris Johnson secure a loan of £800,000 weeks before he was recommended for the job by the then-prime minister, according to a report in The Guardian.

The BBC is probing if there has been a breach of its conflicts of interest rules since Sharp was appointed to the post.

The big Panorama interview with Diana

It was one of BBC’s biggest scoops; it is also its most controversial one. In 1995, BBC reporter Martin Basheer obtained a sensational interview with Princess Diana which was aired on the Panorama programme. It was here where Diana famously said, “There were three of us in this marriage,” as she spoke about her husband Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. However, years after Diana after the interview, which is said to have “plunged the monarchy into the greatest crisis” since the abdication of King Edward VIII”, it was revealed that Bashir used deceitful means to convince the princess to speak with him. His actions were reportedly covered up for decades by the higher-ups at the BBC.

BBC and Bias The Modi documentary the prejudiced lens on India and other controversies

Front pages of the London newspaper on 15 November 1995 show how Britain’s Princess Diana of Wales opened up a controversy surrounding her decision to give a TV interview on the BBC without informing the Queen. Journalist Martin Basheer used deceitful means to secure the interview. AFP

In November 2020, the public broadcaster announced an inquiry into the interview headed by the UK Supreme Court judge Judge John Dyson. The investigation was started after Diana’s brother Earl Charles Spencer alleged once again that Bashir used bogus bank statements that showed employees close to the princess were spying on her.

Bashir, who was earlier cleared of all charges related to the interview, resigned in November 2020 from his role as religion editor, citing health concerns.

Dyson’s inquiry accused the BBC of carrying out an inadequate investigation the first time around in 1996. It accused the top management of covering up facts on how the interview was secured.

After the release of the report, both the BBC and Bashir apologised. The public broadcaster also wrote to Diana’s sons Princes William and Harry and her brother Earl Spencer.

The BBC considered the cornerstone of journalism has failed the public more than once. It has been accused of bias in the past. The UK media watchdog Ofcom in 2021 said that delivering impartial coverage has been a “complex challenge” for the Corporation. And the documentary on PM Modi does not help its reputation.

With inputs from agencies

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