BBC Partisanship – The Smoking Gun


Not many of you, Dear Readers, likely care much for circuses. Circuses have become unfashionable. Public opinion tends to go along the lines of: “creatures are better off in their own habitats rather than locked away in zoos or made to perform in circuses.”

However – whatever you think of them – circuses are a useful historical example for where the BBC has completely lost the plot. An organisation that was set up to be impartial has behaved in a partisan way, to the detriment of those deriving legal employment from heavily regulated circuses. The BBC has engaged in the persecution of a certain group of licence fee payers, while siding with others. Not once have the positive studies about circus animals been mentioned. How can an impartial broadcaster take such a position?

The BBC is committed to achieving due impartiality in all its output. This commitment is fundamental to our reputation, our values and the trust of audiences. The term ‘due’ means that the impartiality must be adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content, the likely audience expectation and any signposting that may influence that expectation. Due impartiality usually involves more than a simple matter of ‘balance’ between opposing viewpoints. We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring that the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected. It does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic principles, such as the right to vote, freedom of expression and the rule of law. We are committed to reflecting a wide range of subject matter and perspectives across our output as a whole and over an appropriate timeframe so that no significant strand of thought is under-represented or omitted.  

BBC Editorial Guidelines Section 4.1

Recent articles in this magazine relating to the tiger fundraising shenanigans of BBC Presenter Chris Packham (so much more to follow in coming weeks, Dear Readers) contained one detail that was perhaps easy to miss – referring to one episode of the BBC documentary Inside out. This documentary was blatantly manipulated to make the owner of ‘rescued’ tigers seem cruel when in fact, as was shown through video evidence and legal testimony, he and his staff were adored by his tigers and never once put a foot wrong in relation to their care. These were the tigers which Packham’s partner Charlotte Corney – eventually, after a lot of crowdfunding backed by Packham’s BBC reputation – had moved to her Isle of Wight zoo.

According to its own agreed rules, the BBC should be impartial about circuses. Yet the truth is that the BBC has been anti-circus for a long while. The evidence has only recently been coming to light that the late Mary Chipperfield from the famous eponymous circus family was stitched up. A major part of Mary’s downfall was a BBC documentary in the nineties called Here & Now. A relative wrote afterwards:

At the time we were not running a circus but Dicky’s son Richard was presenting his tiger act on a small English circus. This was run by Tony Hopkins to whom Dicky had hired out the use of the Chipperfield name. Richard liked to work as a circus artists rather than as a circus director.

Dicky told me there was a BBC TV crew with an animal rights group who were trying to make an anti-circus programme. They had already visited Tony Hopkin`s circus. Then they contacted him demanding access to the farm which he refused and they told him they had a film of his animals which they wanted him to comment on. Once again he refused, as they would not give him no assurances that any interview would be shown unedited.

The programme was shown by BBC on the 22nd May 1996. It was one of a series called ‘Here and now’. We watched it in shocked disbelief, it was a vicious attack on Dicky. The animal rights group had obviously broken into the animal compound in the dark and shone lights in the lion’s eyes. The lions and tigers there at the time numbered eleven in all. On film these friendly young creature looked so terrified, we could hardly recognise them. But we were shocked at the lies. They said they had watched the cages for weeks, months even, and the animals had not in that time left their sleeping dens. Roger Gale, an MP and John Gripper, a vet, supported the programme. Gale said he thought all animals in circuses should be banned.

The allegations made on that programme were very shocking and very untrue. If I had seen that TV half hour I would have become anti-circus myself. Dicky was very upset and who could blame him? What upset us the most was not the false allegations by animal rightists but the fact that the BBC, a national corporation funded by tax payers, had broadcast all these lies.

From ‘Persecution of the British Circus

The Chipperfield documentary was so obviously propaganda that the Chipperfields complained to the then BSC (Broadcasting Standards Commission). The BSC rapidly sided with the Chipperfields. In May 1997 the BBC were forced to make an announcement at some obscure hour when nobody was tuned in stating that the videos used by Here & Now were inaccurate and misleading.

Of course, the damage had been done. The BBC’s editorial line – both on Here & Now and then later on Inside Out – killed off two circus businesses, rendered staff unemployed and caused huge personal pain to circus families. Editorial manipulation was to blame. The national broadcaster was complicit in targeting a way of life and business that it had decided was outmoded. But what right did they have to do so? Did they for one moment think of the human implications?

The experience of the Chipperfields was brutal:

Two years later the same group of animal rights extremists made similar staged videos about Mary Chipperfield. Once again the BBC jumped on the bandwagon and were at the centre of the trial by media. Not once did they remind the public that they had to broadcast an apology after airing videos from this same group of extremists two years previous. They continued to whip the public into a frenzy, avidly reporting every stage of the trial but without mentioning what had gone before. Daily, hate mail by the thousands arrived, some containing razor blades and others dog poo. Then the letter bomb arrived for Mary’s brother. The final straw was a jar of jam laced with arsenic sent to Mary Chipperfield’s very sick mother. 

David, an animal trainer at the Chipperfield Circus, told Country Squire Magazine that the jar of jam laced with arsenic was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Mary turned to him one morning and said “I can’t go on like this”. David was Mary’s key witness in court and on standby to appear. He worked with Mary and was to tell the court Mary was being set up. His voice can even be heard on one of the videos shown in court by the extremists, he had a completely different story to tell. He was never called, the unfair trial by media had damaged Mary too much and finally she gave up. Mary died in 2014.

The upcoming Chairman of the BBC, Richard Sharp, alongside the BBC Director General, Tim Davie, need to decide whether the BBC has the right to push so-called progressive values, or whether the BBC should, as its guidance states, be impartial. Their decision, if sound, will shape a new BBC that might just survive – shorn of its partisan staff and contractors. The example of the Chipperfields and, more recently, the lies and manipulations surrounding the Packham-rescued tigers episode are a useful example that these two pragmatic characters can draw upon to manifest lasting, positive change. National broadcasters should not be in the business of wrecking the lives of innocents.