The BBC has faced a backlash for its plans to broadcast Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in full to mark the 50th anniversary of the politician’s controversial address on immigration.
Former Labour Cabinet minister Lord Andrew Adonis has written to the head of the watchdog Ofcom asking her to instruct the corporation not to broadcast a speech that “is an incitement to racial hatred and violence”.
The BBC defended the broadcast as the speech would be “analysed by a wide range of contributors including many anti-racism campaigners”.
It later published a more robust statement insisting that “this is a rigorous journalistic analysis” and said “people should wait to hear the programme before they judge it”.
The 1968 speech by the late Conservative politician predicted immigration would cause “the black man having the whip hand over the white man”.
It ended with a reference to a line in Virgil’s poem Aeneid when civil war in Italy is predicted, using the phrase “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.
A recording of actor Ian McDiarmid, who played Powell in a theatre show, reading out the words that were delivered in Birmingham is to be broadcast on Saturday.
Powell wanted repatriation: encouraging people who had come to the UK from abroad to return to their country of origin. The speech led to Powell being sacked as shadow defence spokesman by Tory leader, Edward Heath.
Social media reacted with outrage following a tweet promoting the show from the BBC’s media editor, Amol Rajan.
The University of Wolverhampton academic Dr Shirin Hirsch, a contributor to the programme, said she was “disgusted” by how it was being promoted.
In his letter, Lord Adonis described the speech as “incendiary and racist”.
His letter read:
“Because of the time sensitive and urgent nature of the issue, I am writing directly to ask Ofcom to instruct the BBC to cancel its proposed broadcast on Saturday of Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 speech predicting ‘rivers of blood’ and ‘the black man having the whip hand over the white man’ because of immigration.
“It seems extraordinary that one should have to make the argument in today’s Britain that Powell’s speech is an incitement to racial hatred and violence which should not be broadcast.
“If a contemporary politician made such a speech they would almost certainly be arrested and charged with serious offences.
“The BBC claims in its advance publicity (attached) that this is some kind of artistic enterprise. This argument is unsustainable, particularly in context of the BBC’s boast that the broadcast provides a unique opportunity to hear the speech in full.”
The letter continued: “Only a short section of the speech was quoted on the night, but for this programme the full text is recreated, it says.
“In other words, as a special tribute to the 50th anniversary of ‘rivers of blood’, the BBC is broadcasting the full text of the most incendiary racist speech of modern Britain that was not even broadcast at the time.
“Obviously this matter will be raised in Parliament if Enoch Powell’s broadcast goes ahead.”
Rajan tweeted, following the backlash, that the speech is “broken up, and critiqued by voices from across the spectrum. Not just read out in a single go”.
Others defended the programme.
The BBC said in a statement: “Many people know of this controversial speech but few have heard it beyond soundbites.
“Radio 4’s well-established programme Archive on 4 reflects in detail on historical events and, in order to assess the speech fully and its impact on the immigration debate, it will be analysed by a wide range of contributors including many anti-racism campaigners.”
An updated statement from the BBC said: “This is a rigorous journalistic analysis of a historical political speech. It’s not an endorsement of the controversial views and people should wait to hear the programme before they judge it.”