Naji Tilley

Glastonbury, Gaza and the General Election: Pitfalls for BBC impartiality

Photo credit: Joe Green. Free to use under the terms of the Unsplashed Licence.

You may at first have noticed that the subjects listed in the title above may seem disparate and unconnected.

Yet their link is no accident, ahead of what is predicted to be the most politicised iteration of the UK’s greatest summer music festival, Glastonbury, which takes place over this coming weekend at Worthy Farm in Somerset.

Those familiar with the festival will know it has had a long history of political messages. And there is nothing unlawful or incorrect in itself about that. Unlike, say, the Eurovision Song Contest, which is a formal music competition governed by a set of rules and the regulations of its organisers, Glastonbury has virtually no obligation to ensure performers and music fans respect political neutrality and impartiality requirements.

Indeed, the bringing of political symbols, messages and slogans has long been part of Glastonbury’s past. Perhaps most notably in recent memory, Jeremy Corbyn MP, former Leader of the UK Labour Party, was invited onto the festival’s hallowed Pyramid Stage in 2017 to address an adoring audience. Mr Corbyn was invited by the owners of Worthy Farm, who are also the organisers of Glastonbury, and who share a lot of his politics.

Slightly less obvious are the permissible references to politics in Glastonbury performers’ songs – perhaps the clearest example being in Stormzy’s Vossi Bop, where “f*ck the government, f*ck Boris [Johnson]” was chanted loud and proud when the rapper headlined the festival in 2019. Contrast to Eurovision’s clear and stringent policy against any possible political reference in song lyrics, which notably led this year to Israel’s singer Eden Golan and its participating broadcaster Kan having to revise the lyrics for Golan’s fifth-place finishing ballad “Hurricane”.

So if from the organisers’ point of view, politics and Glastonbury are no adversaries, when does politics at Glastonbury potentially risk becoming a serious problem?

The answer is this year. Due to an unlikely confluence of three factors, politics really is set to take centre stage at Glastonbury 2024 and potentially cause a political storm like no other.

First, the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has, for anyone paying attention, spilled over into culture and the arts in unprecedented fashion. Culminating in the furore that plagued this year’s Eurovision in Malmo, the controversy accompanying the Oscars, and the recent cancellation of contracts for sponsorship of literary festivals in the UK for even tenuous suspected investments in Israel, the intensity of this war on cultural events worldwide is at feverpitch. And Glastonbury, for which symbols and flags take up a huge amount of bandwidth in the photos, videos and memories made, is arguably the biggest stage of all. One solitary slogan or outburst in support of Palestine (or, far less likely, Israel) could turn a crowd in excess of 200,000 into a huge ruckus in a matter of seconds.

We already know of the propensity of many musicians and other cultural performers to loudly cry support in particular for the Palestinians or against Israel. And it will almost certainly happen at this year’s Glastonbury, headlined by British-Albanian megastar Dua Lipa, who has been consistent and resolute in her support for the Palestinians over the span of her career. Her most recent comments on Israel’s campaign in Gaza described an “Israeli genocide” – a view shared by Kneecap, one of her fellow Glastonbury performers.  Welsh singer Charlotte Church has been outspoken in recent months on the subject, singing her own rendition of the extremely controversial “From the River to the Sea” chant – itself seen as a possible incitement to genocide going the other way. Church will be speaking at Glastonbury this year. Doubtless many more musicians and at least hundreds of fans will gladly make the same kinds of positions known this coming weekend.

Purely objectively, none of this politicking is a problem per se. But the issues begin to emerge where the second and third factors  come in. The second is that, for those fans not fortunate enough to have secured a ticket to Glastonbury, they will almost certainly find themselves watching the whole thing on national television – covered, as it has been every year, by the BBC.

For those unaware, the BBC, as Britain’s national public service broadcaster, is bound by very strict, often controversially applied, rules of “due impartiality”. These rules apply across all areas of the BBC’s output in the UK, from the absence of paid advertising breaks, the lack of paid endorsement of particular products and services, and, when it comes to political and news programming, strict regulations on news coverage and news presenters. Often the overarching requirement is simply to ensure that no one position, person or product is unduly favoured over the other. So British television audiences have become well-accustomed to the concept of “BBC balance”, and to hearing traditional BBC phrases such as “other [insert name of product or service] providers are available”.

In the political arena, the BBC aims to promote a plurality of points of view, taking great care to ensure that on news and politics programmes, even controversial politicians or viewpoints are given a platform alongside others.

This can, and does very often, frustrate. The lines are by no means black and white either – for reasons that I will explain in other posts, the BBC (to be extremely generous) has a very patchy record on its use of the word “terrorist” in its news reporting, including in relation to Hamas as the current war opponent of Israel. And its social media guidelines for BBC presenters have recently come under significant scrutiny, in light of some of its most well-paid presenters (Gary Lineker, for instance) appearing to take liberties with advocating political positions on matters including the current war – to the point where distinctions have now emerged between the guidelines applicable to “newsreaders” and to “other presenters” for the BBC, with guidelines for the latter category being less stringent.

In the music festival category of BBC output, BBC guidelines permit “individual expression” by performers, although with the caveat that the BBC’s coverage must not appear to “embrace the agenda of any particular campaign groups”.

Why are these requirements a problem when it comes to Glastonbury, then? The third factor is that all of the above is happening just days before British voters take to the polls for a rare summer UK General Election. The period in the lead up to elections is one of great sensitivity, with a “purdah” period for several weeks preventing the incumbent government from introducing new and particularly controversial policies or legislation when an election is just about to take foot. When it comes to TV coverage, British television regulator Ofcom requires extra care, diligence and impartiality from all media organisations when reporting ahead of and on the day of the election (for example, the burden of reading out the names of all candidates in a particular consistency are as soon as just one of those names is mentioned by any contributor).

For the BBC, that period requires even stricter adherence to due impartiality than the OFCOM requirements, with its own Editorial Guidelines calling for “greater sensitivity… in all output genres” – which, of course, include music.

Of the many and varied points of contention between parties at this election, the situation in Gaza ranks among the very highest, sometimes threatening to rise above even the most critical domestic priorities. Not just the clear differences in the positions of Britain’s main parties on the war in general, but the consistent cross-party demands to suspend arms sales to Israel, the divisions on support for legal and international institutions such as the ICC, ICJ, UNRWA and so on, and the shenanigans that followed the Speaker of the House of Commons effectively saving his Labour Party from embarrassment on a ceasefire motion due to an arcane technicality in Parliamentary procedure. Most bizarrely, the febrile local elections just last month returned ostensibly environmentalist Green Party candidates, fed up with Labour’s position on the war, screaming that their triumph in a local council poll was a victory for Gaza.

So, the unlikely concurrence of one of the most controversial conflicts on this planet, the spilling over of that controversy into cultural arenas, and the UK’s most famous music festival, all happening immediately before one of the most divisive UK General Elections in living memory, is truly a perfect storm.

The potential problems this year are so acute that BBC sources have told The i Newspaper of their concerns that the BBC might not be willing to deal sufficiently with displays of thousands of Palestinian flags likely to be handed out, as well as other politicised placards decrying genocide, apartheid and occupation. Even if these could be blurred, said one independent producer, “what do you with an entire crowd chanting ‘from the River to the Sea’?”. Part of the BBC’s own concerns, said another source, were of appearing to censor the event by muting outbursts and blurring signs and symbols.

This is not a challenge the BBC is ill-equipped to meet, however. The Corporation is doubtless already well clued-up on which artists in particular are likely to make statements or wear symbols in support of Palestine. It is able to hear extreme chants m emerge in audio feeds and anticipate their trajectory, and mute or cut away from the audio – something it did capably with the rousing rendition of the “F*ck the Tories” chant in 2022 which is likely to re-emerge this year. It is able to play around with camera angles creatively to avoid unwanted displays. It is able to take advantage of its slight time lag on live feeds to edit out the most acute and overt instances of politicisation. If the spread of placards, outbursts and chants is too much for even the live broadcast to withstand from a due impartiality angle, at the very least appropriate post-production edits can be made for the version that goes up on BBC iPlayer and other on-demand channels.

As another staffer told the i, “it will be difficult to avoid [the risks] altogether, and the impartiality guidelines will be heavily scrutinised this year.” However, the BBC risks further arousing suspicions – from politicians and the voting public more generally, but from concerned British Jewish audiences in particular – if it does not rise to the obligations attendant to the privileges it enjoys as Glastonbury’s official broadcast partner. Let alone showing disproportionate hatred or favour to one political party, the potential for a huge spike in extremism and antisemitism is of huge concern for British Jews.

Obviously none of these risks have yet materialised. They are, for the moment, just pitfalls. But with the BBC covering one of the most politicised cultural events at a time when pressure on its renowned political impartiality obligations are at their highest, it remains to be seen how many times the Corporation will fall into that pit. The consequences of doing so could hardly be more serious.

About the Author
Naji Tilley is a trainee lawyer based in London, UK. He holds two Law degrees from the London School of Economics (LSE) and the University of Birmingham, both with Distinction/First Class Honours, and the Legal Practice Course (LPC), also with Distinction. Naji had his Bar Mitzvah and was married in Israel, and has led various trips to Israel for school and university students, as well as trips to Poland and Ukraine. Naji's current interests are in the ways in which the Israel and Hamas war is debated, covered by the media and litigated in domestic and international courts. All views expressed are Naji's own, and not those of his employers past or present.
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