BBC defends failure to challenge hurtful distortions by Pinochet supporter

Kirsty Young, presenter of Desert Island Discs

Kirsty Young, presenter of Desert Island Discs, did not challenge Paul Johnson when he said that he admired mass-murderer Pinochet because he "prevented civil war". How many deaths make a civil war?

[This is No.2 in a series of blog posts on Paul Johnson’s statement on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs that he admired Chilean mass-murderer General August Pinochet because he ‘prevented civil war’. You may read the others here: No.5, No.4, No.3, No.1.]

In response to my letter to the BBC after hearing Paul Johnson speak unchallenged on Desert Island Discs about how wonderful he thought mass-murderer Augusto Pinochet was, I have received a reply. Read it and then my comments below.

Dear Dr Swanepoel –

Thank you for your comments about Paul Johnson’s Desert Island Discs – they have been passed to me as the programme producer and I’ll try to respond to the points you make.

We try to choose castaways who have lived rich and interesting lives and reached a very significant level within their own profession. It seemed to us that the former editor and highly successful biographer and commentator Paul Johnson amply met those criteria.

Paul Johnson is well known for holding very strong views.  Kirsty Young’s introduction noted that he was ‘fiercely opinionated’ and added that his work had “provoked, offended and enraged plenty of people over the years,” later in the programme, she referred to a description of him that he is the “right wing controversialist in chief” – so it seemed to me that the strength of his opinions – and the likelihood that they might offend – had been clearly flagged up.

In general we want our listeners to feel as if they have overheard a conversation with the castaway that has given them a real insight into that person – their life and experiences and also their thoughts and philosophies. It seemed to me that by nodding towards the views Paul Johnson espouses which are contentious (including his opinions about single mothers, same-sex relationships, abortion and his views of General Pinochet, Richard Nixon and Nelson Mandela) the programme was able to give a real flavour of his personality and thoughts and, as with all our castaways, listeners are then in a position of forming their own opinions about the castaway and whether or not they agree with him.

You are of course free to neither admire nor like the castaway – but we hope that the programme will have helped you to reach an informed opinion.

Yours sincerely

Leanne Buckle
Producer, Desert Island Discs

Thousands butchered but he “prevented civil war”?

It seems that the BBC believes it is acceptable to broadcast distortions of the truth unchallenged. If your parents, and thousands of their allies and friends, were “disappeared” and/or tortured by the Pinochet regime, would you not consider this tantamount to civil war? Paul Johnson was allowed to say that he admired Pinochet because he “prevented civil war”. Kirsty Young did not mention the thousands of Chileans who were butchered by him. He “prevented civil war” in whose eyes? His own only, in the views of most reasonable people, I would think.

Unbalanced and distorted

There is a fine line between allowing free speech and permitting the UK citizen-funded broadcasting service to present an unbalanced and distorted view of highly contentious and painful events. Yes, Paul Johnson and other supporters of obnoxious mass-murderers should be allowed to express their views, but no, they should not get away with uttering what amount to hurtful lies without challenge.

Attempt to fudge issue

Incidentally, notice the attempt in the BBC response to fudge and obscure the issue by listing other examples of Johnson’s repugnant views as if they are equivalent. I’m sorry,  Pinochet is a known mass-murderer and torturer, and while I disagree with Johnson’s ignorant opinions on other issues too, minimising such a butcher’s crimes against humanity is hardly comparable! My letter was about Pinochet.

What do you think? (Read my original letter to the BBC.)

About biowrite

I am a writer specialising in non-fiction, particularly in assisting people with their biographies.
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16 Responses to BBC defends failure to challenge hurtful distortions by Pinochet supporter

  1. carolina says:

    Surely good journalism stems from confronting innacuracies and informing the public of the truth?! The BBC should have confronted Mr Johnsons false remarks that general Pinochet avoided war DECREE LAW NUMBER 5 OF THE DICTATORSHIPS CONSTITUTION DECLARES A STATE OF INTERNAL WAR LASTING 11/09/1973 TO 10/03/1978. THIS WAS DECLARED BY THE LEADERS OF THE COUP, HEADED BY PINOCHET HIMSELF. This was the very excuse for abuses including false imprisonment, torture, murder, rape and forced exile of which I myself am victim in terms of having to start a life elsewhere. There are people attempting to gain justice, allowing such a remark will only delay they’re work for justice even further. Good journalism is about truth, and mr. Johnson declared nothing more than a lie, on air no less! …moreover, his so-called reputation for being a “historian” will be even more devastating for the cases of those looking for truth. A historian who doesn’t even know the facts! very bad journalism and i advise a very public immediate retraction.

  2. biowrite says:

    Thank you so much for your comment, Carolina. I greatly admire you and other Chileans who have suffered because of Pinochet, and certainly hope we can get a public apology and retraction. Ideally the BBC would allow survivors of Pinochet’s appalling regime to have a say on air.

    • Carolina says:

      And thank you very much for highlighting this issue. I have recieved a response from the BBC complaints department. It is as follows:
      Dear Ms Sapiains

      Reference CAS-1296821-DXG1R0

      Thank you for contacting us regarding ‘Desert Island Discs’ broadcast on 15 January.

      I understand that you were left angered by comments made by historian Paul Johnson during the broadcast in which he stated that he admired General Pinochet for avoiding a civil war.

      I recognise that you found his remarks historically inaccurate and deeply offensive to the families of those who suffered under the Pinochet regime. Although I fully understand your obvious strong feelings about Mr Johnson’s remarks, I must point out that the views he expressed were entirely his own and did not reflect the BBC’s stance at all.

      Having said this, again, I understand that you feel strongly that Mr Johnson’s comments were wholly inaccurate and to that end I’d like to assure you that I’ve registered your concerns on our audience log. This is a daily report of audience feedback that’s made available to many BBC staff, including members of the BBC Executive Board, programme makers, channel controllers and other senior managers.

      The audience logs are seen as important documents that can help shape decisions about future programming and content.

      Thank you once again for taking the trouble to share your views with us.

      Kind Regards

      Richard Carey

      BBC Complaints

      (I still feel that this will not remedy the impact of mr Johnsons comment, which were wholly innacurate to say the least)

      • biowrite says:

        Dear Carolina

        Many thanks for this. My conscience left me with no choice but to highlight the issue. Your reply is a bit better than the one I received, but I still think they should make an apology on air. It will be interesting to see how they respond to my second email, but suspect I shall receive a response similar to the one they sent you.

        Warm wishes

  3. Gonzalo Ruiz says:

    Freedom of speech is a constitutional right inalmost all countries in the world (despite the efforts in North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela –all Comunist Regimes–). The role of Mr Pinochet in Chilean history is not being clarified in Chile, both, at academic level as main street level. Nowdays, many suporters of the current democratic goverment worked in the Pinochet regime. I am Chilean citizen, and I think that all opinions deserve the same respect in connection to Mr Pinochet regime. History will tell if he and all the people that worked in his goverment chaged Chile for good or for bad. We, as a country, deserve all the respect to settle this matter on our own. We appreciate all opinions on this matter, even those that come from the international left, but we claim our sovereign right to put Mr Pinochet in history as the true revolutionary personae as we was. Thank you for your time and effort.

    • biowrite says:

      Thank you for your response. My Chilean friends have no doubt that he changed Chile for the worse. Freedom of speech? Given the control of the media by corporate entities this is debatable.

    • Pacia says:

      Gonzalo, I’m writing in English as that is the thread. I live and have lived abroad since 1976, it was because of freedom of speech that my family was exiled. My father was a journalist. I as a Chilean living abroad, and having experienced first hand what Pinochet did to my friends, family and general community, I feel the right to express myself too. I’m no communist or socialist, but I can see your a capitalist. History will indeed tell weather fascist dictatorships and USA ideology is a good thing. As for Chile deserving to deal with it themselves, I am Chilean too and therefore I’m part of Chilean history. Kirsty Young did very shoddy work here, and BBC are responsible for this. Desert Island Disks producers should at least back this up by inviting opposing and more informed views. I suggest Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

    • Carolina says:

      Mr Ruiz, the dispute isn’t one at an ideological level, it is about facts. The fact is he was the face of a bloody regime. Worst still, of the anti-democratic rebel forces that took power through a bloody coup-de-etat that left thousands dead. Decree law 5 dictates a state of war, declared by the junta themselves. The BBC permitted Mr Paul Johnson to voice his opinions, but, he added false information such as Pinochet avoided civil war which is completely untrue. By presenanting mr Johnson as a “historian” the BBC have given him credibility. Terrible cases of murder and dissapearance occured and there is no excuse for it. To say he avoided war is to say he saved lives, which he didn’t, on the contrary. This is an insult to all those who suffered and died, and were murdered. However, no contrary “opinion” was offered, no questions were asked which would have made the interview maybe a little less biased. In one word, this is crap journalism that would leave anyone who hasn’t encountered this topic before believe Pinochet was indeed an averter of war. This is completely false, moreover, he was a general who had other high officials of the armed forces murdered so as to keep power for himself and other junta members. Mr Ruiz, I believe that you don’t understand the bigger picture, that if torture, murder, rape and forced exile isn’t punishable by the laws that all countries are signatory to than these things will continue happening and trials like that of Nuremburg will be nothing more than a circus. If people break the law but are not punished for what they do than those crimes will just keep occuring. This is just one level of how incorrect the BBC interviewed Mr Johnson. Moreover, to say this issue has to be resolved by chileans themselves, well, I didin’t see any justice happen whilst I live there, on the contrary. AND Chile co-signed INTERNATIONAL conventions, therefore it is not simply a chilean problem. Needless to say, so many of us live abroad so how can a true resolution exist when the opposers were simply disposed of. We are those who are left so am sorry, but its complete rubbish to say this isn’t an international issue. This is a subject taught at secondary school level, and taught how I’ve just explained it. Pinochet is NOT seen the way Margareth Thatcher or Johnson try to convey him.

  4. As an engineer I prefer to investigate all sources of information before I make an assumption, I recommend the same to you. I lived 17 year under Pinochet’s regime, and I was withness of the so called repression, however in the same period several publications were against the regime (Cauce, Fortin, Mensaje, and others) this do not happen in real dictatorships such as Cuba or North Korea. None of my friends or aquaintances suffered tortures or were murdered, however some of them were beaten by the police during riots at the university as it happen today. Of course they were abuses. Don’t they have authority abuses on the USA? Don’t they have abuses in France? Don’t they have abuses everywere? It is impossible to control all people that have a quote of power over others. In addition, if you read some memoirs of former opponents to Pinochet’s regime you will learn how they prepared themselves in Cuba, Nicaragua, former URSS, Lybia, DDR, etc; learning military techniques and skills, and becoming soldiers themselves to combat inside Chile against Chileans. They even shipped clandestine weapons cargoes financed by Cuba and the Soviet Union to support the armed “resistance”. It was a non-declared war, and only one side wore uniform! casualties were from both sides, and most of the “victims” were not as innocent as they pretended. Nowadays, a former classmate of mine receives a compensation as a former victim of torture… he was trained in Cuba, received an Army rank, he was a fighter in Nicaragua, and later was infiltrated in Chile as part of an extremist group. Was he an innocent victim? I do not think so.
    (Sorry Jaime, but that is my opinion)

    • biowrite says:

      Jose, thank you for commenting. However, your comments suggest that you have not read all the posts on this subject, which include the first-hand testimony of a survivor of Pinochet’s torture. This is a friend of someone I know, whose family had to flee his regime. In fact, I have three friends who all suffered under his regime. How much evidence do you want? He violently overthrew a legitmately elected government and then tortured and killed thousands. People were surely right to oppose him. I completely fail to understand your perspective.

      I also speak out on the wrongs perpetrated by the UK and the USA. I regard these countries (one of which I am a citizen of) as despicable terrorist regimes. I am not singling Pinochet out (who was, in any case, supported by the USA, as was the appalling and genocidal Suharto in Indonesia).

    • Carolina says:

      Fact no. one; decree law 5 of the constitution drawn up by the junta declares a state of war. Fact no. two; it was known from the “tanketazo” (the failed coup attempt made earlier that year 1973) that there would be an attempt to over-throw the legally constituted government, of course, this would lead to many of Allende’s faction to train to fight the REBEL forces and this support came from Cuba for obvious reasons. Fact no. three torture, rape and murder was done SYSTEMATICALLY with support from the highest members of the junta, who actually encouraged this kind of behaviour, and openly condoned it (watch and read any document from the time). These ‘excessive abuses’ that you claim happen all over the world have the possibility of being denounced and victims have a right to demand justice, this was obviously not the case in Chile. Fact no. four; I know for a FACT that the alledged abuses of Allende’s government were a fabrication made by the opposition, if you say you like to examine the facts because you are an engineer, than go to the CIA website where you will find all the details of how they attempted to destabilize the legally constituted government of President Allende, including the failed kidnap attempt of General Schneider (failed because they accidentally killed him!) who had openly stated to the press he would NOT support a coup against President Allende. Fact no. five; my mothers cousin is still missing, my father was tortured and sentenced to five year imprisonment after being literally set up with false accusations of stealing taxes, and many of my family have witnessed terrible abuses that they still can’t speak of, including of a fellow workmate who was heavily pregnant, pulled out of her place of work and infront of all her work colleagues was beaten, including one army official who jumped on her tummy. She ceased to be pregnant there and then. I have friends whose mother hid them so that they were not raped by the military officials who came to “move them on” on raids in the poorer areas, especially those who showed any form of support to the UP government, which would include a simple poster of Victor Jara (hey, since you lived there could you tell us in your words what happened to him pleas?).
      By the sound of your response in which you try to denounce left wing regimes and refer to Pinochet’s as merely being a few excesses, it would not suprise me that you were and have always been surrounded by pro-pinochet supporters, hearing nothing more than support for his regime via newspaper and radios, tv etc. Army officials claimed there were plans to murder the high generals of armed forces??!! well, i can guarantee that those officials who did not want to go along with the coup were murdered in cold blood. No opposition was permitted and that is NOT what a democracy is about, which is why so many people are out in the streets demonstrating at the moment in the US and UK. But it would be very strange to see the police fire into the crowds, beating indiscriminately and not caring who is killed. Chile on the other hand did do that, and rigged elections. Am sorry to burst your bubble, but you clearly don’t have a clue. You speak like a typical Pinochetista, repeating the “estupideces” of your own parents who can’t bring themselves to accept the truth because they themselves would have to accept responsibility for what happened. What do you do? you turn a blind eye to the information in front of you, a psycological survival technique. When someone confronts you with facts you respond defensively. I’d be quite concerned if you are an engineer as you convey so much arrogance and are so dismissive of the FACTS. Being armed in times of war, a war declared by the junta themselves, is not an illegal act and, in fact, a duty to defend the legally constituted governemt which was being destroyed by the false allegations created by CIA and chilean army officials. Look it up.. type CIA release papers in google, date 1973 on Chile…..better still, type up sergeant Patrick Ryan in Chile. If you find that difficult and still want to respond without any foundation, I’ll cut and paste the details here for you….And save the whole “I lived in Chile through the coup blah blah blah”…its because of the immense ignorance of some factions of the chilean people why I could NEVER live there, and why there will never be any true justice

  5. Carolina says:

    …And I’d like to point out the importance of the medias role in all of this and why its important not to have someone like Paul Johnson continue this whole charade…and the fact that the BBC allowed it is beyond comprehension. The BBC owes an open apology for this!

    • biowrite says:

      Thanks so much for your eloquent exposition of the facts, Carolina! It’s much better that this comes from you, a Chilena, than from me!

      • Carolina says:

        Thank you for giving me the opportunity, and for pointing out the blunder from the BBC. Its wonderful to know we’re not forgotten amidst so many other things going on. But, if events like those that occured in Chile go un-punished these kind of things will just keep happening all over the world. Its great that your here to clarify the blunders of the media who are, in my opinion, complices to making sure injustices remain un-punished.

      • biowrite says:

        Yes, I completely agree with you regarding the role of the media as accomplices. You may like and ! A Chilean friend recommended this film, which was about the role of the media in supporting war:
        Warmest wishes to you!

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