Caustic soda into the wounds: BBC unrepentant over platform offered to supporter of Pinochet atrocities

A victim of the Pinochet regime

One among thousands of victims of the brutal Pinochet regime. General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected Salvador Allende in a bloody coup backed by the USA, and declared a state of war that was to last four and a half years. He killed and tortured thousands. Yet the BBC refuses to make a public apology for allowing one of Pinochet's supporters to state on its airwaves, unchallenged, that he liked Pinochet because he 'saved Chile from civil war'.

[This is No.5 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 Augusto Pinochet because he ‘saved Chile from civil war’. You may read the others here: No.4, No.3, No.2, No.1.]

Below you will find the BBC’s latest email to me and my response to the BBC. Let me know,  by commenting on this post, if you share my disquiet at the BBC’s attitude.

Here is some useful background information.

1. BBC email to me

Dear Dr Swanepoel

Thank you for your further email about Paul Johnson’s Desert Island Discs.

I am very sorry that this edition of Desert Island Discs has distressed you – please accept my apologies for that and be assured that it was never our intention.

We aim for each edition of Desert Island Discs to give us an intimate insight into the life, thoughts and reflections of our castaway.

“Right wing controversialist in chief”

Castaways are – as you acknowledge – entitled to give their opinions and we try to put them in a context that will allow our listeners to reach their own conclusions about the interviewee. In this case, it seems to me that the context was clear – Paul Johnson’s was described as being a controversial writer and thinker whose views had offended many and who had been called ‘the right wing controversialist in chief’. The question Kirsty asked him was intended to give a flavour of his views – she said:

… for people who haven’t partaken of your columns over the years, I should give them something of a flavour. You’ve said Krushchev was a ‘sinister clown’, Nehru a ‘consummate humbug’, you defended Nixon, you said JFK was ‘a sham’, you’ve praised General Pinochet for his economic strategy but you said you ‘don’t fall for the hype’ about Nelson Mandela – now explain that…

“Pinochet I like because he saved Chile from civil war”

Paul Johnson did not say that General Pinochet had ‘prevented’ civil war – in fact, his response was; “… Pinochet I like because he saved Chile from civil war…” which, quite the reverse, seems to me to be an acknowledgement that civil war had existed.

I do not accept this amounted to ‘extremist propaganda’ as you suggest. Nor do I believe that it was necessary or appropriate for Kirsty Young to challenge every one of his opinions – instead she asked him broadly about the impact of his writing and his controversial views.

However upsetting any expression of praise of General Pinochet is for those who suffered under his regime, it seems to me that our programme gave listeners enough information for them to reach their own conclusions about Paul Johnson and his opinions.

Thank you for taking the time to write again and, while we don’t agree on this occasion, I hope you will continue to enjoy listening to the programme.

Yours sincerely

Leanne Buckle
Producer, Desert Island Discs

2. My response to the BBC

Dear Ms Buckle

Difference between causing offence and broadcasting offensive and incorrect statement without challenge

Thank you for your response to my last email. I find it bewildering. There is a difference between causing offence (however gratuitous) and the BBC allowing itself to be used to broadcast an offensive and incorrect statement without at least challenging it, allowing someone else to challenge it, or pointing out that others dispute the specific “fact” or “facts” expressed. It is not sufficient to claim that it is acceptable for someone to use your airwaves to say whatever he likes, however demonstrably false, simply because you flag up the fact that the opinions he has expressed in the past have been “controversial”.

Pinochet started war himself and declared country to be in a state of war for four and a half years

Let me make it absolutely clear why Johnson’s remark is wrong, both morally and factually, no matter what interpretation you put on it. Since my last email I have heard from a former refugee of the Pinochet regime who informs me that decree law number five of the dictatorship’s constitution declared a state of internal war lasting from 11 September 1973 to 10 March 1978, and that this was the excuse used for abuses that included false imprisonment, torture, murder, rape and forced exile. How is it then possible to argue that Pinochet “saved Chile from civil war” if he himself started it, formally declared it to exist and if it lasted four and a half years? Furthermore, if Pinochet used a state of war (declared by himself, I repeat!) to justify the abuses inflicted on thousands (which I doubt even Mr Johnson can deny), can the BBC not understand that this is no ordinary matter of oversensitive people overreacting to free speech? For the BBC to allow someone, unchallenged, to state that he likes Pinochet because he saved Chile from civil war is rubbing caustic soda into the wounds of those who suffered at his hands.

Bizarre remark: what would Isabel Allende say?

If Ms Young had merely said, after Mr Johnson had made his bizarre remark, that thousands of people had been killed and tortured by the Pinochet regime and so she wondered how he could say such a thing, then I wouldn’t have had an issue. However, I think you now need to issue a public apology and/or offer a platform to some of Pinochet’s victims to express their views. (I wonder, for example, what Isabel Allende would have to say to Mr Johnson.) I shall be copying this email and all our correspondence to the Director General in the hope of a more satisfactory response.

I look forward to the resolution of this matter in the hope of being able to listen to Desert Island Discs again without my enjoyment of this generally excellent programme being tainted.

Yours sincerely

Dr R. Eric Swanepoel

About biowrite

I am a writer specialising in non-fiction, particularly in assisting people with their biographies.
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10 Responses to Caustic soda into the wounds: BBC unrepentant over platform offered to supporter of Pinochet atrocities

  1. scousepov says:

    Hey thanks for following me – you have an interesting site, with subjects that will cause debate – that’s the best thing a writer can ask for from their work! 🙂

  2. Dave Richards says:

    Wanting to suppress free speech is as much if not more a tendancy of the left as the right, as you prove here. History honestly told is not as black and white as we would like it be, somehow backing our particular horse. It is absurd to argue that every point of view should have an equal and opposite point of view expressed in the same forum. You just want your side to have the last word; it’s all about power. I am capable of making up my own mind about Pinochet without having to have someone “correct” Paul Johnson or the BBC. From the other side, does every article condemning Pinochet discuss the events that led up to the coup in detail? Doubtlessly you will assume I am a Pinochet supporter. I am not. I just don’t like intellectuals’ treating me like a simpleton.

    • biowrite says:

      Thank you for your comment. I don’t see that I have “proved” anything. I am sure you don’t seriously mean to argue that one person’s reasoned opinion proves that the entire “left” (as defined by yourself) is as bad or worse at suppressing free speech as/than the “right”? I had hoped that I had made the point that I support free speech but that this particular remark by Johnson is extreme as what he said is actually wrong in the black-and-white sense. I know people affected by this issue and I feel for them. It would merely have taken the sort of “cocked eyebrow” response that Kirsty has given to many other interviewees to satisfy me. I apologise if I have offended you, but I am not attacking free speech, merely the use of public service broadcasting as a platform for someone to promulgate entirely unchallenged a view that is factually wrong as well as being hurtful. Hurtful/offensive is OK. Hurtful/offensive + factually wrong + unchallenged + on a public service is not OK, in my opinion. We might disagree on this but I hope you can understand the distinction.

    • biowrite says:

      P.S. You say you don’t like what you call “intellectuals” treating you “like a simpleton”. Would you care to explain what you mean by “intellectuals”? I trust that you are not uncritically borrowing Johnson’s straw doll and using this as a facile means of disparaging those with whom you disagree.

  3. stanito says:

    I’m Chilean, and I enjoyed this article.

  4. Nobody says:

    I agree with Johnson. Allende was an extreme leftist, his policies of land confiscation, etc, would have been an utter disaster, and civil war might well have resulted.

    • biowrite says:

      Thank you for commenting. You don’t seem to have the courage to identify yourself with this remark? This is not just a question of how unutterably barbaric the Pinochet regime was, but a question of logic too. Your remark implies that you do not believe that Chile was indeed thrown into a state of civil war by Pinochet. As he declared a state of war himself I find this bizarre. As to dangerous leftist policies such as land redistribution, I take it you believe it is acceptable for the super-wealthy and massive corporations to take possession of practically everything, and you think increasing inequality is good? I refer you to this:

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