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BBC feature before Olympic 200m final amounted to “far right propaganda”

On Thursday night, BBC1 broadcast a 5 minute film (1 Hour 34 mins into the evening Olympic coverage) which gave credence to the theories of the far right and was highly offensive to disabled people in particular. During peak viewing, immediately ahead of the Olympic men’s 200m final, the BBC was broadcasting the statement:

“Eugenics was the science of improving the genetic composition of a population. There was a negative side – the elimination of defectives that corrupted the gene pool.”

It should be noted that this statement does not contest that “defectives” corrupt the gene pool.

Many will be aware that “defectives” is the old-fashioned term for disabled people – in common use a century ago when eugenics was a popular theory and still regarded as possibly scientific. Today use of the term “defectives” is highly offensive to the disabled community and eugenics is totally discredited, seen as a political creed of the far right, which is only openly advocated by fascists to under-pin ethnic cleansing. It should not be forgotten that disabled people were the first community targeted by Hitler for extermination – disabled people were actually used as a trial population by the Nazis in Germany without any protest from the wider or international community.

Furthermore, eugenics in the form of forced sterilisation of disabled people and abortions forced upon disabled women or women carrying suspected disabled foetuses, carries on to this day globally, including in Europe and the UK. Sweden, often held-up as a model of social democracy, had an active eugenics programme for the disabled until the mid-1970s. Today we have what amounts to effective social eugenics programmes, with the active questioning of whether disabled parents can adequately care for children, the far greater frequency of removal of children from disabled parents and great social, medical and other pressure put upon disabled people, disabled women in particular, to simply avoid pregnancy and childbirth.

In last night’s broadcast, reference was made to the Nazis but, according to BBC1, they only represent a “distorted manifestation of this science (of eugenics)…Through eugenics those deemed undesirable by the Nazis – the Roma, the promiscuous, communists, homosexuals, the entire Jewish race could be exterminated. Genetic cleansing became genocide.” Disabled people were shocked to be airbrushed out of history by the BBC in this manner.

It is also notable that, in stressing the evil of genocide, the BBC commentary implies that genetic cleansing is acceptable and positive. Genetic cleansing is a technique eugenicists advocate to eliminate all deemed imperfections, such as from the physique of a population.

The clear impression the BBC’s item left was that eugenics has something positive to offer which the Nazis simply “distorted”. This was re-affirmed by the film’s treatment of its second major subject – the highly controversial suggestion that at some future time gene doping may become possible for athletes. This was introduced with the statement “and here we come back to eugenics – the theory of accelerated selection”. Thus viewers were left with the impression that eugenics is a current and developing science, possibly building on the work of Darwin – not a scientifically discredited theory which is only perpetuated by fascist ideologues. This was compounded by John Inverdale’s comments:

“Well, fascinating stuff. I’m sure all the kids are at home on holiday going ‘I didn’t want to do biology and chemistry until September til I go back to school’ ‘cos it was really, really interesting stuff”.

Inverdale also referred to retired hurdler Colin Jackson as “a bit of an authority” on the subject. This was on the basis of Jackson’s past participation in a BBC genetic investigation, not because Jackson has any known scientific qualifications. In a remark that gave further credence to the far right, Inverdale stated “if you’re playing the laws of probabilities there, I’ll use that statistic again about 82 people who’ve broken 10 seconds for 100 metres, 81 of them are black. Surely that is so overwhelming it’s incontrovertible.” Presumably Inverdale had failed to consider the implications of this remark for racial stereotyping in other contexts nor, like the preceding film, had he considered that only tiny DNA differences account for skin tone. However, as an experienced BBC presenter, one would expect him to have had training on not giving offence to the public.

It is fair to say that Colin Jackson, Denise Lewis and, in particular, Michael Johnson did heavily stress various environmental factors, all apparently concluding that nurture rather than nature is the deciding factor in determining whether an individual becomes a top sprinter.

You can watch the introduction by John Inverdale, the film itself and the subsequent panel discussion between Colin Jackson, Michael Johnson and Denise Lewis, until Thursday 16 August here. The entire item lasts 9 minutes. Watching it will allow you to also note the emotive use of music and images selected to reinforce the producer’s ideas.

This piece was portrayed as science by one of the great scientific broadcasters of our time. It is not – no scientists were involved and only sports commentators discussed the issues raised. Seemingly without any expert input, someone commissioned, researched and approved this piece for peak time public broadcast. I urge you to complain to the BBC via 0370 010 0222 or and also to Offcom. You can find Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code here: Section 2 deals with harm and offence.

Eugenics is a major part of far right and fascist ideology. Its promotion in any way is extremely serious, so no mention of eugenics should ever go unchallenged. This is especially pertinent today where disabled people are under attack daily – portrayed by the Coalition and Tory media as “benefit scroungers”, victimised and bullied by employers and welfare assessors like ATOS, and under physical attack with increasing disability hate incidents being committed. We are all living in an economic climate where, in the absence of clear leadership from the Left, fascist idealogy could take hold as it did in the 1930s. It needs no encouragement from our publicly-funded state broadcaster. We must unite and act now!

This article originally appeared as a feature on the Labour Representation Committee blog.

One Comment

  1. Laban Tall says:

    “Eugenics is a major part of far right and fascist ideology”

    It was a major part of National Socialist ideology, but its roots, as you must surely be aware, were in nineteenth-century socialism.

    Beatrice Webb believed that eugenics was “the most important of all questions, the breeding of the right sort of man.”

    In 1909 the Webbs wrote …

    “What we as eugenists have got to do is to scrap the old Poor Law with its indiscriminate relief of the destitute as such and replace it by an intelligent policy of so altering the social environment as to discourage or prevent the multiplication of those irrevocably below the National Minimum of Fitness.”

    This attitude survived for a long time in the case of Sweden, and is still present today in the UK, where even the smallest and most easily-correctable genetic defects (e.g. cleft palate) are considered grounds for aborting a child.

    In fact we have the odd situation in the UK where before a child is born, say, with vestigial legs, it’s OK to kill it, but after it’s born it’s illegal not to cater for its mobility needs e.g. wheelchair access.

    “I’ll use that statistic again about 82 people who’ve broken 10 seconds for 100 metres, 81 of them are black. Surely that is so overwhelming it’s incontrovertible.” Presumably Inverdale had failed to consider the implications of this remark for racial stereotyping in other contexts nor, like the preceding film, had he considered that only tiny DNA differences account for skin tone.

    Isn’t it fast twitch muscle fibre that makes a sprinter?

    “Geneticist and exercise physiologist Claude Bouchard at Laval University in Quebec City, has run numerous experiments comparing two populations, French-Canadian and West African students. Using long needles inserted into the thighs of test subjects, Bouchard’s team extracted tiny sections of fibers, which look to the naked eye like pieces of raw meat. They were chemically treated to reveal metabolic differences, put on a glass slide, and slipped under a high-power microscope, where they appeared as a collage of tiny red and white crocodile scales. The West Africans, by a ratio of approximately two to one, had more of the larger fast-twitch fibers. The researchers concluded that the force generating capacity of type-II muscle fibers at high velocity, the speed and tempo of movements, and the capacity of an individual to adapt to exercise training are all genetically influenced. “

    Similarly East African runners dominate long-distance running because of higher aerobic perfomance, some of which (but not all, or Bolivians would dominate long distance running) has evolved as a result of high-altitude living.

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