The Kilroy-Silk Affair (2004)
Many fair-minded and responsible British institutions and individuals rallied around the Muslim community in support of its objections to an article published by Robert Kilroy-Silk ‘We owe Arabs nothing’ in the Express on Sunday (4th January 2004). Diligent work by young advocacy and lobby groups scored a notable achievement when Kilroy-Silk, a well-established TV personality, was asked twelve days later by the BBC to stand down from his daily talk show. However the community’s response has been one of sober reflection rather than celebration.
Kilroy-Silk’s polemics were a salutory reminder of the social climate in post-September 11 Britain: a mainstream Sunday paper, using ‘Arab’ as code speak for ‘Muslim’, could claim open license for its columns to be used to heap abuse and humiliation on a section of society. For British Muslims it was as if the tap of Muslim bashing invective had been turned fully clockwise. ‘We owe Arabs nothing’ was like a throw back to a previous era – when the Hellenophile Gladstone and The Times would rant about the ‘Turkish problem’ – now it is not another sick man of Europe that is being manufactured in the public imagination. The British public is being pushed into believing there is a ‘Muslim problem’ in their midst. Cultural denigration of Muslims is the new racism.
As in the Rushdie Affair, the community is being lectured on ‘freedom of expression’ – that Muslims are again seeking the censorship of ideas. Kilroy-Silk and his supporters attempted to ‘spin’ gratuitous racist remarks as a right of free speech. The episode highlights potential double standards –Muslims are expected to uphold ‘freedom of expression’ at the cost of their own self-respect and dignity, but protest is muted when others seek to ban books, films and exhibitions that may be damaging to their interests.
The Muslim campaign to have Kilroy axed from the BBC was also instructive for revealing genuine well-wishers, fair-weather friends offering heavily-qualified support and – judging from the volume of hate emails received by Muslim institutions – the persistent racist undercurrent that is unable to come to terms with global changes arising from migration, demographic shifts and the desperate need for labour.
A chronology of what happened
Sunday 4th January - The Express on Sunday publishes Kilroy-Silk’s polemic that decries “the Arabs” for “murdering more than 3,000 civilians on September 11 and then dancing in the hot, dusty streets to celebrate” and describes them as “suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women repressors”.
Click here for full text
Monday 5th January – an Express reader, Tanveer Rahman, contacts the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) to object about the article.
Tuesday 6th January – The MCB writes to the BBC pointing out that “Kilroy-Silk is – as you must know – a man who positively revels in airing his anti-Arab and anti-Muslim views. We wonder whether you would consider it proper to give the same kind of prominence to a presenter who was so openly anti-black or anti-Jewish?”. The secretary of the MCB’s media committee, Inayat Bunglawala also writes to the Press Complaints Commission and notifies the Commission for Racial Equality
(CRE). Click here for text
Wednesday 7th January – The MCB establishes further contacts with the CRE– and also follows up with media contacts, including a letter to the editor of the Express on Sunday. BBC management remain closeted at meetings all day.
Thursday 8th January – CRE issues its statement with reference to potential Police action, “Our lawyers have considered the column and, in the light of widespread concern, we are referring the article to the police to consider whether it might constitute an offence under the Public Order Act, in precisely the same way we did when a bonfire society in Sussex recently burnt an effigy of a Gypsy caravan”.
Dr Lynne Jones, MP for Birmingham Selly Oak tables an Early Day Motion (EDM) “this House deplores the racist comments directed at Arab people”.
British National Party’s web site announces “Robert Kilroy Silk, the TV presenter and darling of the daytime housewife prime time viewing has come under attack from none other than the race relations industry here in Britain for daring to question the gift to the greater good of those people of Islamic and Arabic origin”.
Friday 9th January – BBC announces decision to suspend broadcasts of the Kilroy programme on BBC1 with immediate effect “because of the seriousness of the matter” while it conducts an investigation. The MCB and other Muslim organisations are targeted by a hate email campaign – a common phrase in these emails is ‘why Kilroy-Silk should be investigated for incitement to racial hatred when no action was taken over remarks by Oxford don Tom Paulin (for comments on illegal settlers in Israel).
Sunday 11th January – BNP’s web site states “The move by the Race Relations industry and their allies in the BBC to gag Kilroy-Silk is an attack on every person in Britain with a brain to think, lips to speak and ears to hearl… If Kilroy is arrested and charged, British National Party activists will demonstrate against his persecution and in favour of free speech at the offices of the totalitarian Commission for Racial Equality, and outside the homes of its senior executives”.
Express on Sunday publishes a response by Inayat Bunglawala. Click here for Inayat Bunglawala’s article
Monday 12th January – Guardian writers Brian Whitaker and Faisal Bodi are the first broadsheet journalists to criticise Kilroy-Silk. The former notes, “Racist articles by high-profile figures not only reinforce popular prejudices but lend credibility to the unsavoury views of neo-Nazi groups”.
The Council for Anglo-Arab Understanding (CAABU) issues a press release expressing its grave concern at the failure of Robert Kilroy-Silk to apologise fully for his offensive and racist article.
The Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) issues a press release applauding the actions of the BBC in dropping Robert Kilroy-Silk’s programme. The Jewish Chronicle (16 January) reports that “Rabbi Alan Plancey, who represents Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the CCJ’s advisory committee was ‘furious’ at the council’s response, claiming it had not been sanctioned by the organisation’s presidents – which include Rabbi Sacks”.
Labour MP Andrew Dismore states that he finds it hard to understand why the BBC had moved against Mr Kilroy-Silk but had not taken any action against Tom Paulin.
Thursday 13th January – CAABU issues a further press release It refers to the activities of Betar: “a Zionist youth movement and registered charity. In a widely circulated email, Betar called Kilroy-Silk’s article ‘excellent’ and urged its members to complain to the BBC for suspending Kilroy-Silk and stated that he was ‘fired because his article spoke the truth’.”
Wednesday 14th January – The Daily Express highlights the female BBC executives behind his suspension, under the headline “BBC bully girls who hate Kilroy”. The executives are Jana Bennett, director of television; Lorraine Heggessey, controller of BBC1; and Alison Sharman, head of daytime programmes. An orchestrated email and phone campaign is now underway, bombarding Muslim organisations with hate mail and blocking BBC telephone lines – 7,000 calls to its viewer comment line, most in support of Kilroy-Silk. The MCB submits a dossier to the BBC on some of Kilroy-Silk’s previous obnoxious statements on Muslims.Board of Deputies Director General Neville Nagler writes to the Guardian “You quote the spokesman of the Muslim Council of Britain as saying that ‘if anyone had made a rant against black or Jewish people there would be no question of temporary suspension – they would be out straight away’ (Kilroy-Silk looks to be on the way out after interview with BBC rival, January 13). Sorry to disappoint the MCB, but when BBC Newsnight review contributor Tom Paulin praised the murder of Israeli settlers, there was no question of suspending him. Quite the reverse: the BBC was happy for him to appear the following week. Yet another example of BBC double standards”.
Thursday 15th January – BBC Question Time programme – Education Minister David Miliband describes the BBC’s decision to suspend the programme as “absurd”.
Friday 16th January – at 3 pm BBC announce that it is taking Kilroy-Silk off-air. Metropolitan Police confirm receipt of a complaint from the CRE questioning whether the 4th January article amounted to incitement to racial hatred.
Jewish Chronicle reports that “the comparison between the treatment of Kilroy-Silk and Paulin’s continued BBC work was also raised by the Board of Deputies and Lord Janner, who accused the corporation of double standards.
Sunday 18th January – The Sunday Express attacks Jane Bennett and Alison Sharman – “control freaks who forced Kilroy-Silk off our screens”. Writing in the same issue, Kilroy-Silk puts the ‘freedom of expression’ spin: “ … the Muslim Council of Britain wants to stifle any news with which it disagrees. Will we allow them to censor us? Will we support those of them who believe in burning books? I don’t think so”.
|“We, however, regret that Mr Kilroy-Silk continues to defend the indefensible and has used every excuse to exculpate himself from taking responsibility for the writing of his own breathtakingly racist words. He blamed the Sunday Express, his secretary, the BBC, the CRE and also the Muslim community itself. He also hid behind the noble principle of freedom of speech. Yet no responsible government allows unlimited freedom of speech, and especially not freedom to incite hatred of an entire people. Events in Nazi Germany during the second world war showed what can happen when we allow the demonisation of whole groups of people.”
Extract from MCB Press Release, 16th Jan
London W12 7RJ
6th January 2004
Dear Ms Heggessey,
For some time now, many British Muslims have been deeply troubled about why the BBC continues to employ Robert Kilroy-Silk in any capacity, let alone in such a high profile position as the morning chat show host on BBC1. It is truly galling to see an Islamophobic presenter like Kilroy enriching himself over a number of years courtesy of a publicly funded body such as the BBC.
Kilroy-Silk is – as you must know – a man who positively revels in airing his anti-Arab and anti-Muslim views. We wonder whether you would consider it proper to give the same kind of prominence to a presenter who was so openly anti-black or anti-Jewish?
Kilroy-Silk writes a weekly column for the Express on Sunday in which he often gives vent to his bigoted and ill-informed ideas about what is happening in the world. In last Sunday’s paper he surpassed all his previous efforts and produced a hysterically gratuitous anti-Arab rant. As you can see in the following extract (“We Owe The Arabs Nothing”) from the Express on Sunday (4th January 2004), Kilroy-Silk appears unable (or unwilling) to distinguish between the terrorists who perpetrated the Sept 11 atrocities and the ordinary Arab peoples who constitute a population of over 200 million.
“We’re told that the Arabs loathe us. Really?… What do they think we feel about them? That we adore them for the way they murdered more than 3,000 civilians on September 11… That we admire them for the cold-blooded killings in Mombasa, Yemen and elsewhere? That we admire them for being suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women-repressors?” Note that Kilroy doesn’t attack the actions of a particular few – but ‘the Arabs’ as a whole. This seems to be a clear case of indiscriminate generalisation and as such, blatantly racist. The Press Council upheld a complaint against The Sun for publishing similar comments about ‘the Arabs’ in 1987.
Kilroy also displays a lamentable grasp of geography and history: “The Arab world has not exactly earned our respect, has it? Iran is a vile, terrorist-supporting regime – part of the axis of evil. So is the Saddam Hussein-supporting Syria. So is Libya. Indeed, most of them chant support for Saddam.”
Iran is a largely Farsi-speaking country (not Arab) and heir to an enormously rich civilisation. Kilroy’s dismissive remarks Iran and the Arab world are not untypical of the arrogant way he treats anything to do with Islam or Muslims. In addition, the Iraqi and Syrian regimes have for decades actually been bitter rivals in the region as each country’s branch of the Ba’th party tried to project itself as the leader of the Arab world. Moreover, the majority of the Arab public has never hidden its disdain for Saddam Hussein and his brutal rule.
There has been a lot of comment in the press recently about journalists and commentators employed by the BBC who bring the corporation into disrepute by writing opinionated pieces in newspapers. The Muslim Council of Britain considers Kilroy’s remarks quoted above to be ignorant, extremely derogatory and indisputably racist.
In the BBC’s Producer’s Guidelines, your Chairman, Greg Dyke says “Our audiences rightly expect the highest…ethical standards from the BBC…values such as impartiality, accuracy, fairness, editorial independence and our commitment to appropriate standards of taste and decency” We hope you will agree that Mr Robert Kilroy-Silk has fallen far short of these values and standards.
We now urge the BBC to take urgent and appropriate action on this extremely serious matter to reassure the Muslim and Arab communities in Britain and abroad that the BBC will not in any way accept the contemptible demonisation of entire peoples. Certainly, if the word ‘Jews’ was substituted for ‘Arabs’ in the Kilroy quotes above it seems to us that the BBC would not tolerate any delay before it took substantive action against Kilroy.
For your information, the Muslim Council of Britain is also writing to the Press Complaints Commission about Kilroy’s article. Yours sincerely,
Cc: Greg Dyke, Director-General, BBC Alison Sharman, Controller, BBC Daytime Television
Thursday 8 January 2004
CRE response to Robert Kilroy-Silk’s article in the Sunday Express, 4 January 2004
Trevor Phillips, CRE chair, said:
This article is indisputably stupid and its main effect will be to give comfort to the weak-minded. However, given the extreme and violent terms in which Mr Kilroy Silk has expressed himself, there is a danger that this might incite some individuals to act against someone who they think is an Arab. More seriously, he is trivialising one of the most important and difficult areas of international relations facing the world today.
Our lawyers have considered the column and, in the light of widespread concern, we are referring the article to the police to consider whether it might constitute an offence under the Public Order Act, in precisely the same way we did when a bonfire society in Sussex recently burnt an effigy of a Gypsy caravan.