Opinion: Censorship and the Presentation of History


200px-Question_exclamation.svgBritish and German historians agree on the Kaiser’s unfortunate personality traits and their impacts on the events leading up to the outbreak of the First World War. His private letters, diaries and public correspondence show him as a bombastic bully, indecisive, untrustworthy, often frightened of his actions, a racist and an anti-Semite. His racial prejudices covered a vast swathe of the world population – the Chinese, Japanese, Serbs and of course the Jews. His racial prejudices were shared by the German military caste.

The BBC’s coverage of the First World War has been exlemplary; fair, balanced, scholarly and above all vivid, making for compulsory viewing. In presenting historical narrative, the BBC, a public corporation, has legally defined statutory duties governing what and how material is presented to its audience.

There is perhaps confusion here between “censorship” and “editing”. The latter is a routine chore of the media and publishers, aimed to correct, improve and prepare material for the listener or reader, without bias, in an acceptable format and without giving gratuitous offence. Censorship, on the other hand, involves deliberate selective bias to denigrate others by the presentation of offensive images and written descriptions. Professional editing enhances the material. Audiences need to know that the Kaiser was motivated by extreme racial prejudices which informed his attempts at diplomacy. They do not need to be offended by his actual racial statements.

Historical material presented in schools usually goes through the same editorial process. Teachers are well aware of the sensitivity involved in teaching classes of mixed race and religious affiliations, as well as the social differences there can be between individual pupils. Books and articles by recognised historians offering different interpretations and theories of cause and effect, havegone through the same process of formal or informal editing. Teachers and BBC presenters are well aware of the Race Relations Act.

Nevertheless, there are historical topics which do present problems. Examples include issues surrounding the creation of the state of Israel after the Second World War, British 19th century Imperialism, the Crusades, the history of Ireland, and slavery and its contribution to Britain’s Industrial Revolution. But as history is essentially about individual and collective interaction across space and time, controversy is inevitable. But this controversy enhances the understanding of the other’s point of view. Simple prejudice only offends and increases ignorance.

Contemporary historical scholarship, including the books written for a mass market, is of a very high order. Teachers of 5th and 6th form classes in particular are usually able to reflect the quality of this scholarship in their teaching, as do BBC programmes. There has never been a better time to enjoy, or a better place to begin, than through the BBC.

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