Lead Image: Reception at Broadcasting House
On Saturday [30 October 2021] Radio 4’s famous, agenda setting, Today news magazine marked the Annual General Meeting of the National Trust with an interview involving Neil Bennett CEO of PR firm Maitland and a director of the pressure group “Restore Trust” and the National Trust’s former Chair, journalist and author, Sir Simon Jenkins, both critics of some of the perceived key current policies of the National Trust’s senior management team. Sir Simon in particular is the author of a recent article in the Guardian which was highly critical of the report into the relationship of the Trust’s properties with Colonialism and Historic Slavery, commissioned by the Trust and edited by University of Leicester Academic Professor Corinne Fowler, Dr Sally-Anne Huxtable, Head Curator, National Trust, Dr Christo Kefalas, World Cultures Curator, National Trust and Emma Slocombe, Textile Curator, National Trust.
The interview proved controversial, with allegations it was one sided in that the two interviewees, both middle aged white men, were both known critics of the Trust’s Colonialism and Slavery report.
This may have been less of an issue if the interview had been conducted [incidentally by another middle aged white man] in a way which interrogated the position of the interviewees. Instead, it is alleged that the report, and its authors, were neither properly represented, nor defended, by Today presenter Justin Webb.
In the aftermath of the interview a clearly upset and angry Professor Fowler told her Twitter followers,
“HELP needed to defend the @nationaltrust report from unjust attack by Simon Jenkins & Restore Trust on Saturday on bbc Today programme just repeating the smears of the last 12 months.”
This request leads thePipeLine to offer this annotated transcript of the interview.
thePipeLine’s comments are in RED
As you read please remember the oldest adages in journalism…
“If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both.
Your job is to look out of the f**king window and find out which is true.”
You can decide how well Today’s producers and presenter Justin Webb forecast the historical weather at the National Trust.
Saturday 30 October 2021
The time, twenty seven minutes to eight.
The National Trust holds its annual general meeting in Harrogate, the places on the governing council up for a vote.
So far, so restrained and British and normal, but behind the scenes in castles and gardens and gift shops around the nation, the trust is having quite a moment.
A splinter group called Restore Trust is trying to pull the organisation away from what it regards as the woke direction it has travelled in.
It accuses the Trust’s leaders of dumbing down.
Neil Bennett is on the line who is from Restore Trust.
And so is Simon Jenkins who chaired the National Trust, from 2008 to 2014.
Morning to you both.
Neil Bennett, first of all, what is it that’s got your goat. What do you want to change?
The first thing I’d like to say is that we started this movement, myself and my colleagues, because we love the National Trust. We’ve been members and supporters for years, and I think it’s, it’s a wonderful institution that protects and preserves the nation’s heritage. And we became deeply concerned in the last couple of years that the trust’s leadership was failing, was failing in its central mission, which is to preserve that heritage. And instead going down a very politicised line, of actually standing against the nation’s heritage and we reluctantly were stirred into action.
[It is worth noting that Neil Bennett makes no attempt to deny that Restore Trust is a “splinter group”. Neither does Justin Webb quiz Mr Bennett on how many members the group has. [The Mail has claimed Restore Trust has around 6000 members, that is some 1/10 of 1% of the membership of the National Trust which is just short of six million]. Neither does Mr Webb ask who funds the activities of Restore Trust.]
So when you say standing against the nation’s heritage, are you talking about the report on colonialism and slavery?
I think that’s just one example.
We wouldn’t have a problem with the national trust looking at the links of its properties to colonialism and slavery.
The fact was that that report last year was a bad report, it was littered with inaccuracies.
[This criticism is somewhat one sided. For example, the author of the Restore Trust website laments that the report did not cite the work of several named authorities including Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford “….who is well known for his work on the ethics of empire.” and particularly that the report authors do not cite Professor Biggar’s “Ethics of Colonial History” project.
However, the website fails to mention that Professor Biggar’s project was the subject of an open letter signed by fifty eight fellow Oxford historians criticising the basis of the “Ethics of Colonial History” project and stating,
“The “Ethics and Empire” project asks the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes. However seriously intended, far from offering greater nuance and complexity, Biggar’s approach is too polemical and simplistic to be taken seriously.”]
It was produced very much for political motives we feel and, and really let the Trust down and it was commissioned and sanctioned from a very senior level within the organisation.
And we see examples everywhere. You said Justin a dumbing down, but it’s worse than that. It’s almost insulting the membership who are really the driving force behind the Trust, insulting the people that donated the properties to the Trust and really just kind of trampling on our history.
[To critics what follows is the biggest mistake in the interview. Justin Webb fails to question Mr Bennetts unsubstantiated assertions about political motivation, and emotive claims that “our history” [whose history is that by the way?], but instead tees up what many see as the “culture war” dog whistle issue of the ‘Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery’. as the core issue of the interview by, in turn, asking Sir Simon Jenkins about it.]
Simon Jenkins first, just on the colonialism report, do you accept that, that report, do you believe that that report was sub-standard?
I don’t think anyone who’s ever read history could regard it as an outstanding report. I think gamma minus is probably what I’d give it.
[Again, critics are concerned that neither Simon Jenkins nor Justin Webb mention that the Guardian added a footnote to Sir Simon’s article about the report stating the article was amended on 18 October 2021 because,
“A change in the editing meant the writer’s reference to Winston Churchill may have been misconstrued as suggesting the National Trust had associated him with slavery; the intended criticism was for bringing such issues as Churchill’s stance on empire into the purview of its historical reassessment.”
The note added,
“On 21 October 2021 a reference to an apparent lack of “peer review” was removed to avoid any ambiguity; although the author believes a traditional peer review was needed, it is not disputed that the rewritings were subject to a review process.”]
Um, but it really is not the end of the world. I mean, something had to be done to, to re-present some of the properties, not all of them, some of them, it was a necessary exercise. The Trust does it from time to time. And in this case, I think they’ve got a frankly a dud group of people to do it. It obviously wasn’t quite, it wasn’t satisfactory, I’m not pretending, anything other than that.
[Again Justin Webb does not pick up Sir Simon on the response from Director of Curation and Experience at the, National Trust, John Orna-Ornstein, who wrote in a letter published by the Guardian,
“The report was authored and edited by a number of the most experienced curators in the National Trust. It went through a robust review process with internal and external curators and academic historians before it was published. The report presents our existing knowledge about Chartwell and many other properties in a straightforward and factual way, in the hope that we and others can build upon that knowledge and enhance our understanding of the global nature of the British country house.”]
But, but the National Trust has these rows. I mean, with, with, with exhilarating regularity. We had it on badgers, on gays, on rewilding, on hunting. It shows the place is alive is all I can say.
[Using the term “gays” as a collective noun for the LGBTQ+ community in October 2021 is somewhat tin eared, and is perhaps suggestive of someone unaware, or dismissive, of the the way most of society has moved on from such outdated language.]
And, it’ll get over this one really quite quickly. I hope.
Yeah, there was a row once wasn’t there Neil Bennett about whether or not you could have cushions in rooms with people sort of sit on and and look around and some people objected to that and then it became just a thing.
Do you not fear, let’s put the colonialism report to one side for the moment, do you not fear on the other things that you’re concerned about, what you call dumbing down, that you’re just on the wrong side of history?
[Right question, clumsily put. Try it this way, “..do you not fear that historical scholarship has moved on and that what you call “dumbing down” is simply a shift from a nationalistic, often simplistic, good versus bad view of history, to one of greater nuance which recognises that in the past historians were not able to, or chose not to, represent certain voices and communities?”]
No, I don’t at all. I think this is also, about the National Trust being responsive to its membership who are at, as I mentioned at the core of the organisation. I think the, the dumbing down is a nice trite way of putting it. What it really is, just got a, you know, it’s almost Maoist in its approach of eradicating history.
[Justin Webb fails to follow up by asking Mr Bennett how adding to knowledge about, for example, links to slavery, and seeking to bring forward the voices of previously under represented individuals and groups connected with National Trust properties is Maoist “eradicating history”.]
It was only last year that the National Trust, produced a report that was then leaked that talked about abolishing, what it called, the outdated mansion experience, which shows just how far the senior leadership of the trust has moved away from its membership and I think we’re at breaking point.
[Justin Webb seems to accept this is a straw man argument asking…]
But It hasn’t been abolished has it, and it won’t be?
Well, no, but if the senior leadership is writing reports like that, and essentially endorsing positions like that, it’s time to, you know, for the members to make their opinions felt.
I mean, that’s the point, isn’t it Simon Jenkins, that the accusation is that the radicals, the kind of splinter group is actually those who are in charge of the Trust, who are taking it into in a direction that most members wouldn’t want it to go in?
I think this is a complete misunderstanding.
I mean, when I was there, I was accused of Disneyfication, of dumbing down, of sacking curators. I mean, there are lobbies in the Trust, there’s almost 6 million members, there’s no organisation like it in Britain, they’ve all got different opinions. It’s a stupid Trust that tries to sort of take them in one particular direction because another lot will explode.
The report which has just been referred to, was a report for discussion by one member of staff asked to take a particular point of view. It’s not the Trust’s policy.
[Here it can be argued that, in pointing out the misrepresentation of the report critiquing the “mansion experience” by Restore Trust Sir Simon is doing Justin Webb’s job for him, but then he is also journalist by profession, having edited both the London Evening Standard and the Times.]
The Trust, the Trust has got a, got a particular problem at the moment, which is a legitimate problem is what you do about houses that are actually decreasingly popular?
And I wanted to make the houses much more livable in, look as if they were real houses, rather than museums. All of these things is an ongoing debate within the Trust, which is utterly, utterly healthy, and it would be disaster if they weren’t having this debate.
That’s the point isn’t it –
– it’s nothing to do with decolonising the country, it really isn’t.
[Note the word “decolonising” is never defined objectively for a non specialist audience. It is left as a dog whistle for all angles of the debate.
For the record, while a complex area of critical and historical theory, EuroClio – the European Association of History Educators, offers this helpful summary,
“Decolonisation as we discuss here refers to a wider movement to address and decentre hegemony established by colonisation.
In history teaching this results in two main aims:
- Increasing content pertaining to colonised and marginalised peoples.
- Challenging how Western and European history is traditionally constructed and taught
Scholars emphasise that one cannot be done without the other.”]
That’s the point Neil Bennett,, you’ve got to get people in and you’ve got to do what is attractive to them, otherwise, the whole thing’ll be finished.
Well, I think the very fact it has 6 million members shows that people still want to visit the Trust, still want to visit the Trust properties. And by the way, Simon, I mean, it would be, you know, I think everyone at Restore Trust would be delighted if you were still chairman, because I think that since you left the, you know, the move, the radicalisation of the trust management has –
– There we are Simon! Will you take this on then? Will you spearhead it. Do you come back, that’s that’s the offer made live on the programme. Go on!
[You can argue this is a classic attempt at an interviewers “Gotcha!” moment, but it can also be argued it is a distraction from the thrust of the item. It might also have made for a more informative interview if Justin Webb had asked Neil Bennett what evidence he had that the management of the National Trust was “radical”, rather than simply putting into effect policies designed to make the Trust a more modern, inclusive organisation, with which Restore Trust happens to disagree.]
I’d chair the National Trust my entire life if they’d let me! But that’s not the point.
[Precisely- Sir Simon.]
OK, well, that’s an offer accepted then, wondeful!
[If there is any dumbing down going on Sir Simon seems to think it is in the part of Justin Webb, because he gets the interview back on track saying…]
Obviously there’s a real point here about houses, which is that the houses are not as popular as they used to be. The countryside is, gardens are. There’s a sort of shift in the perception of people generally members of the national trust in particular, away from what might be called traditional country house towards the countryside. And I think that’s a good shift because the countryside is at danger, the houses on the whole aren’t, but the houses have got to, in some sense, keep up to date. And I think that’s a good thing which the Trust is doing
[That is a pretty succinct analysis of the dilemma the National Trust faces.]
Final word Mr. Bennett, are you going to win, do you, do you think your people, these six posts that are up, are you going to win and bring the changes you want?
I mean, today is very much an opening shot. I mean today is, we only formed this group four months ago. The national trust leadership has I’m afraid, stuffed the ballot by coercing their staff to vote in this AGM. So we’re not expecting too much, but this is really just the start.
[And Justin Webb lets possibly the biggest news line of the interview go without comment. Neil Bennett accuses the National Trust of ballot rigging and coercing [bullying?] its staff, but Mr Webb does not comment on this, either to state in classic BBC balance that the National Trust would probably deny the accusations, or in more inquisitorial vein, to ask Mr Bennett just what is his evidence for these serious accusations, and what would be the point of trying to rig a ballot by “coercing” their staff when there are almost six million members of the National Trust’s who are all eligible to vote?]
It takes a long time for an organisation to change, but, we’ve been slow to be stirred up, but we’re now committed to this
Neil Bennett and Simon Jenkins. Thank you both very much.
[And the Saturday news cycle moved on…]
With the AGM taking place later that day it is unlikely that the management of the National Trust itself would have put up a spokesperson, and thanks to an article in Byline Times we now know that the Trust and the authors of the report were invited onto the programme and turned the interview down.
Instead, the programme went with two critics of the Colonialism and Historic Slavery report.
They were then interviewed by a presenter who comes across as uninquisitive, poorly briefed and uninterested in the wider issues the debate raised in the context of the so-called, “Culture War”, beloved of one of Restore Trust’s biggest media cheer leaders, and incidentally one of Mr Bennett’s former employers, the Telegraph group of newspapers.
In the aftermath of the interview the National Trust claimed it had provided an extensive briefing note [although there is little sign in his questions that Justin Webb had access to such a brief], while the BBC defended the interview telling Byline Times,
“Our presenter and guests led a robust and lively discussion about the National Trust and the ongoing challenges to its leadership. Both the National Trust and the authors of the newly published report were invited on to the Today Programme for this item – both declined to be interviewed.”
However, it is clear many listeners seem to have come away from the item with the impression that the interview was, at best, a light weight space filler, appearing to play to certain prejudices about “woke” academic historians. An approach which was unfair to the National Trust and to work of Professor Fowler and the report team.
It is not as if there are not plenty of articulate and independent contemporary historians and cultural commentators who could have contested Mr Bennett and Restore Trust’s motives and assertions.
The best case is that the production team at Today need to add some of those names to the programme’s contacts book.
The worst case is that they neither knew nor cared about what was actually at stake.
If so that is an institutional problem for BBC News.
The full interview is available currently on BBC Sounds. Listen between 33’24” and 40’42”.