Channel 4 have questions to answer over Tulip Siddiq interview

Tulip Siddiq has rightly apologised for her comment to a pregnant Channel 4 News producer about having a difficult childbirth. It is possible the Labour MP may have already known about the case of Ahmed Bin Quasem, who is being detained by state security forces in Bangladesh, and has chosen not to help because of her family connections in Bangladeshi politics, which includes the prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed. Siddiq’s staff member did not help matters by putting his hand over the TV camera lens. To be sure, the Hampstead and Kilburn MP has not come out of this well. So far, so bad.

Yet there are many questions about the approach of Channel 4 News. They effectively ambushed Siddiq at an event demanding the release of her constituent, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been jailed in Iran. Siddiq played a major role in raising the profile of Nazanin’s case. Yet this was merely the backdrop to gatecrash the vigil to question Siddiq about Quasem. The claim was Siddiq’s close family connections meant “one call” from her would force the release of Quasem.

Indeed Alex Thomson’s piece featured three people all saying almost exactly the same thing, word for word, that “one call from Siddiq could be all it takes” to secure the man’s freedom. This dubious claim rests on the assumption that family loyalties in Bangladesh are far more effective a route than official channels, for example representations by the Foreign Secretary or British Prime Minister. That strikes me as a stereotype. Thomson’s package also asked no questions about what, if anything, Boris Johnson or the FCO were doing for Quasem. A startling omission.

The notion that a backbench opposition MP can have more influence than the great British offices on account of their family is problematic. It has led to articles such as “Where do Tulip’s loyalties really lie?” which resurrect the Norman Tebbit ‘cricket test’ over whether a British politician is being disloyal to Britain by taking an interest in the affairs of their parents’ homeland.

The Channel 4 package dug up a dusty online article from an obscure source to suggest that Siddiq had promised to help Bangladeshi’s in Britain. The programme implied that the MP had broken a pledge by not responding to the family of Quasem. Yet Siddiq has a choice in the matter. In our democracy there is no compulsion for an MP to take a non-constituent’s case, however good a fit people may think they are.

It was wrong for Channel 4 to imply that Siddiq was duty-bound to take on any Bangladesh-related casework. She is not a Bangladeshi MP, she is a British MP, and British-born to boot. This point clearly vexed Siddiq in the interview. Thomson seemed tone deaf to the MP’s objections at being ‘othered’ as a foreigner. It was in this context that Siddiq warned Thomson to be “very careful what you’re saying.” The journalist later took to twitter to suggest that this was in some way threatening. It was clearly not a threat at all, but instead a protest at being typecast as not being completely British.

Soon after the interview Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear tweeted that he had reported Siddiq to the Labour Party, presumably so they could consider disciplinary action against her. Is this the role of a broadcaster? Surely their job is to screen the footage and let party apparatchiks decide whether to take action, not to instigate party processes? There was also a flurry of tweets from the reporter, producer, editor and other C4N staffers that had the unintended effect of whipping up an online storm against Siddiq, including some very unsavoury, racist and Islamophobic tweets from members of the public directed at the MP.

It is simply unfair to hold MPs responsible for matters concerning the country of their parents’ birth. Yes, Siddiq is the niece of the Bangladeshi prime minister, but she is not responsible for UK foreign policy. Neither is she the British ambassador.

Another underlining theme in this story is the implication that Indian subcontinent politics are being imported into Westminster. This was the message from the TV package which highlighted Siddiq’s past associations with Bangladesh politics. Once again, this perpetrated damaging stereotypes.

Most people can agree that it would have been welcome if Siddiq had taken on the Quasem case given her family connections. But whether we like it or not, in our democracy she is free to decline to help. If her reluctance to assist was due to her family ties we may not like it, but that is the MP’s judgement call.

National media organisations should be challenging the Foreign Secretary over such cases not gate-crashing a vigil for another detained prisoner to demand that the backbench MP champion another case on grounds of the MP's family background, race or colour.

British ethnic minority politicians know only too well what it is like to carry additional expectations as a result of their heritage. From councillor to MP level, BME politicians get more casework from citizens of colour and face extra pressures. There is a balance to be struck between serving BME communities and retaining the confidence of all voters that they care about everyone equally. Politicians of Asian subcontinent heritage in Britain have long suffered from stereotyping. Several constituency parties have been suspended over the past two decades over fears of entryism or foul-play, and these have prompted accusations of stereotyping Asian communities.

Channel 4 News will not have helped this. Their piece appeared to promote the idea that family politics, or nepotism, counts for more in Bangladesh than official channels such as diplomacy or even ministerial interventions. C4N also had the effect of raising fears over subcontinent politics in the British system. They ‘othered’ Siddiq as not being completely British and prompted newspaper headlines that questioned the MP's loyalty to Britain.

Even the unfair accusation by Thomson that Siddiq had used ‘threatening’ language when she warned him to “be careful” draws the implied menace from stereotypes about Asian politics. Siddiq handled the interview badly, for sure. She made an unacceptable remark wishing the TV producer a painful childbirth for which she has apologised ‘unreservedly’, as well she should. However, the broadcaster have many questions to answer themselves.

Channel 4 News should start to repair the damage by doing what they have failed to do so far, and that is putting Boris Johnson firmly under the spotlight over what he has done to help Quasem.

Lester Holloway