Damian Thompson has a short sharp takedown of the BBC’s latest expedition in self-representation — a report on the importance of impartiality.
The BBC can’t kick its addiction to bias
By Damian Thompson
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 19/06/2007
When it comes to accusations of Left-liberal bias, the BBC is a bit like an alcoholic. People have been sniggering about his drinking for years; he pretends not to notice. There have been complaints; he brushes them aside. Throwing up at that wedding reception? Someone spiked the punch.
Propositioning the boss’s wife? That was a joke. But, deep down, the drunk knows he has a problem. More to the point, he knows that everyone else knows. So, nervously, he’s prepared to admit that he might be a little too fond of the sauce.
Yesterday, the BBC Trust published From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel, an 81-page report with the subtitle Safeguarding Impartiality in the 21st century.
That’s a bit like the late Boris Yeltsin talking about safeguarding his sobriety. It is, however, the first time that the corporation has attempted to address the question, so we should read the report carefully.
The first reaction is to sigh with relief. The report acknowledges that “mainstream opinion” was wrong to attack monetarism, to belittle Euro-sceptics as small-minded and blinkered, and to assume that multi-culturalism would solve the problems of immigration.
Justin Webb, the BBC’s Washington correspondent, is quoted as saying that “in the tone of what we say about America, we have a tendency to scorn and deride.” (Would “we” in this instance mean Matt Frei, I wonder?) Roger Mosey, former head of BBC television news, says he has “some sympathies with what Janet Daley says generally about a liberal/pinko agenda”.
Stephen Whittle, a former controller of the BBC’s editorial policy, says that its journalists work within a straitjacket of unchallenged liberal assumptions.
You’re telling me. A few years ago, I wrote a column called “Beebwatch” for this newspaper. That involved listening to hours of BBC output every day. It was a maddening experience. I simply could not believe the ease with which representatives of Lefty pressure groups commandeered segments of Woman’s Hour and Today, their soprano nagging accompanied by pizzicato clucks from the friendly interviewer.
I was outraged and, like many outraged people, became a raging bore on the subject. After the column finished, I worried whether I might have exaggerated the problem.
But then I met Robin Aitken, a BBC reporter for 25 years, who reckons that during his time on Today, The Money Programme and Breakfast News he couldn’t have formed a cricket team from Tory sympathisers at the BBC.
His book Can We Trust the BBC? argues that the Left-liberal culture at White City is basically intact. Aitken, admittedly, is a Conservative, so perhaps he would say that. But Rod Liddle, former editor of Today, definitely isn’t, and in The Spectator last month he listed the groups that the BBC thinks it’s OK to be horrible about: evangelical Christians, the Countryside Alliance, multi-national corporations, supporters of Israel.
Ah yes, Israel. One of the few BBC journalists criticised in yesterday’s report was Barbara Plett, who burst into tears when Yasser Arafat was airlifted out of his compound and then boasted about it in an article. She was caught red-handed, in other words; the incident became famous and so the report produces her as a burnt offering.
In contrast, we are told only that “a BBC News presenter” was unwise to write an article in the Daily Mirror entitled “Why the World Needs Hillary”. That means you, Gavin Esler, though I had to use Google to find out.
Which brings us to the real reason this document has appeared. Google, YouTube, Al-Jazeera, Fox News: all these outlets provide competition for the BBC. The report acknowledges as much, referring in typical Beeb style to the “alternative vision” of Al-Jazeera, but to Fox’s “avowedly opinionated” stance. Suddenly, the BBC finds that its reputation for impartiality has become its unique selling point, the only thing standing between it and privatisation.
Time to panic. For years, the corporation has ignored the little voice in its head that says impartiality went out of the window with Margaret Thatcher; it could afford to, because its critics had no redress and few media outlets.
But now anyone can mock the BBC on a blog or YouTube, or watch an excellent internet channel, 18 Doughty Street, founded by centre-Right entrepreneurs: the BBC report calls it “a harbinger of partisan television”, but the truth is that, because it operates outside an ideological straitjacket, it is less partisan than, say, Radio 4.
This report is a step in the right direction. But, as anyone who has ever dealt with an alcoholic will confirm, it is best not to get your hopes up. Nothing will happen without a desire to change; and I don’t think Auntie is ready to come off the sauce.
Maybe if our tippler were to let people see just how many empty bottles of there are in the basement closet — as in, release the Balen Report on Middle East reporting bias — there might be just a bit more likelihood that it will take the necessary steps to get on the wagon. Of course, since arrogance lies at the heart of much of the BBC’s attitude, it will take a modesty that only belonging to BNA (Biased News Anonymous) could hope to foster. The very fact that the BBC’s report is entitled “Safeguarding Impartiality” — as if this were something the BBC had and needed to preserve — strikes me as not very reassuring.