Monday, 24 February 2014

Reprint of my Salisbury Review article "The BBC, Dressing to the Left"

There's a new issue of The Salisbury Review due out next week (you can take out a subscription here), so I reckon it's safe for me to reproduce my article from the current edition of the quarterly without being accused of harming sales (it can also be read - for the next few days at least - on the magazine's website, here). I used the article to try to explain why my former employers seem impervious to evidently justified charges of chronic left-wing bias. After all, I'm sure the BBC doesn't set out deliberately to annoy up to 40% of its licence-fee payers by dismissing their views, so why does it keep on doing it? I'm convinced it has something to do with malfunctioning feedback loops:  

In my 12 years with BBC News, I worked for many of the people who, for the past quarter century, have decided what the BBC broadcasts. Three of them went on to become Director-General. Almost without exception, they were decent, honest and fair, thoroughly convinced of their own political even-handedness. So why have they apparently been incapable of recognising, let alone addressing, the corporation’s rampant left-wing bias? Do senior managers genuinely see no merit in the criticism that they’re a cabal of arrogant left-liberal social engineers who spend the license fee promoting causes and institutions a sizable minority of its audience rejects?

Twenty years ago, the BBC’s social affairs, politics and economics editors were, respectively, Polly Toynbee, John Cole and Peter Jay – three left-wingers. To this day, I’m surprised the Conservative government didn’t respond to such outrageous provocation by privatising the BBC. Nothing has changed. When Newsnight libelled Lord McAlpine last year, many on the Right voiced concerns that this grotesque journalistic error might have stemmed from the corporation’s innate hatred of the Conservative Party in general, and Margaret Thatcher in particular. When it came to finding a new programme editor, the broadcaster demonstrated utter contempt for its critics by appointing the deputy editor of the Guardian. When the corporation’s least favourite newspaper recently published an unflattering article about Ed Miliband’s Marxist father, the BBC reacted as if it was the most important political story of the year, subjecting its audience to an endless stream of bitter old Labourites settling scores with the Mail.

 So why does the corporation keep doing things seemingly designed to confirm right-wing conspiracy theories? One answer might be that the organisation is suffering from malfunctioning feedback loops. The economist Friedrich Hayek maintained that one of the reasons state-controlled economies don’t work is that they’ve deliberately foregone the information provided by the market, especially prices (which is why, for instance, Venezuelans now find it almost impossible to buy toilet-paper and why, if Ed Miliband wins the next election, we’ll soon run out of electricity). In The Open Society and Its Enemies, the philosopher Karl Popper argued that totalitarian governments were all doomed because – by suppressing all internal criticism – they were unable to tell when the people’s anger was about to boil over into open revolt (think of the fear on Ceausescu’s face when he realised that the mob he was addressing wasn’t cheering him, but baying for his blood).

 The BBC trusts two key feedback loops – audience figures and the Audience Appreciation Index – because these almost invariably tell the corporation that we’re pretty pleased with what we’re getting. But when it comes to concerns over bias, none of the available feedback loops are functioning well enough to deliver the information that might finally convince the BBC to mend its ways.

 You might expect its right-wing employees to object vigorously to examples of political bias on the BBC news outlets they serve, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any. Of the dozens of news journalists I worked with, I can think of only four who, either openly or secretly, admitted to being conservatives. My instinct at the time was that at least 90 per cent of my colleagues were leftists of one sort or another – possibly 95 per cent. In that sort of overwhelmingly liberal atmosphere, it’s no wonder that conservatives keep their politics secret for fear of damaging their careers. I remember sitting in the newsroom one day watching Mrs Thatcher talking sense on television when another producer paused at my desk, and, after listening for a few moments, jeered, ‘She sounds just like a parrot. Caw! Caw!’ before moving off, evidently pleased with his sparkling display of wit. He is now a prominent Thatcherite cabinet minister. A journalist at the next desk startled me by muttering, so only I could hear, ‘I think she’s all right’. I mouthed back, ‘So do I’, slightly worried it was a trap and that she’d stand up and start stridently denouncing me to the whole newsroom.

When the Tory MP Ian Gow was murdered by the IRA and our screens were showing pictures of his widow, her face frozen in a rictus of shock and grief, a colleague next to me remarked, ‘Look, she can’t stop grinning. She must have really hated the bastard!’ There were tuts of disapproval from other journalists, but this wretch wouldn’t have dreamed of making such a disgusting comment had we been watching the widow of a Labour MP in similar circumstances: he’d probably have been frog-marched out of the building by security guards.

I only worked for one openly Tory boss at the corporation. She was soon replaced by a standard-issue lefty, who demonstrated the BBC view of conservatism as a pathological condition by remarking of a potential presenter, ‘He’s a Tory, poor bloke. Can’t help it.’ It was the blithe assumption that his listeners were all Labour supporters that was particularly telling – and galling.

I decided early on not to bother masking my political leanings – and, to be fair, I never felt that this hampered my career in any way (well, certainly not as much as my incompetence did): I served as the Nine O’clock News politics producer before becoming the editor of a live political talk show at Westminster. Whenever I voiced conservative opinions at editorial meetings, they were met with surprise rather than hostility. When I questioned whether we really needed to produce a package about nurses’ pay every time the Royal College of Nursing issued a whining press release based on bogus ‘research’, nobody seemed to understand what I was talking about – nurses were public sector workers and therefore, by definition, deserved more money. And when, having failed to persuade an editor to drop our mawkish annual Christmas piece on the homeless, I suggested that the script should mention the fact that, rather than invariably being the victims of ‘society’ or the Tory government, many ‘rough sleepers’ were responsible for their own plight, the editor (a terribly nice man) burst out laughing: ‘Oh, I see – the Victorian concept of the deserving poor!’

I eventually left News for New Media, imagining it would be different – after all, many of the senior staff had been recruited from what was then the Wild West of the private sector. But when, at a leaving do attended by some 20 managers, our department head got us to vote for our preferred political party in a secret ballot, only two of us voted Conservative. One recently arrived boor sneered – as if rat-droppings had been found in the office – ‘Tories? You mean we’ve got Tories?’. Another later described Winston Churchill as a ‘fat Nazi’. The BBC is evidently irresistible to left-wing job seekers, even in areas which, unlike news, comedy or drama, afford no obvious opportunity for social engineering.

You might imagine that employees would receive feedback about bias direct from right-wingers they meet in the real world – I certainly heard enough complaints from non-media types when I worked there. But urban leftists tend to socialise almost exclusively with their own dirigiste kind. I suspect most BBC news staff assume – despite the evidence of polls suggesting 45 per cent of the electorate lean to the right – that right-wingers are similarly rare in wider society, and that they resemble the cartoonish figures featured in BBC news stories – the truffle pigs of the banking world, the blazered bluff coves of UKIP, the knuckle-draggers of the EDL etc. You and I know that the vast majority of Tory and UKIP supporters are perfectly nice, kindly, unextreme people – but the average BBC producer probably doesn’t. (I began to suspect that the only conservatives most news staff routinely encountered were their own parents, whose views they had rejected as part of the left-winger’s protracted adolescent revolt against authority figures.)

This perception of right-wingers as a tiny minority of greedy racists who enjoy seeing the poor suffer is reinforced by the fact that the most important potential source of feedback – Conservative voters – hardly ever complain to the BBC about bias. A paedophile presenter scandal, an insult to the Queen, or cruel on-air phone calls to a much-loved comedy actor will light up the switchboard. No doubt they also get upset about the make-up of Question Time panels or the way John Humphrys never lets a Tory minister answer a question without interruption. But as they don’t descend on Broadcasting House clasping flaming torches – or even send a complaining email – the BBC assumes Middle England is content.

The Conservative Party itself should be a rich source of useful feedback, and you might expect that it would have learned from the Campbell-Mandelson years how to influence BBC output – especially as the party is the main victim of media bias, and is currently led by a PR man. The Labour Party has traditionally been effective at monstering the BBC: it even managed to get a director-general sacked. Partly this is because of the regular exchange of employees between the two organisations: in Blair’s day the Labour press office was stuffed with former BBC journalists, and one of Tony Hall’s first acts on taking up the post of Director-General earlier this year was to hire a former Labour minister, James Purnell, as director of strategy and digital. When Labour squares up to the BBC, it knows where the pressure points are located. When Tories attack, it tends to involve individual ministers throwing a Mr Cranky-Pants tantrum before beating a hasty, humiliating retreat (presumably on the instruction of some publicity wallah). The BBC knows it will all blow over once the Tory toddler has had a soothing nap.

As for criticism from what the BBC invariably calls the right-wing press, well, those papers are all mouthpieces for wicked capitalist robber-barons and – unlike, say, the Guardian – are hopelessly biased and can therefore safely be ignored.

Finally, you might imagine the consciences of senior managers – all honourable men, as I said – would cause them sleepless nights. But as they know they aren’t part of a sinister conspiracy (there really aren’t any secret meetings to plot Labour’s return to power), they feel no guilt. Besides, left-wing views confer on the holder a delicious, unshakeable sense of being on the side of the angels. Even if you suspect that providing a constant diet of anti-Israel stories and US political coverage suggesting the centre of the solar system is located in the vicinity of Barack Obama’s backside might not represent true balance, you can tell yourself you’re helping to create a better, fairer, cuddlier world.

Unless the Right can think of ways of making the BBC’s feedback loops work effectively, or the BBC spontaneously recognises its responsibilities to license-fee payers who don’t share its equalitarian instincts, Europe’s most significant left-liberal broadcaster will continue – shamelessly – to dress to the left.

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