Saturday, 28 February 2015

Steve Richards tells the Guardian he didn’t know which way his BBC colleagues voted! Yeah, sure.

Two days’ ago, the former BBC political correspondent, Steve Richards, shared this disingenuous piece of claptrap with the readers of the Guardian:

“When I was at the BBC I had no idea how my colleagues were planning to vote…  There is no conscious partisan bias at the BBC. If journalists want to exert influence to the left or right they do not join the BBC, which is much closer to the civil service in its determined non-partisan approach.”

Rubbish. Nonsense. Balderdash.

I was working for BBC News at the same time as Richards in the early ‘90s, and was alongside him at Westminster for at least three years, although our paths rarely crossed. He was a pleasant, gentlemanly, rather cerebral figure at a time when many of what he desribes as the "army" of BBC political correspondents came across as loud-mouthed thugs, so I wasn’t hugely surprised when he disappeared off to a weekly political journal in 1996. What did surprise me was that the journal in question turned out to be the decidedly left-wing New Statesman, as I’d always suspected Richards might be a bit of a closet Tory (a rare breed, admittedly). I’d gleaned that impression from his good manners and his seeming unwillingness to join the rabid John Major-baiting that evidently afforded his colleagues such visceral pleasure. That meant there were exactly two BBC Westminster journalists who were identifiable as Conservatives: the political editor, Robin Oakley, and a newly-appointed political correspondent, Nick Robinson. I’d be happy to be proved wrong, but as far as I could tell, the only question to be asked about the political allegiance of the rest of the journos back then was whether they were on the left or the right of the Labour Party.

As Steve Richards must surely be aware, the reason people didn’t declare their political views was in order that the BBC could go on maintaining the threadbare myth of political neutrality. It was also the reason we all knew that Oakley and Robinson were Tories: they were fig-leaves for a BBC Westminster operation made up almost entirely of Labour supporters. Had Richards actually not read his colleague Jon Sopel’s 1995 book, Tony Blair: The Moderniser? Was he later utterly astonished to learn that his colleague Lance Price had joined Tony Blair’s press team at No. 10? Did he never have the slightest inkling that Mark Mardell wasn’t an ardent Thatcherite? Well, it was all screamingly obvious to me at the time - and, as a rule, I’m not that quick on the uptake.

I reckon that about 90%-95% of the people I worked with in BBC News between 1986 and 1998 were left-wing. For Steve Richards not to have reached the same conclusion strikes me as…odd? He is, after all, a journalist, and a distinguished one at that.

“There is no conscious partisan bias at the BBC,” Richards tells us. About that, at least, he’s right. As I’ve said before (here), there is no organised conspiracy. Even I would noticed it. But there doesn’t need to be. The place is so stuffed with lefties that the views of at least 45% of the electorate (i.e. conservatives and right-wingers) become marginalised to the point where they seem, at best, eccentric and, at worst, delusional. As so few people at the BBC voice such outré opinions (well, at least, not if they’re looking forward to a successful career there), the tendency is to treat them as the rantings of a tiny, extremist minority: they’re to be feared, certainly, insofar as as they might frighten the horses and lead to hordes of rabid xenophobes swarming through the streets attacking foreigners and poor people and torching mosques - but such views are not to be treated as having a role in serious mainstream political debate. There’s no conscious partisan bias, because there doesn’t need to be – the left-liberal bias is institutional.

My favourite Richards’ statement, though, is this one: “If journalists want to exert influence to the left or right they do not join the BBC, which is much closer to the civil service in its determined non-partisan approach.” Oh, knock it off! If you’re a journalist who happens to hold strong left-wing views, where better to further your cause than at the most powerful left-wing broadcaster in Europe? If your only desire is to influence your fellow-leftists, write for the Guardian, the New Statesman or The Independent. If you want to influence floating voters or to shape the national political narrative – who the hell else would you want to work for but the BBC? 

BBC TV News is watched by 32m people in any given week. If you lump in radio and Online, an extraordinary 82% of the population gets at least some of its news from the BBC. Yet we’re seriously expected to believe that being a BBC journalist is the equivalent of working for the civil service? And if you imagine that the rules regarding political bias are a hindrance, just watch any BBC News bulletin, or any edition of Newsnight, or listen to the Today Programme.

Steve Richards' article - which isn't all bad - can be read here.

I'll end on a serious note by wishing the BBC's current political editor Nick Robinson, who, it's just been announced, is to undergo an operation to remove a bronchial carcinoid tumour on his lung, the very best of luck. 

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