Thursday, 17 December 2015

When it comes to BBC, it's "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"

I’m currently reading the second volume of Charles Moore’s monumental biography of Margaret Thatcher, Everything She Wants (available here). Last night I reached Chapter 15, “TBW” (“That Bloody Woman”), which is a reminder that, when the Tories headed into the 1987 election, many already viewed their leader as an electoral liability. Among other things, the chapter deals with Tory attempts to reform the BBC in the wake of the thoroughly tendentious “Maggie’s Militant Tendency” Panorama programme in 1984 (a classic “they’re all Nazis” smear job) and the corporation’s biased coverage of America’s bombing campaign against Libya in 1986. (Mrs. T - after much soul-searching - gave permission for US bombers to take off from American bases in Britain: the campaign brought an immediate halt to at least three dozen Gaddafi-financed terrorists plots aimed at targets in Europe.)

As Mrs. Thatcher (“everyone’s mother in a bad mood,” as she was described by one acolyte) prepared to do battle with the BBC, she had support from within the enemy camp, in the shape of the BBC Secretary Patricia Hodgson (currently the Chairman of OFCOM), whose appointment was dependent on her agreeing not to continue having private conversations with Mrs. Thatcher (which didn’t stop her passing on useful information via an intermediary) - and the controller of Radio 3, Ian McIntyre, who went on work at the Times for a decade. McIntyre wrote a paper about the BBC for the Prime Minister, which included the following observations:
“One of the strengths of the BBC in the days of Reith was its ability to put a stamp on those who worked for it. Today it is the liberal consensus which has put its stamp on the BBC. Its prophets are the Galbraiths and Dahrendorfs, its holy writings the Guardian and the Observer, its political outlook (which it is not supposed to have) social democratic. Contemptuous of politicians and patronising towards its audience, it appears increasingly to see itself as a state within a state.”
So, no change there, then.

I joined BBC television news as a humble researcher in 1986, when this was all brewing up, and I was shocked by the rabidhostility towards Mrs. Thatcher and the Conservative Party. (I was even more shocked when I had to work out of the Panorama office during the 1987 general election - the production team gave every impression of being a Communist cell). As with all Tory attempts to make Auntie mend her ways, their efforts to browbeat the BBC over political bias by threatening to punish it via the licence fee were gleefully sabotaged by wets within the party (for instance, Willie Whitelaw went so far as to threaten to resign if there BBC were to be forced to take advertising, and Home Secretary Douglas Hurd was distinctly unbellicose). Party Chairman Norman Tebbit went into full attack mode - only to be muzzled mid-snarl. The BBC kept the licence fee - index-linked, no less.

The only substantial changes Mrs. Thatcher managed to engineer were the replacement of DG Alastair Milne (whose Stalinist son, Seumas, is now Jeremy Corbyn’s press officer) with the boring accountant, Michael Checkland; the introduction of the distinctly conservative Marmaduke Hussey as chairman; and the insertion of LWT’s John Birt as Checkland’s deputy. Birt was a process-obsessed control-freak whose job was to bring to heel the cavalier Trots churning out left-wing propaganda in the current affairs bullshit factory at Lime Grove. He wasn’t remotely right-wing - more of a prototype Blairite (there’s an argument to be made that the BBC under Birt’s command did much to pave the way for Tony Blair’s success in 1997: he was rewarded by being appointed as Blair’s Strategic Advisor in 2001). So all Mrs. Thatcher really managed was to shift the BBC away from a Far Left to a Soft Left stance - Marxism to cultural Marxism. Better than nothing, I suppose. Marginally.

John Whittingdale, the current Tory politician tasked with sorting out the BBC, was a Special Advisor to Norman Tebbitt at the DTI and, later,  Mrs. Thatcher’s Political secretary, so his instincts regarding the BBC are no doubt sound. But the massed ranks of Conservative centrists will undoubtedly be doing their best to hobble his efforts, and, as always happens, immediate political considerations will mean that the Cabinet’s appetite for a knock-down fight with DG Lord Hall will be rapidly dulled - and all Whittingdale’s efforts to unbias the BBC will come to nought. Whatever, I hope he has some high-placed help from within the BBC’s own ranks, and that he's able to withstand pressure from treacherous collaborators within his own party.


  1. Tory Party Died At Culloden19 December 2015 at 03:11

    Mrs Thatcher's various Cabinets contained only one true, loyal personal supporter and even he was a "Wet". Take a posthumous bow, Willie Whitelaw.

    1. Agreed - without him, Mrs. T would never have made in to 1987, let alone 1991. And he seems to have been a thoroughly decent man, to boot.

  2. OAP and Licence Fee Payer19 December 2015 at 10:23

    It is and always will be "plus ça change" at the BBC.

    Bernard Jenkin has had his moment in the sun and Yentob has given up the £183,000 salary that went with the sinecure of the Creative Directorship. I call it a sinecure because nobody seems able to define this job and now there are no plans to give the role to somebody else. Because of this Yentob - "this towering figure" [Lord Hall's words] - has managed to escape internal censure at the BBC. does that work?

    So having been chairman [sorry, "Chair"] of a company that has blown £46m of the taxpayer's money over the years the Towering One is now free to spend even more of our money on his silly arts programmes [the last time I looked it was about a Male Cuban ballet dancer].

    I also tried to cut through the BBC smoke-screen to find out how much money had been. spent on their recent production of "War & Peace", but had no success. This needs a forensic mind like Mr David Moss. It is all a big secret apparantly. Why? This is a project Yentob must have green-lighted or been involved in if he was the creative director? There have been a number of productions of the novel. Roger Ebert, the great American film critic, said that Sergei Bondarchuck's 1967 version was definitive and there was no need for any more given the production costs required. The cost of the Russian version came in at around £100m at to-day's prices [the cost of the BBC version is also going to be mouth-watering if we ever find out - epics don't come cheap].

    Question. Why are the Beeb spending all this money when the Christmas schedules are stuffed with repeats? What are the driving forces behind it - Andrew Davies gets to write another endless ball-room sequence, somebody is miffed at the success of Downton, somebody wants a cost item on the balance sheet which exceeds Yentob's taxi expenses?

    I would love to discover the answers.

    1. I suspect we'll have to wait for some enterprising journalist to produce a warts and all biography of Yentob to find out why he's lasted so long. I suspect he'd find plenty of ex-BBC employees happy to furnish him with information. I'd buy it like a shot.

      "War and Peace". It's just such a BORING, big-historical-drama-series-by-numbers idea - BAFTAs and foreign sales guaranteed, and sundry BBC employees with something impressive to stick on their CVs. It's just so safe. To see anything really great, we have to turn to American or French or Scandinavian crime series, while the BBC gives us bloody "Cuffs".