Friday, 11 December 2015

A Political Fan Dance - a review of Roger Mosey's "Getting Out Alive: News, Sport & Politics at the BBC"

The following review is from the Winter 2015 issue of The Salisbury Review:

This could have been a fascinating book. Roger Mosey was a key member of the short-lived BBC Director-General George Entwistle’s crisis management team - its “Gold Commander”, no less - in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal and Newsnight’s disastrous libelling of Lord McAlpine; and early publicity for “Getting Out Alive” suggested that it might offer confirmation of whispers I had heard during my time at the BBC that Mosey was “a bit of a Tory”.

Mind you, the idea that Mosey might be a Conservative sympathiser seemed unlikely. He created the politics-obsessed, agenda-setting modern incarnation of the Today Programme; he went on to run the predominantly left-wing Radio 5; and he was subsequently the head of a news operation whose programmes endlessly trumpeted the unalloyed benefits of immigration, the EU and…well, benefits. The triumphant climax of his career was undoubtedly managing the BBC’s coverage of the 2012 Olympics, which was only marred by the pantomime version of British history peddled by the socialist director Danny Boyle in his risibly propagandist opening ceremony. A somewhat surprising CV for “a bit of a Tory”.

Mosey isn’t, of course. His favourite Conservative politician is evidently Ken Clarke, and the only politicians he refers to by their first name (a worrying habit in a former journalist) are left-wingers like “Paddy” Ashdown and “Gordon” Brown. Indeed, Mosey got on so well with “Gordon” that the chancellor offered him a job as his special advisor - a role which might have tempted Mosey, had he not received hints that a senior job in television could soon become available (it did, and he got it). Just in case we’re tempted to infer that Mosey was a known Labour supporter, he assures us that he hadn’t voted Labour in twenty years - but, in the political fan dance now routinely performed by former BBC news folk, he omits to tell us which party or parties he did vote for (he was a teenage Liberal before joining Labour at Oxford).

As for deliberate bias, Mosey’s position seems to be that there wasn’t any - at least, not on his watch: “I would defend Today against any charge of intentional political bias.” He claims never to have worked with any editor who deliberately distorted coverage in favour of Labour or the Conservatives (chance would be a fine thing). To bolster his claims of personal impartiality, he cites hiring Michael Gove as a Today reporter and Edwina Currie and Richard Littlejohn as Radio 5 presenters. When addressing unconscious bias among BBC news staff, he is, however, willing to concede “a problem with a default to ‘groupthink’ - a set of assumptions that seem reasonable to everyone they know.” This, though, is hardly a startling admission: the former BBC political editor Andrew Marr suggested in 2007 that the disproportionately high number of young urbanites, gays, and ethnic minority staff employed by the BBC was responsible for its “innate” liberal bias.

As an example of groupthink, Mosey cites a Today production meeting: “Rod Liddle remembers one morning…when a producer said, disparagingly, ‘The Eurosceptics believe Germany is going to dominate Europe!’ This generated laughter from bien pensant colleagues. ‘But what if it’s true?’ was the response from the editor, and he set the team thinking about items that would examine whether Euroscepticism had some well-founded beliefs.” According to Liddle, the editor was Mosey himself.

An anecdote which highlights news employees’ fear of stepping out of line concerns a report on the Ten O’Clock News from a part of Britain with a large immigrant (presumably Muslim) population, in which the inevitable vox pops featured only one white local, who claimed that integration was going swimmingly. Mosey emailed the reporter to ask whether the lone white voice had been representative, only to be told that most of the others had been “fairly rabidly racist”, but that the reporter had been nervous of using any of them in case his piece was deemed inflammatory. Mosey reported the incident to his fellow news board members, who were, he tells us, “appalled”. But not, apparently, sufficiently appalled to do something about it, or, presumably, the reporting of the current invasion of Europe by hordes of mainly young male Muslim economic migrants wouldn’t be so monotonously sympathetic. If people as powerful as Mosey long ago recognised “the BBC’s inclination to feel more comfortable with a liberal agenda”, why hasn’t the organisation  addressed the problem, rather than continuing to employ people from, for example, the Guardian and the Labour Party?

When it comes to the chaotic aftermath of the McAlpine scandal, we find the Gold Commander in strictly non-revelatory mode. We learn nothing new of consequence, except that Mosey despises the BBC Trust. Readers can safely skip this section of the book.

Setting one’s disappointment aside, it’s a decent enough read, albeit as Pooterish as this sort of memoir tends to be. For instance, Mosey refers to his circle of friends and advisors as his “kitchen cabinet”. Recalling a 1996 visit to Wembley with sundry New Labour bigwigs, he writes: “As a boy in Bradford, I would have thought I had died and gone to heaven if I had had this degree of contact with prime minsters and chancellors and foreign secretaries.” Golly!

He’s good on his childhood (humble circumstances in Bradford), his education (grammar school, then Wadham) and his early career (a stint in commercial local radio followed by a move to the BBC). There’s lots of “who, me?” faux-humility regarding what was an extremely successful career. I’d left television news by the time Mosey took charge, so my only memory is of a gnome-like figure smiling gently to himself in vast TV programme review meetings - a self-contained, wary little man who looked as though he’d be good at keeping secrets. Fanciful, perhaps, but this book reinforces that initial impression: it’s oddly bloodless, almost painfully careful. One suspects that revealing he was adopted can’t have come easily to Mosey. He talks about - and names - his friends, but, strangely, there’s absolutely no hint of a significant other. Mosey’s natural caution is evident on every page - any criticism of the BBC is balanced by statements like this: “I believe unequivocally in the BBC as a force for good in British life” - and the book’s very title advertises his relief that “after decades of doing some of the BBC’s most scrutinised jobs, I got out alive.” It’s as if he considers this feat of survival - rather than his Olympics triumph - his finest achievement.

When Mosey left the BBC in 2013, he followed the example of several senior colleagues by becoming the master of an Oxbridge college - in his case, Selwyn. I imagine that, for a former head of BBC news, presiding over a large number of extremely clever, querulous, career-conscious left-wingers and an ever-changing cast of brainy, ambitious, thrusting young liberals must seem oddly familiar. And we at last get to hear of a significant other - a “sweet-natured basset hound named YoYo.” As a basset-lover myself, I warmed to the man for the first time, three pages from the end of the book.


  1. "As a boy in Bradford, I would have thought I had died and gone to heaven if I had had this degree of contact with rattlesnakes, cobras, scorpions, slime dripping beasts from Cthulhu and Alistar Campbell"

    Clearly, a man questionable tastes.

    1. The tastes of Cambridge Colleges in Masters is becoming questionable – "Pembroke College is delighted to announce the election of Lord Smith of Finsbury as its fifty-fourth Master".

  2. Chris Smith - he of the permanently dislocated jaw. He was a great representative for the Environment Agency - wet, wishy-washy and useless. He is fondly remembered by the people of Carlisle and the Somerset Levels for his muscular interventions. Men of Pembroke should be on the qui vive!

    1. Yes, that's the one.

      The one who spent years as Labour's shadow health secretary only to have his efforts rewarded when Labour won in 1997 by seeing Frank Dobson get the government job.

      The one who was, I think, an exact contemporary at university of the blogmeister ...

    2. Former Thatcher Minister Norman St John Stevas shocked the crustier dons at the Cambridge College of which he was Master by entertaining his non - college "friends" to midnight swimming parties sans bathing attire.

      A Conservative adornment to Emmanuel College.