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March 06, 2007

Richard D. North - author of Scrap the BBC! - argues that the BBC can be trusted - to be boringly predictable: Can We Trust the BBC? - Robin Aitken

Posted by Richard D. North

Can We Trust the BBC?
by Robin Aitken
Pp. 213. London: Continuum, 2007
Hardback, £14.99

Richard D. North - the author of Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free - reviews Robin Aitken's Can We Trust the BBC?

Robin Aitken was a BBC insider. He served 25 years as a journalist there, and tried to reform the place from within. His book has three themes. He aims to persuade us that the BBC is partisan and gives us several large examples. He tells us about his own battles to get his message across internally. And he gives us his ideas for change. This last bit is the weakest.

Aitken's case is quite nuanced. For a start, he doesn't want abolition. He argues for a BBC which is genuinely free of bias. But he also supposes that absence of bias may need the presence of balance: he wonders (a little half-heartedly) if there shouldn't be a deliberate BBC policy of employing at least a few right-wingers. (Rod Liddle writes in the Sunday Times that Aitken was taken on at the Today programme with exactly that intention.) And he wonders too if there shouldn't be some "top-slicing" of BBC funding to support other, less liberal, channels. I get the feeling, though, that Aitken is so concerned to make people understand what the problem is that he has not given much thought to how to cure it.

Here is Aitken's general case:

The clichéd critique of the BBC is that it is a nest of lefties which promotes a progressive political agenda, and is bedevilled by political correctness. Depressingly, in my experience, the cliché comes uncomfortably close to the actual truth.
However, he does not believe that the BBC is particularly pro-Labour, though for a while it fell - along with most of the nation - for Tony Blair. Rather, it has "chosen narratives" which are secular, metropolitan, anxious about Britain's imperial history, broadly anti-capitalist and in favour of high public spending.

Aitken does blow-by-blow analyses of the BBC's treatment of the Gilligan Affair, Northern Ireland's protestants, and Euro-scepticism, and his work seems quite well argued, not least in being able to draw on the inquiries of others. But we do encounter some difficulty. The right has always been nuttily paranoid about the BBC's coverage of Europe, rather as many Jewish Zionist get hyper-jumpy about its treatment of the Israel/Palestine problem. The underlying rightness of their argument tends to get swamped in the over-egging. Aitken is not swivel-eyed, but he's not quite level-headed either.

Still, he is mostly right. In one fascinating case, he draws on an unpublished paper which scrutinised a Panorama devoted to excoriating the Roman Catholic church for the harm inflicted on the Third World by its policies on contraception. The case seems well made. RC policies on condoms, for instance, are less powerful and less correlated with high birth rates or high HIV/AIDS infection rates than liberal convention has it. I wish the book had told more such stories, and especially of the BBC's primitive environmentalism.

Aitken's years of complaining about BBC bias to his own employers brought him little joy. One gets the feeling that he became a bit of a bore, as indeed how could he not. The difficulty is, of course, that if he is right that the BBC is institutionally biased, then he was bound to meet a stone wall of denial and defiance. Institutions have to be very desperate before they admit their faults, and especially their profound faults. Sometimes, indeed, they are made to eat humble pie on rather dubious grounds, as in the case of the Metropolitan Police and racism or the Queen and Diana's death. But the BBC faces rather little criticism, as Aitken tellingly notes. It has, indeed, been brilliant at figuring itself to be a lone beacon of respectability and trust in a sea of sleaze.

Actually, inside the BBC there is some anxiety about its own dumbing down, and that is compounded by an awareness that the 2006 Charter Review will be the last of its 80-year old kind. This is well short of an admission of leftish bias and still less a renunciation of it. Rather, one imagines that there is a comforting BBC view that to be populist is to be politically vulgar, and thus alarmingly rightish, a trend which is all the more to be feared (from within the castle) by an impending and unseemly struggle for funds.

The BBC could not admit publicly even a smidgeon of merit in the Aitken case. It couldn't admit that he was a bit right, and that a touch on the tiller was required. It follows that it couldn't follow Aitken's advice to employ and deploy some right-wingers. To do so would be to admit that the rest were lefties. In any case the BBC would have as much difficulty unleashing right-wingers as it does in admitting to having dressed to the left. It says its whole purpose and genius is to be unbiased, and it can't easily then start allowing competing biases.

Of course, it could start commissioning outsiders to deliver some of this agenda, and in a way that's what is going on with the panel of newspaper columnists used as presenters for Radio 4's splendid The Week In Westminster. However, their being rotated from around the spectrum rather undoes the effect, as does their being scrupulously neutral in their interviewing. There are very occasional signs, as in the commissioning of The Spectator columnist Aidan Hartley to make some programmes on Africa, that the BBC is beginning to see the merit of sometimes surprising us. But tiny signs of liveliness hardly prove that the BBC has found a way of seeing beyond its comfort zone.

Robin Aitken flirts with Philip Bobbitt's idea that the media is now the only real, and over-mighty, opposition within "the market state". And Aitken certainly feels that the BBC as a single entity is even stronger than any US media institutions manage to be. I agree that the BBC conceives of itself as being "oppositional", as part of its "speaking truth to power". But we shouldn't forget that Channel 4 is much nearer to pushing a line than the BBC is. Jon Snow is less rude than his BBC equivalents, but is more overtly an Islington liberal. What's odd is that Channel 4 News, with its more obvious subtexts, is a more attractive programme than anything the BBC can field. This may be because the BBC is in knots and its presenters are more boring and more aggressive by turns as they try to find some way of getting their rocks off. So I fear the charge against the BBC is not merely that is biased, as Aitken says, but that it is surprisingly timid whilst being trashy, tedious and tendentious.

A further niggle arises when we wonder if the BBC is powerful, in the Bobbitt manner. Aitken says the BBC's anti-war stance gave comfort to the Islamist enemy, and it may have done. But actually, if their appearances on Newsnight are anything to go by, our home-grown fundamentalists see it is as the Queen, Oxford University and the Crusades, all rolled into one. Besides, and to take Aitken's charges, the BBC hasn't made the country love the EU, and Roman Catholicism thrives (admittedly because of the influx of Poles). The BBC has never stopped Tony Blair going to war. It hasn't made the British people very worried about climate change, nor taught them to want to be swamped by immigrants. It may be galling, but even the BBC's lefties aren't powerful enough to propagandise this ordinarily illiberal nation.

Indeed, just to press on with scepticism about some of Aitken's case, we can trust the BBC quite well. We know what it's like, and how to read it. It will be scrupulous where it has no alternative, and predictable when it isn't scrupulous. Its constancy is, of course, no substitute for the kind of media work a sophisticated nation ought to demand. But it mostly pleases the class who create it and whose fellows it seeks to please: the large mass of not very thoughtful, mostly liberal, more or less middle class people who think themselves obviously decent. In other words, our problem is that the middle class feels it can trust the BBC, and they're right that it does indeed give them what they want.

So Aitken is surely mostly right that the BBC has a mindset and is cheerfully proud that it is a good one. I very much doubt that Aitken's proposed reforms go nearly far enough, and that is partly because I doubt that one could legislate for the kind of vigour and robustness that good journalism requires. I fear we need more chaos.

Richard D. North is the author of the just published Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.


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The problem I have found with the BBC is that it tends to look at an issue and decide who are the "goodies" and "baddies". For example, over Northern Ireland it demonized the Protestants and idolized the Catholics.

Recently David Tennant, in "Who Do You Think You Are?", found that one of his grandfathers appeared to have been involved in gerrymandering to keep Londonderry under Protestant control. Maybe so, but in the face of a newly created Republic to the south which had, so to speak, come under "Taleban" control, could you blame him? But alas, David Tennant could only see things through BBC-Guardianista spectacles.

As for the BBC not being able to prevent Mr Blair from joining Mr Bush in the war on Iraq, if they had aired conservative (small c) opposition to the war in addition to their own left-liberal stuff, they might have carried more clout. Instead, they aired Tony Benn, which can only have been counter-productive.

And all too often the BBC seems to think it sits in the place of God, deciding what is right and what is wrong. To them, impartiality and truth are identified with the BBC line on things.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 6, 2007 05:09 PM
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How much longer is the scandal of BBC bias going to be tolerated? Why has the right of centre, who after all led this country for a long while, just sat back and ignored this issue?
We need some real leadership and action on it - someone to sort the BBC out once and for all.

Posted by: Haden Robbins at March 14, 2007 05:44 PM
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The only way to cure the BBC of its institutional left wing bias is to scrap the license fee, and let them enter the real world of commercial TV in the 21st century. They already advertise on BBC Worldwide: http://www.bbcchannelpartners.com/worldnews/advertising_opps
They'd be up and running in no time, and wouldn't be able to afford many of the low audience material they currently broadcast.

Posted by: Peter at May 27, 2009 10:47 PM
•••

The only way to cure the BBC of its institutional left wing bias is to scrap the license fee, and let them enter the real world of commercial TV in the 21st century. They already advertise on BBC Worldwide: http://www.bbcchannelpartners.com/worldnews/advertising_opps
They'd be up and running in no time, and wouldn't be able to afford many of the low audience material they currently broadcast.

Posted by: Peter at May 27, 2009 10:48 PM
•••
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