I interview a lot of people, who often say surprising things, but the interview that shocked me most last year was with the Conservative MP Michael Gove.
He has strong views, some of which I admire. He anathematised Northern Ireland’s republican terrorists and pro-terrorists, and he wrote a book, Celsius 7/7, whose thesis seems demonstrably true - that an inclusive model of British citizenship depends on the defeat of a radical Islamism that seeks to destroy the values that sustain such citizenship.
Neither of these views are part of mainstream liberal-consensus thinking. Indeed, Gove has at times pronounced himself strongly against that consensus - most recently in a January lecture on intellectuals for the New Culture Forum.
He has in the past portrayed the BBC as a promoter of that consensus, which is why he surprised me. I was interviewing him for a profile, in this magazine, of David Cameron, the Conservative leader, whose front-bench team he had recently joined, in spite of being elected to parliament for the first time only in 2005.
I asked him about Cameron’s - and New Toryism’s - media profile. He said: “The BBC is leftwing…so many [of its] assumptions are soft left, and this is a problem for all those to the right of Labour. On the other hand, you must be honest: the BBC is not so unusual now. The person who works for the BBC is more representative of the UK today than he or she was 20 years ago. So more people are more like Mark Thompson [the BBC director-general]. It is essentially a valued communicator.”
That last phrase is true. The BBC is among the most trusted British institutions, with 90 per cent of people viewing or listening to it each week. After Lord Hutton said the government had done nothing seriously wrong in its response to the suicide of David Kelly in 2003, and that the BBC had done a lot wrong, trust in the BBC still ran at 2:1 or more in its favour.
No politician can ignore that. This political age is the media age, defined by the influential communications theorist Manuel Castells in his Ralph Miliband lecture at the London School of Economics three years ago, as one in which “the media [do not] hold power, but all politics is media politics, and has to exist in the media space, and has to adopt the language of the media.” As a serious politician working for another, David Cameron, Gove has no choice but to adapt his and his party’s language to the dominant medium - television - and the dominant broadcaster, by a very long way, the BBC.
This has given rise to the little-noticed paradox that the main complainant about leftwing bias in the BBC is the Labour government. The BBC itself has, however, noticed it. In a talk at the end of last year Andrew Marr, one of the most prominent BBC presenters, said that the Corporation was neither “impartial nor neutral…It has a liberal bias, not a party-political bias, best described as a cultural liberal bias.”
The Conservatives have made a pragmatic peace with the BBC. They accept it is biased, but because its biases are, in Gove’s words “more representative”, and because it is so powerful, they go with its grain.
But small “c” conservatives are gearing up for war. Two books in the past few weeks have thrown down a gauntlet to the BBC. Though neither are likely to enjoy the bestseller success that Bernard Goldberg’s Bias had in the US (in spite of being better written), they should make waves.
They should because it is impossible to doubt the Corporation’s enormous power in defining our national conversation, especially on radio - the medium the political and intellectual elite consume more than television. Robin Aitken in his Can We Trust the BBC? says that the Radio 4 Today programme “is arguably the most powerful in the whole of British broadcasting”.
It is increasingly impossible to doubt that the BBC uses this power in the service of a certain sort of liberal agenda: not monolithically, indeed less so than in the past, but unmistakably.
Both Aitken, and the longer-toothed campaigner Richard D. North, in his Scrap the BBC!, give too many instances for there to be any argument. Among these are a study (the 2005 Wilson report) of the BBC’s coverage of the European Union, which found pro-European voices outnumbering Eurosceptics by two to one. The writers also refer to an academic analysis by a BBC producer who alleged that a Panorama programme on the social and birth control policies of Pope John Paul II was an inaccurate polemic. Finally, they point to the great preponderance of BBC journalists and presenters who are of the left.
Ultimately, this should worry liberals and leftists more than the right. By carrying on as if there were no BBC bias, or as if only rightwing obsessives (as both Aitken and North have been called) care about it, the BBC is prejudicing the best argument for its survival as a state-funded institution (which I support).
Sooner or later, politicians will suppress their fears and take it on. Only if it engages in a painful and eviscerating examination of its biases and its power - which has made all parties reshape their speech to its language - will the BBC deserve a protected future.
If it cannot do that, and act on its findings, then we should no longer leave the task of ensuring objectivity, balance and fairness in news and current affairs broadcasting to the BBC alone. We should then use public funds to spread that essential democratic service to competing suppliers - assuming that the market will not provide it on its own.
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