“They hoped I’d be pro-torture”

The BBC could not handle a right-winger against the Iraq war

How would we tell if the BBC were biased? The wrong way of doing so is the way used by the corporation's own executives and representatives. The BBC's staff are so enclosed in a world of left-liberal assumptions that they do not even understand the question. They think they are being accused of explicit support for the Labour Party, openly expressed in their output. They fend off accusations of partiality by saying (rather questionably, but that's another argument) that they are strictly neutral between Labour and the Tories. They once sought to prove this by removing Melvyn Bragg from the chair of Start the Week when they discovered (seemingly to their amazement) that he might be a Labour Party supporter. This possibility became apparent to them for the first time when he was made a Labour peer. Yet Bragg's elevation somehow did not stand in the way of his swiftly becoming the presenter of In Our Time. The BBC's dim inability to see how funny this is, or how far from the point, would itself be funny if its results were not so damaging.

I recall a few years ago a group of BBC staffers making what they thought was a killingly amusing satire - which they proudly showed at the Edinburgh TV Festival - on the idea of an impartial news bulletin, as allegedly imagined by conservatives. Since they had no real idea what a conservative is or thinks, the film was clueless, full of blatant right-wing editorialising and sycophancy towards an unnamed corporate boss.

Were I a multibillionaire, I could commission the proper research into nuance, tone of voice, who gets the last word, presenters' backgrounds, running order, drama, soap operas and cultural coverage, that would demonstrate beyond any doubt that the BBC is on the side of the cultural and social revolution that I and many other licence-fee payers oppose with all our hearts.

But I am not, so I shall rely instead on personal experience. I could, if there were space and I were nasty enough, list here many instances of the BBC's near-horror of the conservative person; its nervous need to allow them on, but its extreme difficulties in treating them fairly when it does; its refusal to let them anywhere near presenters' chairs (the seats of power) unless the audience is tiny. I would detail instances of its failure to understand what conservatives think, or to pay any attention to what they say - the current affairs producer who thought Melanie Phillips and I agreed about the Iraq war, and the researchers who called me up in the hope that I would make the case for torture, or for arbitrary imprisonment, spring to mind.

I could dwell on the assumptions of programmes such as The News Quiz and Have I Got News for You, which depend for their humour on the belief that everyone in the audience thinks (I encapsulate here) that socialism is basically good, that religion is bad for you and the monarchy is absurd. "Do you really think," a senior radio executive, apparently intelligent, once asked me with a puzzled frown, "that The News Quiz is a left-wing programme?" This was one step down from the presenters of current affairs programmes who would demand of me, when I was allowed on in an honourable but nervous attempt at "balance", questions that always began "Are you seriously saying . . . ?".

They could not believe that I, an educated human being of their generation, held the opinions I hold. They had never, in the course of their long and comfortable journey from their Oxbridge junior common rooms to White City or Portland Place, ever met anyone who did not share their assumptions, whom they hadn't also felt able to despise. Even worse, perhaps, was the knowledge that I was once on the left myself, though they are keener to acknowledge my Trotskyist period (obvious extremist, you see) than my long stint in the Hampstead Labour Party. That is not to say that they do not despise me, too, but I make it difficult for them by not being Nick Griffin, Alf Garnett or Geoffrey Dickens. Sometimes I make it so difficult for them that they stop asking me on at all - not because they disagree with me, but because they agree with me. During the Iraq war (with the significant exception noted above), my invitations to take part in radio and TV discussions shrivelled to nothing. Opponents of the war were good. "Right-wing" people were bad. I was "right-wing" and against the war. It did not compute, so I was dropped.

What troubles the BBC is not a party bias. On the contrary, the BBC is so powerful that it has now succeeded in converting the Conservative Party to its point of view, and rewards it with increasingly extensive and sympathetic coverage. It is a set of potent cultural, moral, social, sexual and religious assumptions, which touch on all topics from cannabis to the EU, and which affect everything from the plot-lines of The Archers to the use of the metric system on nature programmes. I cannot say how sad this is for the dwindling numbers of British conservative people who value the BBC as a national institution and do not wish to see it swept away. I wish it were not so.

Peter Hitchens writes for the Mail on Sunday

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.