The Tories and the BBC

Ludicrous accusations of "liberal" bias continue

Does Jeremy Hunt watch BBC1? The shadow culture secretary believes the corporation should recruit more Tories to its news division in order to counter an "innate liberal bias". He says:

I wish they would go and actively look for some Conservatives to be part of their news-gathering team, because they have acknowledged that one of their problems is that people who want to work at the BBC tend to be from the centre left. That's why they have this issue with what Andrew Marr called an innate liberal bias.

Should a man who expects to be the minister in charge of the BBC in mere months be meddling in its recruitment policies? And should the BBC, especially the news (!) division, be hiring producers, reporters and presenters on the basis of their political views or membership of particular political parties? Will the application form for a job at the Beeb's political unit in Millbank now carry the question: "Are you, or have you ever been, a member of what John Stuart Mill once called 'the stupid party'?"

My views on the BBC, and its right-wing (not left-wing or liberal) bias are clear and can be read here and here. I don't mind if you disagree with me -- as, for example, Peter Hitchens has -- but at least those who don't agree with me should acknowledge that I have provided some evidence for my argument. For example, if BBC News hates the Tories so much, why is that former chair of the Young Conservatives, Nick Robinson, its political editor? As the Mirror's Kevin Maguire observes in his New Statesman column this week:

Brown's never forgotten -- or forgiven -- Robbo for chairing the Young Conservatives in the Thatcherite 1980s. Yet it's the appointment of affable James Landale as Robbo's deputy that's turned up the volume. Landale was a contemporary at Eton of David Cameron and Boris Johnson. The charge in No 10 is that a Biased Broadcasting Corporation is preparing for the Conservatives eight months before an election.

So, does Hunt actually watch any BBC output? The Tories have a habit of using contemporary cultural examples without doing their homework -- the shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling, recently suggested that parts of Britain resemble scenes from The Wire -- but then admitted that he had hardly watched the HBO series himself. Did his shadow cabinet colleague Hunt, for example, watch BBC1's Question Time last night, I wonder?

I am a big fan of QT and I agree with its editor, Ed Havard, that it is a unique and vibrant institution. But if Hunt had tuned in last night, as I did, he would have noted that its five-member panel consisted of the former CBI boss (admittedly a one-time "Labour" trade minister), Digby Jones; the new editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson; the Tory grandee Michael Heseltine; the Lib Dem education spokesman and outrider for the party's Orange Book free-marketeers, David Laws MP; and the Leader of the Commons, Harriet Harman MP. That makes four right-wingers versus one lefty (Harman). Now, before we get into an interminable row about how one defines left and right, blah, blah, blah, let's do it by issue. On the QT panel last night, we had four people (Jones, Nelson, Heseltine and Laws) ideologically committed to the neoliberal, free-market consensus that failed so spectacularly last September and one person (Harman) who isn't. We had three people (Harman, Jones, Nelson) who supported the invasion of Iraq and only two (Heseltine and Laws) who didn't. We had all five panellists in support of Britain's military presence in Afghanistan -- even though a majority of the British public is opposed to the war.

So where were the lefties? Where were the critics of neoliberal, deregulated, free-market capitalism? Where were the opponents of the invasion of Iraq or the war in Afghanistan? Where were the defenders of the government, Harman aside? Why were three of the five panellists potential Tory voters (Nelson, Jones, Heseltine)?

As I noted in my piece on BBC bias in the magazine back in August, "the accusation that the BBC is left-wing and liberal is a calculated and cynical move by the right to cow the corporation into submission". Hunt's comments are simply the latest, fact-free manifestation of this calculated strategy.

 

 

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage