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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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.