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The BBC’s real bias, journalists’ role in the measles epidemic, and a modest proposal about tax

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

We hear much about the supposed “left-wing” bias of the BBC. Yet I have copies of correspondence between various BBC bureaucrats and 17 distinguished educationists – a former chief inspector of primary education, an Oxford University professor and a former chief education officer, for example – complaining of the opposite. The dispute concerns a BBC4 series in January 2012 called The Grammar School: a Secret History.

According to the complainants (with whomI agree), the programmes were slanted in favour of selective schools and against comprehensives. I have no space for detail but the tone is conveyed by an email to contributors from the chief researcher. “Grammar schools,” she wrote, “were the pride and joy of the nations and regions.” Then they were “killed off so quickly and so brutally . . . despite their proven record of success as an instrument of social mobility”. They were “replaced by the untried, one-size-fits-all . . . comprehensive”. This is certainly bias but not necessarily right-wing. The BBC’s true bias is towards bien-pensant metropolitan opinion, which tends not to be keen on comprehensives, particularly now the London middle classes find themselves priced out of many independent schools by rich foreigners.

The BBC Trust will shortly consider whether to consider the complaint (it’s the BBC, remember). The complainants have long since despaired, arguing that the process lacks independence and integrity. But I doubt the Mail, Times and Telegraph, usually anxious to report BBC shortcomings, will mention this particular dispute.

Eau, what a shame

Scene from a top-end French restaurant in central London. The waiter, collecting plates, severs the stem from the bowl of my wife’s wine glass so cleanly that I wonder if he is performing some kind of trick. With not very profuse apologies, he removes the glass, which contains a small quantity of wine. As expected, a replacement arrives. It is a glass of tap water. Being English, we do not, of course, complain.

High and dry

The Daily Telegraph has a new campaign to revive the high street and “put the heart back into our towns”. So far, so good. But who does the Telegraph choose to launch its campaign? Why, none other than Sir Terry Leahy, former chief executive of Tesco, whose ruthless expansion of the supermarket chain, underpinned by pressure on suppliers and local authorities, contributed more than anything else to the demise of the independent high-street retailer.

Leahy isn’t even repentant. He thinks that, if high streets are to be restored, the supermarkets must do it because they’ve got the money. “It is time to end the antipathy . . . towards big retailers,” he proclaims, presumably in the same spirit that big banks instruct us to stop nagging them. Leahy appears to believe that, through opening more “local” branches in high streets, Tesco can reclaim public affection, thus reversing its declining profits, accentuated by the collapse of its attempt to expand into the US.

The songwriter Tom Lehrer observed that satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. On this evidence, there’s little need to resurrect it.

Lancet lanced

In the wake of the south Wales measles epidemic, most of the journalists who created alarm over supposed links between autism and the MMR vaccine seem to have recanted. But they insist that, as the Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens writes, newspapers were “perfectly reasonable” to report claims “originally published” in the Lancet, “a highly respected” medical journal. This is quite wrong. The Lancet paper, by the now discredited Andrew Wakefield and colleagues, stated: “We did not prove an association between measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and the syndrome [autism] described.” In an editorial, the Lancet warned of “tragedies when the media and public confuse association with causality and shun immunisation”. Wakefield’s claims against MMR were made at a press conference. Journalists sometimes admit to mistakes. However, they like to blame someone else for them, if at all possible.

Cheerful taxpayers

This year’s Sunday Times Rich List gives considerable prominence to a Giving List, highlighting the top 50 philanthropists in the UK. It is headed by David Kirch, who made his fortune in London property but moved to Jersey in 1973. “I love the island and so I have decided to leave my wealth to benefit the elderly, as they are often forgotten,” he says. Questions arise. Does Jersey have many impoverished old people and, if so, why? And why did Kirch move to Jersey? Was it just for the sunshine? The Sunday Times is uninformative on such matters.

Forgive me for being sceptical about orgies of generosity among the wealthy. The Sunday Times invites us to admire them and to pity the poor dears because George Osborne’s proposed (and hastily jettisoned) £50,000 cap on tax relief “left many high-net-worth givers in the UK feeling like grubby tax avoiders”. Perhaps these sensitive souls could, in future, reveal the proportion of their income paid in tax. The paper could then publish an annual “Cheerfully and Uncomplainingly Paying Their Taxes List”. I would happily salute the men and women who came top and they would feel less grubby.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?