What Dyke can learn from Benn

Greg Dyke must have been writing his letter of resignation from the Labour Party at around the same time that Tony Benn was composing his farewell words to the Commons. Dyke has left a party to underline his professional impartiality; Benn has announced that he will retire from parliament in order that he may express his views even more forcefully. Both men's relationship with the Labour Party has come into focus over recent days, but otherwise I doubt if the two men know each other or have much in common. Yet the incoming D-G should reflect on the departure of the dissenting veteran when he has a spare moment or two, as it raises wider questions about the reporting of politics, one of the testing grounds of his new regime.

Benn is a shining example of a politician who spoke his mind in public. He stated once that: "As a politician I can live with myself because I say the same thing at home, at a public meeting, in a studio and in the cabinet."

For a broadcaster in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such an open attitude meant that Benn was a dream politician. His candour in front of a microphone or a television camera, forcing his Labour opponents to reply in kind, allowed vivid reporting of the debates within the upper echelons of the Labour Party. A news item in 1981, say, which included clips of Benn, Denis Healey and Michael Foot, would give a viewer or listener a good idea of what was going on.

Historians will judge Benn as a major political figure for all kinds of reasons: his constitutional innovations (the reviews of his career focused on his battle to get out of the Lords, but it was Benn who also suggested a referendum on the Common Market); his flawed but principled views on the importance of political accountability within governments and parties; and his diaries - he was the best and most comprehensive of cabinet chroniclers. But there is no getting away from it - he must have been a mind-bogglingly infuriating colleague. If all frontbenchers claimed the moral high ground by speaking out on every issue, a lone message would get lost in a cacophony of voices.

We know what happens when attachment to an ideology takes over almost completely from loyalty to a party leadership. I worked as a BBC political correspondent during the dying days of the Major government, when the Maastricht rebels on the Conservative benches would queue up to tear into their government. So keen were they to wield the knife that some of them popped in each day, as they were passing by, to see if anyone wanted to interview them.

I recall in particular Teresa Gorman and Michael Fabricant leaving a studio on a special high. Gorman declared: "We do anything, you know. Birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, you name it." The theme of their variety act was always the flaws of the Major government.

During such periods, politics was easy to report on television and radio. But what happens when the politicians shut up? What happens when you cannot book even Gorman for a bar mitzvah?

Partly as a reaction to their recent bouts of civil war, the parties today place a higher premium on discipline than at any time I can remember. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson were nurtured on public squabbles and election defeats. It is in their blood to stamp out any public squeal of disloyalty.

William Hague served his political apprenticeship in the aforementioned Major government. God protect any dissenter who speaks out at a bar mitzvah now. He - Hague, not God - will punish public candour, even if it comes from close political friends. Alan Duncan, for example, missed out on promotion to the shadow cabinet after his widely publicised NS interview (10 May) with me in which he criticised party strategy. Duncan, I know, was not trying to be deliberately disloyal but he had said too much. Before that interview, he had been as good as told what his job would be in the new shadow cabinet.

The pressure on politicians all to say the same thing presents distinct problems for broadcasters. Newspapers and magazines can report private conversations with greater ease; and newspapers can enliven dry policy areas by taking a point of view. Not so the broadcasters. This state of affairs has prompted some senior broadcasting executives to conclude that "politics is boring" and to try to do as little of it as possible. But that is to give up the game.

The Conservatives would have every right to complain if these defeatists triumphed in the BBC or the other channels. This should be a much bigger issue for them than groundless allegations of bias. If there were less political reporting, the government would escape scrutiny. In the hysterical reaction to the Dyke appointment, the role of the BBC as a political player has been greatly exaggerated.

Politicians show where the real power lies when they decide which social events to attend at a party conference. At a reception given by the Times or the Mirror you cannot move for leading frontbenchers. At the equivalent BBC events you cannot move for BBC people. Politicians know that newspapers can make or break them in a way the BBC can never do.

Even so, Dyke has an important task in this area. He must, as I am sure he will, resist the "politics is boring" brigade. In order to ensure that politics is interesting he must resist the spin-doctors from both sides and encourage programmes and reporters themselves to interpret political events more robustly. As the best of the broadcasters and current affairs programmes demonstrate, you can interpret critically without being partisan.

Benn's impending departure reminds us that the BBC won't have many credible dissenters left from either party who can do it for them.

This article first appeared in the 05 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, He makes us nice enough for export