The BBC should hold its nerve

BBC bigwigs have held a day-long conference to examine their own impartiality. This was probably a m

In recent days, the arguments over the BBC have taken a new twist. In a spate of articles in the Mail and the Telegraph, it has been accused of liberal bias. Nothing new in that. But this time, we are told, the BBC has admitted its shortcomings.

What happened was that the BBC's bigwigs held a day-long conference on impartiality. It was attended by everybody from Michael Grade, chairman of the governors, downwards, and involved some of the BBC's rivals, such as Sky's Adam Boulton, and some of its bitterest critics, such as Janet Daley of the Telegraph. The event was webcast live, and the outsiders, who included the Financial Times's John Lloyd, were told they could report it. Lloyd did so in Prospect and the FT. The conference, he wrote, went deep "into the BBC's emotional hinterland, unleashing a certain amount of controlled anger, even of self-contempt". For example, Justin Webb, the BBC's Washington correspondent, said the corporation didn't give America "any kind of moral weight". Andrew Marr, former political editor, said the BBC had "a cultural liberal bias".

It is impossible to imagine any newspaper attempting a similar exercise in self-examination, certainly not openly. This did not stop the BBC's press enemies making the most of it, and insisting the conference was "secret" and Lloyd's somewhat tendentious accounts "leaked". According to the Mail on Sunday, "a host of BBC executives and star presenters admitted . . . the BBC is dominated by trendy, left-leaning liberals who are biased against Christianity". Tim Luckhurst in the Daily Mail advised the BBC to correct "its nauseating tendency to patronise the public, and . . . realign itself with the quiet, decent majority". In the Financial Times, Philip Stephens, without referring directly to the meeting, listed "a visible disdain for politics, an obsession with Iraq and a rising anti-Americanism" among the BBC's shortcomings. In the Telegraph, Tom Leonard moved on from news to "the political correctness of BBC drama", the preponderance of Guardian and Independent critics on arts programmes, and the excess of left-wing wit on panel shows.

Too much humour

Nearly all these charges seem self-evidently risible. Lefties have long been accused of lacking humour; now, apparently, they have too much of it and use it as a wicked, subversive weapon. And is Stephens suggesting the BBC should ignore the outcome of a war that Britain and America started and which now threatens to destabilise the entire Middle East? A service that accommodates Jeremy Clarkson in Top Gear, allows Melanie Phillips to rant on The Moral Maze, turns Boris Johnson into a media star, and gives bishops free airtime during its peak morning radio show doesn't strike me as uniformly liberal or atheistic.

I am sure the impartiality conference was well-intentioned, but it was probably a mistake. For one thing, in the interests of balance, the outsiders should surely have included my fellow NS columnist John Pilger or somebody like him. For another, asking Lloyd to these things invites trouble. He tends to muddle the roles of journalist, academic, pressure-group lobbyist, Presbyterian-style preacher and Blairite apologist. In my experience (he wrote for the NS when I was editor), he usually manages to upset everybody.

But the biggest error is to scrutinise the concept of impartiality too closely. It is a worthy aspiration but, by its nature, unattainable. As anybody who has dealt with a convinced supporter of Israel or Palestine knows, people who themselves take an unbalanced view will not see your view as balanced, no matter how hard you try.

The BBC maintains a fairly strict apportionment of time between representatives of the main British political parties. Otherwise it takes, as its editorial default position, respectable, informed opinion. This seems about right. According to a poll this year, 48 per cent of the British public believe in evolution while 39 per cent believe in creationism or intelligent design. So, should the BBC, after an hour-long programme on evolution, balance it by allowing just under 49 minutes for the alternatives? I think not, and I would not expect the BBC to give more than token airtime to creationists even if those poll proportions were reversed. Lord Reith's original mission, we should recall, was to educate and refine public taste. The proposal that the BBC should echo some notional consensus of demotic opinion is a fairly recent one, and derives, I think, from the British right trying to imitate the success of the US right in convincing voters that the media are in the grip of a left-wing conspiracy.

Fortunately, the right here faces a struggle. In opinion polls, the BBC consistently scores far higher for trustworthiness than any of the newspapers that criticise it. Michael Grade and his troops should hold their nerve.