George Osborne by Ralph Steadman
They never seem to learn. If you’re a top politician, attacking the BBC’s reporting is the most obvious way of showing that you’re worried about the way that people will react to what you’re doing.
The first reactions to George Osborne’s Autumn Statement had mostly been rather good. The next morning, he woke up and turned on his radio. And there was Norman Smith, assistant political editor for BBC News, on the Today programme, talking about the scale of the heavy cuts in government spending that lay ahead and invoking George Orwell and The Road to Wigan Pier.
By the time Osborne went on the programme to be interviewed by John Humphrys, he was boiling over with the kind of fury that government ministers from all parties develop when they feel the BBC is being too critical of them.
Why did the Blair government attack the BBC so savagely in 2003 over what Andrew Gilligan was saying about Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction? Like Norman Smith, Gilligan was speaking on the Today programme, in the slot immediately after 6am: a quiet time, when the programme’s audience is at its lowest. Unlike Smith, who said nothing that wasn’t at least defensible, Gilligan went too far during his graveyard slot and on too little evidence accused the government of knowing that there were no weapons of mass destruction.
Much better, of course, to have paid no attention or written a nasty note to the director general. But Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s chief press man, lost it. An utterly unnecessary war culminated in the disastrous Hutton report, which at first delighted Blair and Campbell. Later, they may well have wished that they had never commissioned it.
Campbell, like Osborne, should have kicked his radio across the room and cursed the BBC roundly, from John Reith to John Humphrys. After that, he should have taken a few deep breaths, had a cup of Earl Grey and started behaving rationally. And if he had – who knows? – maybe people wouldn’t have had their attention drawn quite so strongly to the awkward problem at the heart of the Blair government’s case on the WMD: namely, that there weren’t any.
Still, I suspect that this latest spat between the Chancellor and the BBC (an outright war, if you believe the Daily Telegraph, Sun and Daily Mail) will pass off much more quickly and easily. Perhaps it has already. Neither Osborne nor David Cameron are the hair-trigger type and both of them have usually managed to ignore the anti-BBC frothing of some of the less reflective Tory MPs. They understand that it doesn’t go down well with the British public.
Margaret Thatcher disliked the BBC intensely and sometimes showed it unequivocally. (“Is this the British Broadcasting Corporation speaking?” she once asked me in her most Lady Bracknell voice, after I had put an awkward question about Northern Ireland to her.) But she also knew what people would and wouldn’t accept. So, when the Tory chairman Norman Tebbit launched an ill-judged attack on the BBC’s coverage of the American air raids on Libya in 1986, she quickly distanced herself from it and from him.
During my 48 years at the BBC, I’ve seen a great many battles between governments and the corporation. In 1967, Harold Wilson launched a fierce attack against the BBC to get rid of its excellent director general Sir Hugh Greene and three years later he went into a frenzy over David Dimbleby’s scathing attack on the Labour government’s record in the documentary Yesterday’s Men. Edward Heath was infuriated by the BBC’s (accurate) reporting of British failings in Northern Ireland and tried to muzzle it.
In 1974, both Harold Wilson and the anti-European Labour left attacked the BBC for its coverage of Europe in the run-up to the referendum of 1975. Mrs Thatcher had
endless wars with the BBC. The John Major years were quieter (he had his own battles to fight), but Tony Blair ushered in the nastiest period of my entire career. Remember Rupert Murdoch chuckling at a public meeting in New York in 2005 that Blair had told him the BBC was “just full of hatred of America and gloating at [its] troubles”? At that stage, of course, Murdoch and Blair still liked each other . . .
It has always been an article of faith among a certain type of Conservative politician and in the right-wing press that the BBC is instinctively left-wing. It started as early as 1926, when the BBC was only four years old, and Winston Churchill tried and failed to make the BBC toe the government line in its reporting of the General Strike. Interestingly, the counter-view, that the BBC is always instinctively pro-Conservative, began at the same time and is held no less strongly. That’s what happens if you’re balanced.
The accusations are replicated in so many other areas: Israel and Palestine, Europe, Russia, America; and, once upon a time, South Africa and Zimbabwe/Rhodesia. I used to keep contrasting files of all the hostile and threatening letters I received about these subjects, accusing me of holding precisely opposing opinions; it amused my friends and colleagues. Nowadays, people mostly pour out their bile anonymously online.
To be honest, it’s hard for those of us who work for the BBC to have much respect for such extreme viewpoints. I can think of only three colleagues of mine, over five decades, who have privately told me they supported a particular party; and, as it happened, all three backed different ones. Last week, Ukip announced it had recruited a senior BBC producer at Westminster, Paul Lambert, who rejoices in the nickname “Gobby”, to be its director of communications. David Cameron hired Craig Oliver, a former editor of the BBC’s News at Ten, to run Downing Street’s communications; and a former BBC political correspondent, Guto Harri, did the same job for Boris Johnson as mayor of London.
Another BBC political correspondent, Lance Price, had a senior job under Tony Blair and the former director general John Birt used to work in Downing Street as Blair’s one-man think tank. You have to be pretty blinkered (I would say stupid) to believe that the BBC as an institution, or the people who work for it, are committed to any one political line.
What is true is that the BBC, like the other television news organisations in Britain, puts the opposition’s points to government ministers as a matter of course. Opposition parties are, naturally, grateful to the broadcasters, who have a statutory obligation to be even-handed, for reporting their views, because they don’t often get that treatment from the newspapers. As a result, it’s far less usual for parties in opposition to attack the BBC as biased. But as soon as they get into government, they’re inclined to discover that the BBC – or ITN or Channel 4 News – is institutionally opposed to them and, by extension (of course), to the national interest.
In my career, during which I’ve done many of the senior jobs in BBC radio and television news, including political editor, no one in the corporation has ever tried to tell me what line to take on an issue. Would you, if you were Tony Hall, the present director general, really want to pick up the phone to someone like John Humphrys and tell him to go hard on the government because it was in the BBC’s longer-term interests that the Conservatives should lose the next election? I don’t think so; and if you did, how long would it be before it was all over the papers?
I don’t believe that the Conservatives have declared war on the BBC, however annoyed the Chancellor might have been. But I do believe that the BBC has proved in the past that it’s capable of getting itself in trouble – serious trouble. Its systems failed it terribly over Jimmy Savile and Lord McAlpine. The whole business of paying some senior BBC executives large amounts of money alienated public opinion – the one true support we have as an institution.
The irony of this is that people naturally suppose BBC employees as a whole are highly paid, when, in reality, the people who make and support the BBC’s programme-making and on whom its reputation and quality depend are notably underpaid by the standards of the broadcasting industry and much of the rest of British enterprise.
In BBC News, for instance, the real work depends largely on producers who, by the standards of British industry, teaching and other broadcasting organisations, are particularly low-paid. The other day, a BBC producer was telling me about a 30th anniversary dinner given by his friends from university. He was by far the lowest paid of the entire group, even though he had a more interesting job than any of the others.
It’s no secret that the BBC is an anxious place to work at the moment and it looks as though it will continue to be so. Savage cut-backs have to be made, because its income is falling at around 15 per cent every year. People who have served the BBC well over the years and sometimes sacrificed a lot for it are worried that their jobs are under threat.
Even within the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, there are people who believe that the last licence fee agreement, negotiated with Jeremy Hunt, then culture secretary, was wrapped up much too fast, with far too little concern for the future health of the organisation. Sajid Javid, the current Culture Secretary, has so far taken a different approach and has rejected the idea of trying to rush through another licence fee agreement before next May’s general election; something that brought sighs of relief from people in the BBC.
The fact is, the licence fee is the BBC. The critics of the one are almost invariably enemies of the other. The more the licence fee is cut back, the more damage is done to
programme-making and to the basic structure of the BBC. It’s an unsatisfactory system in all sorts of ways but, like democracy, it’s the best we have. The making of good programmes is an expensive business: if you do it on the cheap you just get poor-quality, home-made programmes and a lot of bought-in stuff, much of which is rubbish.
The BBC has often undercut its own case during the past few years. I’m sure that a small-scale spat such as George Osborne’s annoyance over hearing a BBC correspondent draw parallels with The Road to Wigan Pier won’t end up doing the kind of damage that Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell – and Lord Hutton – did to the BBC.
But I do believe that we are now facing a genuine existential threat. And knee-jerk, ill-thought-through decisions could do us and Britain’s national life as a whole irreparable damage.
John Simpson is the world affairs editor of the BBC