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22 May 2000

There’s no Toryism in my closet

Robin Oakleysqueezed out at the BBC, finds an excess of conspiracy theories in newspaper reports

By Robin Oakley

Listening recently to Alastair Campbell insisting that the government was focusing on the long term, I was forced to reflect that the BBC was becoming pretty good at that, too. As the victim of an early squeeze-out, I will have rather more sympathy than I have had in the past for those who suffer in the next government reshuffle. And perhaps all journalists should be forced, from time to time, to become the subjects of stories rather than just the retailers of them.

What has amazed me in the stories about my forthcoming early departure from the BBC, and my replacement by Andrew Marr, was that so many journalists could write so much without any attempt to contact their subject. The story made virtually all the Sunday and Monday papers. But on Sunday, when I was at home all day, only the Telegraph‘s Michael Smith and the Daily Mail‘s David Hughes sought to check anything with me. On the Saturday, Nicholas Hellen of the Sunday Times was the only writer to track me down and speak to me, having managed to wheedle my mobile number off a colleague on the pretext that Greg Dyke had resigned and he needed to speak to me urgently.

He did me one favour. I was at Lingfield Races for the Derby Trial and his call distracted me from putting on what would have been a losing bet. Sadly, the next call, from a commiserating colleague, robbed me of what would have been my only winner of the afternoon. But then, it wasn’t my week.

Hellen believed that there was a wicked conspiracy afoot: Downing Street getting their man in at my expense. When I dismissed that as rubbish, he did at least write a less bloodcurdling version. He took, and reported, my point that I was not in anybody’s camp. And if I could not be represented as some kind of Hagueite fellow-traveller, then the conspiracy theory lost much of its force.

I happen to belong to an old-fashioned school of journalism that believes in political reporters being as far as possible without opinions and subjugating any they have in the interest of that very old- fashioned word, fairness. That is why, as political editor (and, in those days, a columnist, too) of the Conservative- leaning Times, I made Neil Kinnock my Politician of the Year one Christmas. That is why, when most wishful-thinking newspapers were predicting John Major’s imminent downfall in his leadership election, I talked to many middle-of-the-road Tories who were rarely seen before a camera or quoted in a newspaper. I concluded, and told BBC viewers, that he would survive, as he did.

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That is also why, in some recent years, I have been the only political editor at Liberal Democrat spring conferences – to ensure that their proceedings made it on air to compensate for other occasions when time constraints meant that the Lib Dems dropped off the end of political packages.

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Politicians of all parties have known that I report without fear or favour. In my 14 years as political editor, first on the Times and then on the BBC, the complaint has never been one of bias.

But if Hellen was prepared to accept that argument, then others were not. They needed conspiracy. They needed conflict. So Marr, as rational and open-minded a journalist as I know, had to be represented as a new Labour puppet in Tony Blair’s pocket. And, to complete the set, I had to be a closet Conservative.

After all, I have worked for the (Tory) Sunday Express, for the (Tory) Daily Mail and for the (more or less Tory) Times, so I must be a Conservative. And I write my racing column for the (very Tory) Spectator. (The New Statesman never asked.)

So, in the Sunday Telegraph I was “re-garded as privately having Conservative views”. Regarded, that is, by the author of the piece, Joe Murphy, given that no other evidence was adduced. But it was the Observer that produced the real professional foul. Kamal Ahmed wrote that Marr, “one of new Labour’s closest associates”, was to take over from Robin Oakley, “who is known to have Conservative sympathies” (my italics). Set in the context that it was, and with not a word of supporting evidence, the clear implication was that, for nearly eight years as the BBC’s supposedly impartial political editor, my reporting had been slanted in favour of one party.

That gave the Observer, and to a lesser extent some of the other newspapers, their row. But unfortunately for them, the Tories, with the exception of Lord Tebbit, refused to play ball, by making no particular fuss about Marr’s appointment.

There was another flaw in the “Downing Street gets Tory sympathiser dropped for their man” scenario. I have no problem with the new Labour government and new Labour has had no problem with me. Any journalist who doubts that has only to pick up the telephone and speak to Campbell to confirm it.

There have been spats, most recently over my interview with Tony Blair, at the Lisbon summit, about his paternity leave. But I have never had a single complaint from the government that I had displayed any bias. I get on as well with Campbell (a supreme professional with, thank God, a redeeming sense of humour) as with any previous occupant of his office. And if there really was any worry in Downing Street about my approach, would an allegedly media-obsessed government have waited so long to deal with it?

The truth is, I am afraid, that these days not all the spin-doctors are in the ranks of the government. Many Fleet Street papers are dominated by small groups of politically active figures. The careers of many newspaper journalists now depend less on fearlessly digging up new information, writing well and displaying good judgement than on their ability to select facts or fancies to fit the preordained theories of their superiors. The concept of a straight-down-the-middle reporter doing the job without engagement on either side of the argument is an alien concept to them. No wonder, sometimes, that our politicians moan about the treatment they get.

The writer is political editor of the BBC