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31 August 2009

Peter Hitchens, the BBC and me

The right is in denial about the Beeb

By Mehdi Hasan

Peter Hitchens has — finally! — responded to my challenge to rebut or even refute my piece on BBC bias in this week’s magazine.

Hitchens (dare I drop the “Mr”, or will that be construed as the ultimate manifestation of anti-conservative, bleedin’ liberal behaviour by the Mail on Sunday‘s star columnist?) begins his denunciation of me in an “unusual” manner:

Today’s posting is slightly unusual in that it is a response to a challenge on another weblog. We do not provide links here, for legal reasons, but I can tell you that this challenge, entitled “Is the BBC biased?”, can easily be found by googling “Mehdi Hasan”, “New Statesman” and “Peter Hitchens”.

You don’t provide links? Come on! At least have the courtesy of linking to my work before you try to trash it. What kind of blog has no links? Then again, what kind of blog, aside from perhaps President Ahmadinejad‘s, is more than 2,000 words long?

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It stems from articles by me and by Mr Hasan which appear in the current issue of the New Statesman. I argue that the BBC is hopelessly morally, socially and culturally biased against conservative ideas, so much so that it doesn’t even understand that it is biased, or how it is biased. Mr Hasan argues, hilariously, that the BBC is biased to “the right”. Links to these articles are provided in Mr Hasan’s posting. After an unsatisfactory private correspondence about our disagreements, which will stay private, we agreed instead to debate the matter in public. Here beginneth my first riposte.

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Is it really “hilarious” to simply point out, as I did, that leading figures at the BBC have links to the Tory party and that a supposedly “left-wing” organisation covers the British monarchy with deference, and to excess? Hitchens refers to the BBC as being “morally, socially and culturally biased against conservative ideas”. Interestingly, he omits the crucial adjectives “economically” and “politically”. He may not believe that the BBC is biased in a party-political sense, but the fact is that countless Conservative Party politicians, as well as innumerable Tory-supporting journalists and bloggers, do. I was addressing my piece to them, too — not simply him. But I am glad Hitchens agrees with me that the BBC is not biased in favour of Labour or against the Tories. On economics, and the BBC’s appointment of the Torygraph free-marketeer Jeff Randall to the prestigious post of business editor, Hitchens has little or nothing to say. Then again, the Hitchens brothers have always tended to avoid economics.

Why is Mehdi Hasan so confident that his assertion that the BBC is in fact “a right-wing and conservative institution” cannot be effectively rebutted?

I’m a confident chap. I can’t help it. Then again, you’re not exactly a shrinking violet, are you, Peter?

Before I begin I should state that (as he knows) my main complaint against his original article is its ludicrous claim that I believe I am “ignored” by the BBC. I do not think this, which is why I haven’t said it. The article which I wrote (at his request) and which he presumably read before publishing it (and before publishing his own contribution), makes it clear that I have no such belief. Much of it, in fact, dwells on the way in which the BBC approaches me when it asks me to appear on TV and radio programmes, something the BBC couldn’t do if it were ignoring me. I would be grateful if Mr Hasan would have the grace to admit that he was mistaken, and to withdraw the claim. It makes his argument look silly, and gets in the way of proper debate.

Here is what I said: “Then there is the claim from small-c conservatives such as Peter Hitchens and Melanie Phillips that they are ignored by the BBC. Is this the same Hitchens who is a frequent guest on BBC1’s Question Time (according to the screen and cinema database IMDB, he has appeared on the show every year since 2000, and twice in 2007)? And the same Phillips who is a regular panellist on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze?” If Hitchens thinks he is not “ignored” by the BBC, then I am happy to withdraw the offending remark. I am told, however, by an impeccable source, that Hitchens has often complained in private that he is not invited on the BBC as regularly as he would like. In his own NS piece, he refers to the BBC’s “near-horror of the conservative person”, its failure “to pay any attention to what they say” and how, during the Iraq war, “invitations to take part in radio and TV discussions shrivelled to nothing”. Sounds to me like he thinks he — and conservatives in general — are “ignored”, but if he says that is not his view, then who am I to disagree? (On a side note, Melanie Phillips, whom I also refer to in the aforementioned paragraph, has claimed that her own regular appearances amount to “little more than tokenism”).

I suspect that his assurance stems mainly from his almost complete misunderstanding of conservatism. He shares this problem — of blank, clueless incomprehension of his opponent — with the BBC itself. The Corporation has not felt the need to take conservatism seriously for many years, for reasons I’ll set out shortly. The same is true of many of the other institutions of modern Britain, where the Left’s long march, begun in the 1960s, is now complete. The result of this is that people whose assumptions are “progressive” (their own terminology) occupy all positions of decisive authority, and never meet or need to justify themselves to anyone who disagrees with them, whom they do not also despise. In fact, they generally despise anyone who disagrees with them, believing for example that a person who supports capital punishment for murderers is beyond the pale of civilisation.

I had never realized how conspiratorial Hitchens is. “The Left’s long march . . . is now complete”? Progressives “occupy all positions of decisive authority”? Where? In the City of London perhaps, Peter? How about the head of state? Is she a lefty? And, during that “long march”, why did the left’s vehicles for elected representation take such repeated drubbings at the polls? As usual, Hitchens offers no evidence at all for his sweeping statements, referring in passing only to the liberal distaste for capital punishment.

At the same time many millions of BBC licence fee payers do not share these new opinions, and hold largely to the old, dethroned ones. Is the purpose of the BBC to serve them, and to reflect their views, or, by exclusion, derision, obscenity, foul language and triumphalist propaganda, bring them round to its own opinion? If the second, surely that is bias?

Millions of BBC licence fee payers are on the left; millions are on the right. To be fair to the Beeb, the corporation will never satisfy them all. I’m not sure what his point here actually is.

There are large arguments to be had about how and why this came about. I’ve tried to address them in my book The Abolition of Britain and more recently in another book, The Broken Compass, so won’t dwell on them here. But I think it would be very hard for anyone to argue that it hadn’t happened. The occupiers of significant positions, whether they be cabinet ministers, MPs, bishops, Anglican vicars, Catholic priests, permanent secretaries, professors, head teachers, ordinary teachers, judges, editors, producers of TV and radio programmes, heads of broadcasting and media organisations, newspaper and TV reporters, businessmen, publishers, historians, novelists, artists, actors or police officers, now hold social, moral, cultural views wholly different from, and often opposite to, those their forerunners of 40 or 50 years ago would have held. There are exceptions, but they are rare and much remarked upon. I am not arguing here about whether this is good or bad (not that my view is any secret), just stating it as an indisputable fact.

Here once again we have the conspiratorial mindset (“occupiers of significant positions”) and once again the narrow focus on “social, moral and cultural views” without any reference to political or economic views. At no stage, for example, does Hitchens address the point that BBC journalists have little or no sympathy for socialist economic policies such as nationalisation or higher taxation.

The view which has been dethroned in this process is conservatism. This can be summed up as a pessimistic view of humanity and society based on a Christian belief in the imperfectibility of man, demanding the exercise of individual conscience, strong self-restraint, deference to established authority, sexual continence and constancy, patience, respect for age, for hierarchy and for institutions, patriotism and monarchy — generally combined with a strong predisposition in favour of hard work and thrift and a horror of idleness and debt. These views were once held widely by voters on both sides of the political divide. The modern person may recognise all these things under the other names which progressives give to them: “repression, religious bigotry, snobbery, sexism, chauvinism, xenophobia, suburban and/or ‘Victorian’ values” etc. Call them what you like, but don’t imagine that your choice of name doesn’t betoken an opinion on an important issue. They once were dominant and are now despised and rejected. And the BBC is entirely on one side in this conflict, and cannot conceive that any good person could take the other view.

Here is one point on which I agree with Hitchens. Conservatism, in its traditional, social and moral sense, based on pessimism and imperfection, has been “dethroned”. But, and here is where we disagree, not by the BBC or by the Guardian or by liberals or progressives or Tony Blair but by other conservatives. Hitchens seems to think that his view of conservatism is the only view of conservatism, and therefore any critique of the BBC’s conservative bias which does not revolve around his narrow, dated definition of conservatism is, by definition, invalid.

Mr Hasan seems to think that I have personally invented the conservatism I espouse, and it is a quirky, random collection of views which appear contradictory to him. Let me assure him that I am simply the inheritor and continuer of a tradition much older than I, which is only proper for a conservative. Mr Hasan also, for some reason inaccessible to me, thinks the Conservative Party embodies conservatism, thinks that conservatism consists of support for free markets, or for the Iraq war, or a general liking for the United States. In fact some of these positions are those of classical liberalism, while others are those of “Neo-Conservatism”, a tendency more attractive to disappointed Marxists, in search of a new Utopia, and to ultra-liberal globalists, than to conservatives. Many, if not all, neoconservatives are cultural and moral and social radicals, and economic ultra-liberals. Some of these positions are common to both these views. None of them is conservative.

No, Peter, you have not “personally invented” it; but you are a lonely adherent of it. Other conservatives do, by and large, define their conservatism in free-market terms, or even in neoconservative terms. I do not agree with the neocons and, like you, I think they have hijacked the conservative movement but, unlike you, I don’t automatically place them morally or intellectually outside of it. To claim, for example, that George W Bush is not a conservative is “ludicrous”, if not “hilarious” (to use your words).

He is also, I think, confused by the fact that the BBC, which was generally sympathetic to the Blair government because of its cultural leftism, could never really cope with that government’s globalist decision to go to war in Iraq. Sentimental Leftists, whose politics are really a series of displaced religious opinions, often misunderstand, and lag behind, the vanguard of their cause. Only the sharper and smarter ones, the “hard liberals”, recognise that their aims may be served by bombing a few cities. The Tory party had a parallel problem. Having sold Britain to the EU and being secretly ashamed of it, it now strives to look ultra-patriotic on every possible occasion by banging the drum for war and supporting “our boys”, though it overcame this when we surrendered to the IRA in Northern Ireland, the last actual national conflict in which our armed forces were deployed in British, rather than globalist interests. The neoconservative liberals, whose reasons for backing these wars are entirely different, thus have an easier time with their backbenchers than do Labour. Sentimental Tory MPs back wars they should oppose. Sentimental Labour MPs oppose wars they ought to support.

Again, he acts as if my original piece was for his eyes only. It wasn’t. I was addressing the arguments of people like Melanie Phillips and Michael Gove, who claim the BBC was anti-war over Iraq. It wasn’t. And, unlike Hitchens, my arguments are based on facts and figures: “The non-partisan, Bonn-based research institute Media Tenor found that the BBC gave just 2 per cent of its Iraq coverage to anti-war voices. Another study by Cardiff University concluded that the BBC had ‘displayed the most pro-war agenda of any [British] broadcaster’.”

As for the Tory party, the BBC is biased against it only when it shows signs of being conservative. Such moments are increasingly rare. I am not now arguing, and never have sought to argue, that the BBC is biased against the Conservative Party. On the contrary, I state in my article for the NS that the BBC has now completely converted the Conservative Party to its own world-view, and has rewarded it with sympathetic and generous coverage. This is one of the most important political developments of our time, which is why most political journalists, incurious, sheep-like and conformist, have not even noticed it.

The BBC has “completely converted the Conservative Party to its own world-view”? How? Did Jeremy Paxman cast a spell on David Cameron? Once again, Hitchens displays his absurdly simplistic and conspiratorial mindset.

The BBC is not a deliberately or consciously wicked body. It does what it does because it believes fervently (like so many harmful people and organisations) that it is doing good. Many of its decision-makers feel a genuine urge to be fair. But they do not know how to do it. Thanks to the successful Gramscian “war of position”, described above, they are almost physically repulsed by the opinions and attitudes of people such as me, and also of the Thatcherite liberals described above. They would never have such people in their own homes, around their own tables. Yet they feel they must have us in their studios.

Hold on! Here he says the BBC is “physically repulsed” not simply by him and his authentically conservative views, but by “Thatcherite liberals”, too, thereby contradicting his own earlier and narrower argument that Thatcherite liberals (for example, Andrew Neil and Michael Portillo) were welcome on the Beeb because they weren’t true conservatives. Hitchens seems confused. In fact, in a cover story about the BBC for the Spectator in 2003, he wrote: “Like the Church of England and the civil service, it is a conservative organisation largely staffed by liberal people.” Yes, Peter, it is a “conservative organisation”. I’m glad we at least agree on that.

This is to their credit. It is hard. I sympathise. They are too busy shuddering to distinguish between us, hence the blunders described in my New Statesman article. Yet they swallow hard, adopt fixed smiles and try to invite us on, if only to prove to themselves that they are just. Of course there are many different degrees of being “invited on”. There are the “balanced” debate programmes where the occasional conservative can be fitted in, permitted to speak but obviously not in any way endorsed by the Corporation. There are also brief discussions on Radio 4 current affairs programmes. But these are concessions, not the real thing.

This is paranoia, pure and simple. “Fixed smiles”? “Swallow hard”? “Not the real thing”? How, I wonder, does Hitchens distinguish between his own experiences and those of his doctrinaire left-wing counterparts, such as Tariq Ali and John Pilger? Are they feted or “endorsed” by the BBC? Do they even appear as regularly as he does? I think not.

The real things are the major behind-the-scenes executive positions which give direction to editorial policy and to the appointment of key presenters’ chairs, decisive jobs such as that of political editor, influential slots such as Newsnight anchor.

Newsnight anchor? You mean like Gavin Esler, who may not be a social conservative but certainly isn’t a left-wing Marxist entryist either . . .

In a few cases, notable mainly for their rarity, presenters’ chairs or regular panel slots go to people who are not full members of the new post-1968 consensus. Andrew Neil is a highly skilled and competent broadcaster and a journalist of great experience. He is, it is true, allowed to present a few programmes. These may be much watched by enthusiasts, but I do not think we could really call them “prime-time” or even “mainstream”. Ask yourselves this. Can you conceive of Andrew Neil being appointed as a main presenter of Newsnight, or of the Today programme? If not, why not? (I should point out here that I doubt if Mr Neil agrees with me on many major subjects, and I do not regard him as a conservative). I think it rather touching that Mr Hasan believes Mr Portillo is a conservative. It was in 1999, I think, that I put myself forward for the Tory nomination in Kensington and Chelsea, purely so as to make the point that Mr Portillo is not a conservative. Is he really Diane Abbott’s opponent when they sit together on that sofa?

Neil was, of course, considered for the Newsnight vacancy. Portillo spent much of his column in this weekend’s Sunday Times railing against “idle” benefit claimants and citing approvingly the work of Professor Charles Murray of Bell Curve infamy. If he is not on the right, I am not sure who is.

Then there’s the Nick Robinson argument. Mr Robinson must speak for himself, but I would make one point about comparisons between him and Andrew Marr. Mehdi dwells on Mr Robinson’s student Toryism, a documented fact. But Mr Robinson had, for many years before he became BBC political editor, pursued a BBC career during which he was not able to express a political opinion, even had he wished to. We do not actually know what his current or recent political opinions are. So we cannot really claim to have any recent information on this.

Good point. But my argument about Robinson was not that he is a secret Tory partisan using his nightly broadcasts to help bring down the Labour government. It was simply that he had been the chair of the Young Conservatives during the Thatcher era and yet nobody really made a fuss when he was appointed BBC political editor. Could you, I asked, imagine the reaction from the Mail, Telegraph et al were the BBC to appoint a political editor who had been chair of Labour Students during its militant days?

Andrew Marr, a short time before his appointment, was an opinionated writer for the Daily Express (in its Rosie Boycott manifestation) and in other places. I think it fair to say that the opinions he stated were not generally conservative ones. I don’t think this is a parallel with Mr Robinson’s appointment. Again, a question. Could a conservative columnist on a national daily, whose current views were well-known, with the equivalent experience of Andrew Marr, have been appointed to the job? If not, why not?

Short answer: yes.

The issue is confused by the fact that the political opinions of the leaderships of the two main parties are now so similar (see the recent statements by Michael Gove) that a declared Tory (not conservative) and a declared New Labour supporter would find little to criticise about the policies of the party he supposedly opposes. In fact, much of the left-wing media Establishment are now entirely reconciled to the arrival of a Cameron government, because they rightly believe the Blairite project is safe in Mr Cameron’s hands.

Good point, but irrelevant to my overall argument regarding the BBC.

My own view has long been that BBC presenters and commentators should declare their political sympathies, instead of pretending absurdly that they have none, that the BBC could achieve a true balance by ensuring that it recruited from among conservative as well as among left-liberal journalists, and that programmes should be presented in an adversarial fashion, ensuring (for example) that no politician should be interviewed by a supporter of his party.

This is a rather silly idea which would: a) result in a horrifically partisan and superficial Hannity-and-Colmes-style approach to news and politics, as pioneered by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News across the pond, and b) would do nothing to correct the behind-the-scenes bias which Hitchens himself highlights earlier in his blog: “The real things are the major behind-the-scenes executive positions which give direction to editorial policy . . .”

If this doesn’t happen, then I think the BBC will eventually lose the necessary consensus of support, politically required for the continuation of the licence fee. I should regret that. I am a friend of the BBC as an institution. I do not think its disappearance would be a good thing.

Here, I wholeheartedly agree with him. The BBC is a national treasure — despite being the “conservative organisation” that Hitchens himself once conceded it is.