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Saturday, January 31, 2004
Still biased, still unfair, still in need of huge reform

Below I mourned that Hutton had not killed two birds with one stone. I may have been too hasty.

Three times as many people trust the BBC to tell the truth than trust the government, despite Lord Hutton's damning judgment, an exclusive poll by ICM for the Guardian shows.

More significantly, the survey reveals that confidence in both has been shattered. Almost half of those surveyed said they trusted neither.

If these bastions of the left cannot sort themselves out, something will have to rise to fill that vacuum and offer an alternative - something better. If Margaret Thatcher proved anything, it's that once the much-abused if patient majority of the British people finally becomes tired of being alternately shoved around and ignored, nothing can get in the way of the backlash - not the BBC, not the Labour Party, not the criminals' advocates or the trade unions, not the PC lobbies or the statist wastrels. Let us hope this marks the beginning of the beginning of that process.

As for the BBC: with two scalps at the very top claimed, things are certainly looking up. Electric Review goes as far as to say that the pro-government, anti-BBC angle of Hutton was actually preferable to the reverse, because the BBC and not Labour is the Tory Party's greatest enemy.

And let no conservative doubt that the BBC must be changed radically. The case for this would be strong even if it were politically neutral. Its current method of funding has in recent years become an embarrassing anachronism as hundreds of channels have become accessible to television viewers, but anyone who wishes to watch them must pay a £116 a year poll tax to fund a small handful. But the case for scrapping it ought to be unanswerable for anyone with a basically conservative view of life who cares that his ideas are represented fairly. Let it be explained once again to those who maintain their scepticism what is meant when the BBC is described as biased.

What is not usually meant is that the corporation regularly shows a direct bias for or against a particular political party. There have been occasional moments when this was the case - the extremely negative coverage of the Tory victory in the 2003 Local Elections, or the picture of Mussolini beside Iain Duncan Smith in one news piece about birthrates - stands out. But in general, I would myself say that the BBC is basically fair in the way it deals with the parties. What is not meant is that the BBC has a conscious agenda of setting out to defend a left-liberal consensus. I say with even more confidence that this is not the case. What is meant by accusations of BBC bias is that the institution as a whole is dominated by and infected with a culture that views as sensible, moderate and normal the ideas of Roy Jenkins and Polly Toynbee and as suspect and peculiar the ideas of Michael Howard and Charles Moore. It's not that the people who set the agenda on the BBC have in their minds a deliberate aim of promoting this sort of thinking: it's that recruitment always being from the infamous jobs section of the Guardian they tend to be drawn from all the same sections of society, the same opinions of the world. The result is a group of people generally so closeted as to be unable to understand any good reason for disputing the tenets of their ideas.

These people have rarely had to fear their house being broken into in the middle of the night: they are more worried about the burglars being jailed. They've never been to a party where it would be anything but social death to worry about the new age travellers in the park near one's home. They've never questioned why the euro is a good thing; it's blindingly obvious that anyone opposed is a xenophobic little Englander. And every day they read columns and articles assuring them that those who are different are simply less educated or cultivated than they are, that they give in to base prejudice and bigotry where their betters always have a liberal platitude at the ready. Janet Daley has encountered this culture at its most blatant when trying to engage typical BBC employees in political discussion.

What is most disturbing about encounters with BBC current affairs people is not that one has disagreements with them, but that they regard their own quite narrow frame of reference as the only rational one.

Any party, politician or pundit who does not accept this consensual package will either be ruled out of the debate entirely or treated like a maverick side-show - a bit of a comic turn who is outside the boundaries of serious consideration.

There isn't their opinion and your opinion: there is their opinion and you're insane. Making out a moral case for low taxation is not regarded as a contentious contribution to political argument, but as ludicrous raving - a flat-earther's fit of extremist nonsense.

As far as the BBC is concerned, the notion that freeing markets might produce more equitable and beneficial circumstances for more people more of the time is simply off the register: it is not just wrong; it is crazy and malign.

Reasonable people - the sort whom corporation staff know and socialise with - simply do not think this way.

And when one understands how these closeted types think, their whole attitude is all the more explicable. When the Beeb's Brussels correspondent warned of a "Referendum Danger for EU" that could leave in pieces "two years of painstaking work by Valery Giscard d'Estaing" - heaven forbid! - it wasn't a conscious effort to promote the Europhile cause. Nor was this true of Stephen Sackur's report on the Swedish euro referendum, quoting Romano Prodi that "The people who know the European Union voted yes" and adding himself that "What's sad is that most people obviously didn't know the European Union". Cases like this are a simple reflection of the attitude of most BBC journalists that it is ignorant, destructive and disreputable to oppose the latest advance from Brussels. When the corporation's Africa correspondent covered the murder of hundreds and hundreds of white farmers in South Africa in recent years from the perspective of white people deserving their fate on the grounds that "racism and extreme inequality exact a price", it was because it is obvious to BBC types that the victims of murder share in the guilt. Such an attitude is constant and unrelated to any one journalist or presenter.

What is bizarre is that despite a tone and attitude that fits perfectly the editorial line of the Guardian on every issue from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and from taxation to transport, some continue to deny any bias. It is actually quite bizarre in itself that while no sensible person would claim that any newspaper or magazine is without editorial line or a particular culture of opinion, it is perfectly acceptable to make this outlandish claim when it comes to the BBC. Are television journalists somehow much smarter or more immune to the effects of their political convictions than others? But when the evidence is so abundant of this culture, it is right to suspect the motives, whether commercial or political, of those who persist in denying the obvious. Perhaps they are just not observant. More likely they fear the vibrancy and diversity of views on our televison screens of the sort we get every day in the press.

The BBC's closeted culture is what lead to the Gilligan fiasco, and this culture is what denies a fair hearing to both sides on almost any debate. Only the most radical reforms will alter it, and only a replacement of the BBC as it currently exists will qualify. It is time for the BBC to earn its keep commercially, not continue to rely on a license fee that is unfair to all. If that means they may need to advertise something besides their own programmes and books, that too is acceptable. The Gilligan affair shows once and for all why the BBC needs to be changed. Let us hope it gets us a good distance down that route.

UPDATE: Charles Moore says it all.

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