1 January 2004

On Tuesday 9th September 2003 the Daily Telegraph ran a lengthy article written by its editor Charles Moore, headed “Time to watch the BBC bias that costs each of us £116 a year”.

This was to introduce a new daily feature in the paper called “Beebwatch”, which is currently publishing examples of the BBC’s supposed left-wing bias. This appears directly below the editorials, a placing in the paper that effectively associates its opposition with the BBC quite explicitly with its editorial slant on whatever it may choose to write about. The feature is merely the next step in what has become a New Tradition of vicious attacks on “BBC bias” from the right-wing press.

To understand how the Telegraph in particular developed this almost psychotic hatred of the BBC, one has to go back to the mid-1980s when, like so many old British institutions at the height of Thatcherism, it was experiencing turbulent times.

Lord Hartwell (Michael Berry), who had been owner and editor-in-chief of the paper since 1954, and who came from the Berry family which had owned the paper since 1928, was regarded as a classic patrician of the old school – a man spiritually at home in the Macmillan era – but he was, poignantly in retrospect, more committed to modernising his institution than certain captains of industry or headmistresses of minor girls’ boarding schools ever were. Lord Hartwell was brought down not really by himself, but by the era in which he was now operating.

His paper had benefited from an effective monopoly on the conservative broadsheet market when The Times and The Sunday Times were not published for an entire year because of trade union disputes in 1978-79, meaning that the Telegraph was the only broadsheet other than the distinctly left-leaning Guardian to report the poisoned chalice of the 1979 election.

But after Rupert Murdoch took over The Times and The Sunday Times in 1981, leading to a new era of computerisation, slimming-down, a rapid decline in the power of trade unions and a movement from Fleet Street to the newly-developed Docklands, Lord Hartwell realised that the paper would have to keep up with its main rival.

It may well have suddenly occurred to the proprietor, already in his seventies, that the Telegraph’s essential changelessness – it had remained basically very stable through the 1960s and 70s and had never experienced anything like the takeover of The Times by the Canadian press baron Lord Thomson in 1966, which saw an end to the paper’s tradition of printing personal adverts rather than news on the front page – had suddenly become a great hindrance, a factor which could fatally hold it back in a Britain rapidly overturning all its certainties.

More to the point, it seemed that class-bound institutions – whether they were Old Labour like heavy industry, or Old Tory like the Telegraph – were the most vulnerable. The paper was clearly ageing as well – as late as 1986, the average age of the Arts department was, according to its then-incoming editor Max Hastings, as high as 72 – and it still cut itself off from showbusiness, devoting only 300 words to the Oscars in its edition of 24th March 1986.

Lord Hartwell’s downfall fits into a very familiar pattern of 1980s Britain – he understood that he needed to change, but he didn’t have the ruthlessness and harshness needed to succeed by the new rules, and he made commitments without realising that he could no longer be sure of keeping them (there are painful parallels with the character of Clive Candy in Powell and Pressburger’s 1943 film “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, who could not understand that modern warfare no longer worked by the gentlemanly rules of cricket).

Anticipated financing of over £1 million needed for the Telegraph’s modernisation fell through in 1985 after commitments had already been made, and an uncertain Lord Hartwell, caught out by a new kind of financial world, had no choice but to offer shares in the Telegraph on the stock market. Hartwell’s plans, although well meant, were so naive in the context of the cut-and-thrust of the 1980s yuppie era that, by early 1986, the company was so close to bankruptcy that the paper’s new chief executive Andrew Knight would say to its new editor Max Hastings that “the banks own even the desks you will be sitting at”.

It was the Canadian publisher and businessman Conrad Black – an ideologue of the New Right, and increasingly influenced over the years by his wife Barbara Amiel who holds an extremely pro-Israeli and anti-Arab view of the Middle East situation quite at odds with that held by many old-fashioned English Conservatives – who acquired a controlling number of shares in the Telegraph, and by 1986 was commanding full control.

Max Hastings, who was appointed editor of the paper in February 1986 to succeed the 72-year-old W.F. (Bill) Deedes, paints a fascinating picture of a transitional period where Lord Hartwell remained formally in place as a kind of constitutional monarch, still in his executive suite and rooftop gardens at the top of the Telegraph’s Fleet Street headquarters untouched since 1914, but in reality his power had gone, and his world was over, a realisation painful and divisive enough that one of Lord Hartwell’s sons never spoke to Max Hastings again after Hastings commented on the increasingly farcical nature of the situation.

It had previously been just about possible for the old conservatives to mentally internalise themselves, to feel that they’d always have “their own” paper, whatever those nasty men on the make – the “East End boys” who mingled with the “West End Girls” of the Pet Shop Boys’ first hit and its epochal video – got up to on the stock market, however many ghastly tacky chintzy Essex mansions the Nouveau Riche bought from hard-up semi-aristocrats.

Now the truth could not be concealed anymore. In a matter of a few months, a whole way of life was to be thrown on the scrapheap, condemned just as definitively as the coalmines and steelworks had already been. In 1987, when the Telegraph had moved to its new state-of-the-art offices in the Docklands (with a secondary base in Manchester), abandoning its glorious anachronism of a home in Fleet Street, the 76-year-old Lord Hartwell bowed to the inevitable and formally retired as chairman and editor-in-chief, a position he had lost in practice a good year earlier.

This was now a paper fit for the Big Bang and the ever-growing impact of monetarism – by October 1987 the Sunday Telegraph magazine was promoting the early, brick-sized 1000 mobile phones as a status symbol and approvingly printing a critique of the “old boy network” of the British Army.

The latter would surely have offended at least some of the old military men who have long made up a good percentage of the paper’s more traditionalist readers, and to keep those readers fully on side, Conrad Black needed to be more of an invisible touch than a sledgehammer – to invoke the titles of two 1986 hit singles by public school old boys (Genesis and their former lead singer Peter Gabriel) who had initially made literate, high-cultural rock music but had now fully absorbed themselves with the Thatcher / Reagan consumerist boom.

In this appeasement job Black was helped no end by Max Hastings, essentially a huntin’-shootin’-fishin’ Tory wet – an editor of the New Right would have fitted better with the trends of the day, but would probably have unbalanced the paper almost fatally at its edgy transitional moment in 1986.

Hastings has recalled the afternoon in February 1986 when he was interviewed by Black, who was then 41 and had only very recently acquired the controlling number of shares in the paper. The Canadian magnate made his position clear: “I have sometimes observed among the British, and among British newspapers, a mean-spiritedness, a bitchiness, a raw envy towards the United States which does your fellow-countrymen no service at all, Max.”

When Black mentioned that Hastings had once written a book about America – “The Fire This Time”, published when Hastings was 22 – the future editor was suddenly thankful that the book was out of print, because it contained what Hastings now describes as “disparaging, if not contemptuous, remarks about American politics and culture that reflected the callowness of the author”.

In 1999, some years after Hastings had left the Telegraph, Black finally tracked down a second-hand copy of the book and conformed to Hastings’ worst fears of the New Right, writing to his former editor thus: “In truth, Max, we must realise the reality that you are a closet pinko beneath the skin.”

Conrad Black and Max Hastings had several disagreements, mainly over the fact that Hastings’ editorials were not sufficiently supportive, for Black’s liking, of the Thatcher government and the whole socio-economic theory – rock-bottom taxation, utter contempt for the public sector, military adventures, hardline support for Israeli expansionism – which has since become known as “neo-conservatism”.

And it was undoubtedly Hastings’ influence rather than Black’s that ensured that the Telegraph retained some of its old flavour through the early 1990s. When the arch-conservative satirist Michael Wharton aka “Peter Simple” – essentially a neo-feudalist in his socio-economic views – retired from the Way of the World column in 1990, he was succeeded by Auberon Waugh, another arch-traditionalist whose support for British involvement in a “Greater Europe”, which he felt would turn what he saw as an evil tide of American cultural and military imperialism, were the absolute antithesis of Conrad Black’s belief that Britain should disassociate itself from all other European countries and join NAFTA instead.

In 1994/95 Lord Hartwell’s final shares in the Telegraph were sold to Conrad Black’s firm, Hollinger, and in 1995 Max Hastings was succeeded as editor of the Daily Telegraph by Charles Moore, who had previously edited the Sunday Telegraph.

Despite his upper-class manner, Eton education and love of foxhunting, Moore would prove much more amenable than Hastings to the expression of an unbridled pro-war, anti-state, unquestioningly pro-US and pro-free-trade neoconservative agenda. Included in this has been the anti-BBC position that has now become at least as prevalent in the Telegraph as in The Times, despite the fact that the latter is cross owned with Sky and the former is not.

The Telegraph’s readership now has two distinct axes. Because it has to reflect the beliefs and prejudices of these two quite distinct groups of right-wingers, its anti-BBC editorials, comments and essays often uneasily incorporate two subtly different sets of reasons and motivations for opposing the BBC; the Old Right (“it isn’t like it was in my day”, “it is vulgar, crass, commercial, downmarket”, “it is a pity we cannot bring back Richard Dimbleby”) and the New Right (“it’s full of Guardianistas”, “it hates the US and Israel”, “it supports Saddam Hussein and sympathises with Al-Qaeda”).

Some objections, such as the idea that the BBC is biased towards Tony Blair and New Labour, or that it is overtly sympathetic towards the Nationalist view of Northern Ireland, unite the two factions of the Right.

The letters page regularly presents opinions from both factions, although it is pretty obvious much of the time that the deeply ideological letter-writers of the New Right are, on average, much younger than the harrumphers of the Old Right, and are therefore a more attractive option for any paper’s long-term plans because they will quite simply be alive for longer.

In the last few years, the paper has become – for me, at least – much more obnoxiously dominated by Conrad Black’s political slant than ever before, and much more disconnected from anything that was ever decent or good-natured about British Conservatism.

Inevitably the Bush administration has greatly worsened this, giving the more extreme neo-con ideologues at the paper a US government they can look up to even while practically everyone else, including many conservatives in both the US and the UK, has come to dislike it.

But the death of Auberon Waugh in January 2001 has further weakened the paper; a charming reminder of an older Conservative England, and a vital balance to the warmongering and NAFTA cheerleading of the Black regime, has gone.

Michael Wharton still writes a weekly column for the paper, and he can reveal an intriguing ideological crossover of the kind that has become more and more obvious since the fall of Communism in the late 1980s exploded the old “Left and Right” paradigms – Wharton’s comments on the destruction of the World Trade Centre on 11th September 2001 – “the destruction of this symbol of the world empire of imaginary money is not in itself a force for grief” – had infinitely more in common with a John Pilger piece in the Guardian than it had with a modern-day Telegraph editorial.

But Wharton is now 90, as is W.F. Deedes who also still writes a weekly column, and when these two men die or retire Conrad Black will, effectively, take complete control of the Daily Telegraph.

Before too long many of its old-school Tory readers will also be dead; Black realises that as much as anyone, and he seems to be very consciously pitching the paper more and more at a metropolitan New Right readership, aiming to follow where The Times has led.

Within five years or so, I predict that the Telegraph will have followed the other three national broadsheets into running a daily tabloid-size supplement.

And so back to Charles Moore’s introduction to the new “Beebwatch” feature, notable mainly for the way that, like the Telegraph editorial during the 2001 election which I dissected in my essay “Conservatism against itself” elsewhere on this site, it displays a curious historical amnesia, a lack of understanding of historical British conservative beliefs, a blind, bludgeoning insistence that the current neo-con certainties are all that matters.

This is shown by the sheer number of “BBC mental assumptions” which Moore claims to be exclusively those of the “fairly soft Left”, but which were in fact very common among Telegraph readers and writers until the mid-1980s, and still not unknown among some Telegraph readers even today.

The litany is a good explanation of why old-school conservatives have, completely unexpectedly, fallen out of love with the paper, to the point where the web forum of the resolutely traditionalist Conservative Democratic Alliance describes it as “treacherous” and calls it the “Torygraph” as an insult.

First and foremost of these supposedly Left-wing “mental assumptions” is that “American power is a bad thing”, in fact quite a common assumption in Telegraph circles until the Conrad Black takeover; even those of the Old Right who appeared to be pro-American often held the view merely because they thought it was a lesser evil than the Soviet Union, not because they were particularly supportive of the imperialistic spread of neo-liberal capitalism.

Much the same applies to Moore’s citing of the alleged BBC line that “the Palestinians are in the right and Israel isn’t”. I am not trying to defend the anti-Semitism of the old landowning classes which led many of them to covertly support the Nazis and influenced some of them to become blatant Hitler supporters, but it happened, it existed, you lose more than you gain if you try to write it out of history, and it influenced their paper of choice, the Daily Telegraph, to be the most anti-Israel paper when the modern state of Israel was founded in 1948. I do not support the extreme anti-Israel views expressed then, but it proves a point; scepticism of Israel is not confined to the Left.

Moore then goes on to cite the BBC’s supposed bias towards the idea that “the European Union is a good thing”, when the Telegraph was generally supportive of EEC membership in the Macmillan / Heath days when the Tory party supported our involvement in Europe.

He goes on to accuse “BBC lefties” of believing that “environmentalists are public-spirited and ‘big business’ is not”, another fatally simplistic view. A scepticism of big business, especially in its effect on the environment when manifested in intensive farming methods, was once, and in some places still is, a defining quality of many English shire conservatives, a group of people for whom the Telegraph was once effectively a kind of spiritual companion (the battle for the paper’s ownership in the mid-1980s was actually the battle for the soul of an entire political movement, because the Telegraph historically had more in common with the Communist Morning Star than it did with, say, the Daily Express, and the Telegraph has betrayed its old audience in the shires almost as much as the Morning Star would betray its own core readership if it became an out-and-out supporter of free-market economics).

Moore continues in the same vein, asserting that if the BBC produces a drama about genetically-modified foods then it will inevitably be against them, and claiming that the anti-GM position is an exclusively Left-wing one based on the very flimsy evidence that a “recent” (actually more than a year ago) BBC drama which took an anti-GM slant was written by Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, and Ronan Bennett (described as “a supporter of Sinn Fein/IRA”, a highly dubious equation of support for an Irish Nationalist political position with support for terrorism, a prejudice which was admittedly always there in the Telegraph and has not been imported from North America in the Conrad Black era).

But Prince Charles and the former Tory MP Sir Richard Body, two of Britain’s strongest anti-GM campaigners, are hardly men of the Left; they are orthodox conservatives whose spiritual home has historically been the Daily Telegraph.

One wonders whether Charles Moore really is this politically ignorant, or whether he is simply hiding his true knowledge so that Conrad Black doesn’t think he is “a closet pinko beneath the skin”.

After peddling the oft-repeated (in the right-wing press) myth that the first Countryside Alliance march in 1998 was not mentioned at all in The Archers on BBC Radio 4, Charles Moore goes on to object to a Radio 4 documentary on how the post-war Labour government “built the New Jerusalem”.

While it is true that many Telegraph men at the time despised the Attlee administration (not least Evelyn Waugh, the father of Auberon, who claimed that it felt for him “like living under occupation”), the economic system it established – now decried as “statist” and “oppressive” by Conrad Black and his New Right friends – was good enough, albeit modified and slimmed down, for five different Tory Prime Ministers before Thatcher finally eroded it.

Of course there are opinions which Moore claims to be standard BBC thinking – pro-abortion, supportive of the Nationalist position on Northern Ireland, supportive of the equal rights of homosexual and heterosexual couples – which are pretty much standard issue liberal-Left stuff, but it is remarkable how many of the views he lumps in as “leftie” have a history in the pre-1986 Daily Telegraph and its attendant thinking.

Certainly I have come across a good few conservatives who agree with Andrew Gilligan that, following the Iraq war, Baghdad is “more deadly than under Saddam”, a statement that Moore presumes can only come from a “BBC leftie”. Moore’s dissection of the BBC world affairs editor John Simpson’s analysis of American policy towards Libya claims that “assumption of the stupidity of the American public”, “the assumption of the dishonesty of US Republican administration” and “the condescension of the phrase ‘only the Americans'” are views exclusive to the liberal-Left, when they could all have found a perfect natural home in the Telegraph of, say, the 1960s.

Gratifyingly, the Daily Express of Wednesday 10th September ran a long feature in the centre pages supporting the cultural position of the BBC and attacking the Telegraph’s slant, seemingly further confirming the utter intellectual polarisation of the Right in Britain today (a highly significant example of this is the Telegraph and Mail taking opposite sides on the David Kelly / Andrew Gilligan / BBC affair).

But the Charles Moore article which launched the new “Beebwatch” section of the Daily Telegraph is a fine example of the paper’s steady rotting decline; it has abandoned everything that was ever decent and civilised about British (perhaps, English) conservatism and replaced it with an impotent and self-contradictory rage against modern British liberal values, combined with an indefensible deference towards the worst of US Republican values and attitudes. It is a fine example of the intellectual decay of the British Right, in large part due to the Thatcher / Reagan / Bush / Black / Murdoch influence.

Quite apart from anything else, the old Telegraph would always have defended the idea of the BBC, however much they may have felt it leaned overtly to the Left or was becoming too liberal-permissive (common objections in the Hugh Carleton Greene era of the 1960s) because they thought an unrestricted American-style broadcasting free-for-all was a worse option.

I don’t entirely agree with that anti-commercialism view, but it’s certainly a lesser evil than the wild, virulent anti-BBC rhetoric that comes from the Telegraph today.

The fact that the editor of the Daily Telegraph would genuinely now seem to prefer a Britain without the BBC, and therefore left open to what should be recognised (but in the New Right worldview isn’t) as the most anti-conservative broadcasting structure imaginable, is a sign of how low the British Conservative Right has sunk.

Update: November 2004

Since the above article was written, Conrad Black’s career has been very publicly destroyed in the most comprehensive way imaginable, a satisfying outcome for everyone from the Left to the Old Right. For the former it has brought some respite, in that a prominent publisher of neoconservative propaganda has been brought down at a time of relentlessly depressing news on other fronts, and for the latter it has probably been the most pleasing development since Nick Leeson’s dubious activities brought down Baring’s Bank in 1995, giving (in their mind) some kind of justification to their view that “jumped-up oiks” should not be trusted with ancient British Establishment institutions.

There have recently been a few articles critical of aspects of Israeli government policy, and revealing the warnings of possible consequences that were given to the British government before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which have suggested that the grotesque bias and the betrayal of its readership’s long-held interests and allegiances which characterised the Black era may be in retreat, at least to a certain extent.

Reading the hysterically overexcited coverage of George W. Bush’s re-election to the US presidency, however, the new ownership of the Barclay Brothers and the new editorship of Martin Newland do not seem to have cured the cancer – potentially endangering to the very existence of the world, let alone global political stability – that Black placed in the Telegraph’s bloodstream.

Quite apart from an accelerated embrace of popular culture – in its edition of 15th November 2004 the Telegraph runs a diary by the head of the independent record label Domino Records, who boasts that the band Franz Ferdinand have been invited to the Queen’s Christmas ball at Buckingham Palace, as blatant a red rag to the paper’s old readership as anything published in the Black era – the paper seems to have retained the tendency which all too often goes with the embrace of popular culture on the Right, namely a belief that anyone who does not share its quasi-religious support for the foreign policy of the nation where most popular culture essentially originates is somehow a dissenter, a lesser being (it may well be time for the cultural Left to admit that sniffy disdain for popular culture is quite simply not worth getting upset about in the current climate, and may even hide a set of views that the vast majority of Leftists could sympathise with).

As Fallujah lay in ruins, the Telegraph’s editorial of 13th November 2004 cursorily dismissed all accusations that the approach of the US military was heavy-handed and deeply flawed, and that the US forces were using tactics which are rightly considered unacceptable in the British Army, as “snobbish”.

What the Telegraph now calls “snobbish” is merely the natural, instinctive voice of British conservatism that the Telegraph articulated for decades until 1986, and to a certain extent (very largely under Max Hastings’ influence) even after that. It is a view held by many life-long conservatives and “natural Telegraph readers” of this writer’s acquaintance, and has been publicly expressed by a number of senior British diplomats and civil servants in the Foreign Office, who are historically more likely to be on the broad Right than on the broad Left. It has been particularly passionately stated by the current Archbishop of Canterbury, who holds an Establishment position which is generally regarded as more important and more worthy of respect by Telegraph readers than by, say, Guardian or Independent readers. Just like the Tory party itself, the Telegraph is utterly failing to capture the mood of the nation and realise that the sheer scale of opposition to the US military-industrial complex and Israeli expansionism is creating a genuine demand for political and ideological alternatives, which the political mainstream is simply not responding to.

The suspicious timing of Boris Johnson’s sacking from the shadow Cabinet – the same weekend that he wrote a Sunday Telegraph article bravely criticising the living conditions in Palestinian refugee camps, and an article on his website attacking the British government for using the royal prerogative to sign a treaty allowing the US to extradite British citizens for trial on even the flimsiest evidence – confirms that the Tory party is utterly failing to read the signs, and instead is continuing in a neo-Thatcherite direction which is practically indistinguishable from what the leader of the Labour Party is offering (the key political difference between the present climate and that of the 1980s), thus greatly reducing the choice on offer for the British electorate.

Faced with an ever more arrogantly triumphalist neoconservatism at its main rival paper, Rupert Murdoch’s ever more emasculated tabloid Times, the Telegraph still seems to be making the same foolish mistake. It seems as though Conrad Black’s hideous legacy will haunt both the paper and the wider British conservative movement for far longer than it should.

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