Report gives BBC News a (reasonably) clean bill of health 

24 June 2007

On the way home Friday evening, The Now Show, among its other targets, took a pot-shot at ITV. One of the comics spoke about a visit he’d made in 2003 to Las Vegas, Nevada. The taxi driver said, we love you Brits because you like war. Not like the French, pas du tout. Not like those faggots. He went to this 1950s-era diner, lovingly re-created with James Dean posters on the walls, Buddy Holly on the juke box, “No Blacks”? signs in the door an’ all. (The last one might be apocryphal.) He wanted a burger and French fries. Oh no, sunny Jim. They’re ‘Freedom fries’ now. This is the invasion of Iraq. The Americans were boycotting all things French. America wanted French support for a UN Security Council resolution supporting the war. France said non. Payback’s a bitch.

Anyway, the comic ordered his hamburger and ‘freedom fries’, then remarked to his friends that they?re still selling hamburgers, the eponym being a town in an ‘old European’ country that, like France, said (in its case) nein. At which point the waitress (who clearly knew more about McDonald’s television commercials than history or geography) asserted that the hamburger was named after the baddie in the TV ads!

Only in America. The crux of his little talk was how ridiculous boycotts are. After all, the Israelis are hardly going to change their policies just to rescue some teacher training places in a far-away land. No, all boycotts do is to make ignorant people even more ignorant. A bit like giving cocaine to a drunken comedian, he said – just makes an already pathological situation worse. Two exceptions. One was South Africa, when the rugby boycott really did hit ’em where it hurt. The other? We should all refuse to use our phones after midnight. That way, ITV would be forced to scrap its late night quiz shows and replace them instead with Edward Woodward and repeats of The Equalizer. We’d all be a lot better off and the world would be a better place.

Oh, he said he was very much against the second Gulf war, but for the sake of balance he was also very much for it. This gives a clue as to the major media story of the week, best summed up in a single phrase: the BBC isn’t representative of the population it serves. It is noteworthy, also, that much of the media commentariat has treated such a major story with nothing more than an embarrassed, studious silence. This example of bias by omission as opposed to bias by commission (a comment on The Times message board claims that no major media outlets in the States picked this up) is interesting but far from surprising – after all, it queers Auntie’s precious halo.

This really places in a quandary those of us who value very highly the BBC as a national institution. I think the Corporation has been badly served by the current generation of managers. I have never thought of the BBC as overtly biased, although it is perfectly true that the arts section of society has a reputation for being left-wing, and that, while Auntie might not be permitted to recruit on the basis of political or cultural outlook to redress the balance, all employees, regardless of their own background and outlook, must be aware that many of the people they are supposed to be serving have views, backgrounds, ways of life and opinions that do not conform to its own comfortable consensus.

The liberal consensus alleged to exist at the BBC is mirrored not only in the media in general, but across the wider creative arts – it’s taken almost a full week for any mention of this story to appear in this blog. Contrast this with anything usable as a stick with which to beat Fox News and other bêtes noirs du jour. Let’s face it: there is nothing wrong in being pro-British. There is nothing wrong in having a nationalist as opposed to an internationalist outlook. There is nothing wrong in being patriotic and flying the flag for your country. There is nothing wrong in being pro-American. There is nothing wrong in being anti-Europe. There is nothing wrong in being anti-immigration. There is nothing wrong in supporting a free market economy. There is nothing wrong in fostering a British identity, and encouraging the emergence of hyphenated-Britons on the American model, based around a shared, common British culture based on its Judaeo-Christian heritage to which all can subscribe regardless of ethnicity. And, speaking as one who finds much to criticize in both papers, in particular their Europhobia and anti-BBC bias, there is nothing wrong in reading the Daily Mail, or The Sun. Perhaps some of these creative types should give those papers a read. Might do them good.

There is also nothing wrong with upholding small-c conservative values and common sense. This week’s The Moral Maze dealt with the subject of impartiality, and it is to the BBC’s credit that, unlike some of its supporters here, it gave due air-time to this report and gave over a heavyweight discussion programme to dissect some of the issues involved. Any organization that puts Melanie Phillips on air can’t be accused of muzzling dissenting voices, the more so when she asks you to imagine the BBC making a programme supporting the Iraq invasion, or opposing change in the Conservative party or the Ulster peace process. (She might also have added climate change to the list.) That’s the BBC’s illiberal consensus, according to Melanie Phillips.

It was also telling listening to Any Questions this week, from – of all things – an arts college, which reliably hissed Ruth Lea for suggesting that climate change might not be man-made after all. After all, six, eight thousand years ago it was warmer than it is today, according to Ruth, and how many smoke-belching factories or cars were there then? You?d think she was denying the Holocaust. Earlier, the MP David Laws commented in response to a question about Europe that Paddy Ashdown – no less – commented to him while serving as Bosnia’s UN representative what a nightmare it was doing anything in the EU that involved the Brussels government. They could never make up their minds, and the only people who were any use were the Americans, because they could say yea or nea at short notice. Predictably, he did not get a round of applause.

What really saddens me is that the post-Reithian BBC is a shadow of its former self. The Corporation’s glory days are long gone, and – with a few notable exceptions (step forward, Radio 4) – it no longer commands the respect it once did. Has the BBC got worse? Or has the rise in competition just made its failings more noticeable?

Sorry, this probably reads like an embittered whinge against a vulnerable national treasure. I continue to have a great deal of respect for the concept of the BBC, and I think that many of us who value the Corporation’s incalculable contribution to the nation’s cultural life but who believe that Auntie has stumbled several times recently, retain a lot of residual support for the BBC thanks to its history. I despair when the Corporation makes the news in this way as opposed merely to reporting it, and I weep at what has happened to a once-great national institution.

Whose fault is it? Is it the Corporation itself? Have its managers negligently allowed it to slip on one banana skin too many? Did it perceive itself too much as leaning one way or the other, and over-compensate, as it did over the Gilligan affair and accusations of political bias then? Or has it just succumbed to the onslaught from its detractors in the anything but liberal and balanced right-wing press, and an apathetic government?

Whatever, the Corporation needs to regain its sense of purpose, its respect from the population at large, a wider, more inclusive and representative outlook on the realities of life including in white, aspirational working- and lower-middle class neighbourhoods, and confidence that its broader output is as free from bias as its news has long been acknowledged to be. If it can’t, I am in two minds whether it might not be kinder to administer a coup de grâce so that, in the long view at least, the BBC will retain in the verdict of history its reputation for greatness that, for most of its life, it so richly deserved.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Liverpool, Monday 30 January 2023