Matthew Barrett is a freelance journalist and Conservative activist.
The BBC is often thought, by us on the right, to be unduly influenced by the left. In turn, the British right, the Conservative-supporting newspapers especially, is often accused of being paranoid and “swivel-eyed” about the whole thing. In an amusing twist to the usual formula, the BBC is occasionally said to be biased towards the Conservatives, or some allegedly “right-wing” policy or personality – a recent attempt to pretend the BBC was stacked with Tories amounted to not much more than discovering the bloke who cleans the loos at BBC Guernsey once accidentally ticked the wrong box on his ballot paper.
If one accepts that both wings of British politics have grievances against the BBC, there are two bases on which to proceed: firstly, to think “if we both think it’s biased, it’s probably doing its job correctly”, or secondly, to believe that bias against either left or right are wrong and should be eliminated from our national broadcaster. The second option seems to me to be much healthier for our political system.
We Conservatives probably all have our favourite incidences of bias, or perhaps even our favourite seemingly partial presenter: a Flanders here, a Peston there, and so on. We also know that standards slip in part because the editors, line managers, executives and so on are themselves far from partial, no matter how much they might convince themselves otherwise. James Purnell was appointed “Director of Strategy and Digital” (£295,000 a year) in February 2013, less than four years after resigning from Gordon Brown’s Cabinet. He didn’t resign because he was sick of being a bit too political, incidentally, but was trying to effect a highly partial coup.
All of these problems are, obviously, institutional, and battling against them quickly descends into a pointless semantic discussion. Institutions, being institutions, are usually unwilling to change from without, and the slow, Gramscian “long march of the institutions” is what really achieves change. It is naturally a shame that the BBC has such low standards; it has fallen a long, long way from the days when John Reith, the first Director-General, would sack any of his employees who got a divorce. But there is very little indeed that can be done in the short-term to counter “the blob”, as Michael Gove has called the education establishment.
However, what could be achieved while the Coalition is still alive, is stopping biased BBC “stars” from being able to broadcast political messages while keeping their jobs at the national broadcaster. Again, all Conservative-minded people can reel off a list of state-subsidised “comedians”, broadcasters and media types who either actively make their anti-Conservative feelings known on television programmes, or have no qualms about exposing their bias (“I hope the Tories don’t win. Let’s not beat around the bush“, for instance, from Steven Moffat, the Doctor Who and Sherlock writer).
BBC Three, thankfully axed last week, was a prime venue for this particular style of comedy. BBC Three’s raison d’etre was to appeal to “the youth”, but there must come a point at which “the youth” must learn to drag themselves up, and not have general standards lowered for all of us; programmes like “My Man Boobs and Me”, and “Snog, Marry, Avoid?” must count as low points in the Corporation’s history.
For some time, the BBC’s commitment to impartiality in entertainment has been actively flouted. The Coalition has what one might call a moral duty to intervene, in order to rectify this failure of impartiality and ensure that the integrity of our national broadcaster can once again be upheld. The BBC should be given a strict guideline: if people want to express political opinions, they can do so – on a commercial channel. If you want to make programmes for the BBC, you refrain from commenting on politics.
Clearly exceptions would need to be made. It would be rather missing the point to ban, say, Eric Pickles from appearing on the BBC again for being a known Conservative supporter, just as it would be remiss of any new guidelines to mean we could never watch a film or TV drama starring Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson or Michael Caine again, or to stop people like Benedict Cumberbatch or Idris Elba from apolitically promoting their latest films. But we shouldn’t have to watch or listen to well-known left-wingers like Marcus Brigstocke, Jeremy Hardy, Russell Howard, and Charlie Brooker pretending to be normal comedians while also using appearances on programmes like Mock the Week to do nothing less than give political lectures, and bash, without any sense of irony, the Coalition for being terribly right-wing.
The most prominent example of this sort of ethically suspect behaviour is Stephen Fry, who spends much of his time being a “national treasure” (occasionally with mild justification), but every now and then lets the mask slip and goes into activist mode (my favourite political wisdom of Fry’s: “Let’s face it, there has been a history in Poland of right-wing Catholicism, which has been deeply disturbing for those of us who know a little history, and remember which side of the border Auschwitz was on”). A significant part of his fan base from his work over the past few decades and, more recently, QI, must loathe his political views and regret that he repeatedly makes them publicly known.
It isn’t, of course, all left-wing. Jeremy Clarkson seems to be regarded as right-wing on the rather flimsy grounds that he sometimes insults environmentalists and the French and is therefore perceived to be a Eurosceptic (he isn’t). Whatever his true opinions, he is a Times columnist, and so does make political statements and would have to make the same choice as other outspoken presenters.
Implementation of a clear division between political opinion and national broadcasting would have several benefits. Firstly, the priority – sweeping away a little of that hard-to-reach, institutional anti-Conservative bias. Secondly, it would help eliminate the blurred lines between entertainment and factual comment. Thirdly, it would cut the wage budget, a self-evident good at a time of financial weakness. Finally, it would provide a boost to commercial television. The kind of facile anti-news programmes that propagate this sort of “comedy”, and which the BBC shouldn’t want anything to do with anyway, could easily be accommodated on ITV, Sky, Channel 4 or Five – if they get worthwhile viewing figures.