The Noble Liar: How and Why the BBC Distorts the News to Promote a Liberal Agenda by Robin Aitken

Do we need a book to tell us the BBC is biassed in favour of every progressive nostrum? One of my many weaknesses as a conservative is that I cannot bring myself, except on rare occasions, to get really angry about the Corporation’s coverage of current affairs.

It seems to me that it is not so difficult to detect and discount the preconceptions which inform its coverage, and to appreciate the work of the many excellent journalists who are employed there.

Robin Aitken, who worked for the BBC for 25 years, is made of sterner stuff. He is in a state of bubbling indignation with the bias he finds:

“The BBC has wholeheartedly thrown its lot in with the liberal reformers; there has been no ‘impartiality’ on any of the big moral issues of the past half-century. In every instance, the socially conservative argument has been depicted as callous, reactionary and dogmatic. Any counterargument to the prevailing liberal consensus is now ignored altogether; social conservative voices are conspicuous by their absence on mainstream current affairs programmes.”

Aitken accuses the Corporation of maintaining “an elaborately constructed pretence” of neutrality, while acting as

“a strident cheerleader for globalisation, immigration and ‘diversity’ (a quality which, in BBC usage, is always to be applauded, even though academic studies have shown that too much diversity lessens community cohesion).”

He suggests that in “BBC-world we are all liberals now”, and posits the existence of

“a nexus of media interests which is militantly liberal in outlook, and which has systematically destroyed the foundational beliefs and practices which informed the lives of previous generations. This process started in the post-war years, gathered strength in the 1960s and, since then, has enjoyed virtually uninterrupted success in the furtherance of its goals (the EU referendum is the exception and, at the time of writing, it is not clear whether the wishes of the voters will actually result in Britain leaving the EU, such is the ferocity of the fightback against Brexit).”

He illustrates his thesis with many striking observations. It is true, as he says, that BBC people quite often go on nowadays to be heads of Oxbridge colleges – by his count there are now six of these. And it is also true that our universities and schools contain a far smaller proportion of teachers who think of themselves as conservative than was the case only a generation or two ago. There has been a long march by self-righteous liberals through many of our institutions.

Divorce, feminism, mental health, abortion, euthanasia, Christianity, Islam: on all these questions, the BBC tends to promote  whatever the latest progressive orthodoxy may be, and to ignore the huge volume of evidence which contradicts that orthodoxy. Aitken examines these issues in turn, and points to the inconvenient facts.

In Aitken’s view, the BBC propagates “a series of noble lies in pursuit of a political agenda”, but “sooner or later people will realise they have been duped”, which will be “a moment of great peril for the established order”.

One of the errors he makes here is to exaggerate the credulity of the public. Go into any pub in the land and one has always been able to find people who do not believe a word either politicians or journalists (even BBC journalists) tell them.

A second error is to exaggerate the influence of the BBC. Towards the end of the book, he glances across the Atlantic:

“When President Trump was merely ‘Candidate Trump’ on the campaign trail, he hammered home one message in particular; he turned on the mainstream US media and accused it of peddling ‘fake news’. As anyone who has had any experience of US journalists will know, they do not, as a group, lack self-esteem; on the contrary, American media folk are monumentally self-important. Trump’s assault on their profession was bitterly resented and dismissed as the words of an inveterate liar who lacked the righteous virtues they see themselves possessing.”

But as Aitken points out, proving the facts in a story are correct – something over which The New York Times and other liberal American newspapers take inordinate pains – does not in itself exonerate the media from the charge of printing fake news:

“Trump wasn’t saying that the press and the TV networks were getting the facts wrong, rather, they were telling the wrong stories. And Trump had a good point: it’s a question of fairness, not facts. A report can be accurate and yet deeply unfair whether by selection or omission. ‘Fake news’ is not so much about factual inaccuracy as about ideological bias…”

Aitken often implies there can be such a thing as journalism written without bias. That strikes me as a very dubious assumption. Whether one is a historian or a journalist, one can to some extent be aware of one’s own assumptions, and can try to admit these to the reader. But one cannot write without preconceptions, or bias as it will be called by one’s critics.

He also tends to underestimate the extent to which egregious errors, though they may persist for a long time, do eventually tend to be noticed and perhaps even corrected. So immigration, which for a long time was a suppressed subject, is now quite openly debated. And the oddity of Western feminists standing up for Islamic dress codes is more and more noted, even though the discrepancy has not been resolved.

Part of Aitken’s horror is at the “trashy, tawdry and shallow” culture which we inhabit, and which he believes to be “in large measure the creation of our media”. But he does admit, on page 128, that the “collapse in the prestige, influence and centrality of Christianity in Britain” has its roots a long way before the BBC. Arnold wrote Dover Beach, about the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Faith, in 1867.

The French Revolution, for which the men of letters of the Enlightenment had created the intellectual climate, was a more savage onslaught on the Church than anything perpetrated by the errant successors of Lord Reith. To this day, one can establish someone’s political outlook by asking whether they are for or against the Revolution.

Burke wrote a great counterblast to the Revolution. Who in recent years has written a great counterblast to liberalism, or a great defence of conservatism? It is no good blaming everything on the liberals. When the conservative case is not made, it is likely to go by default.

Michael Wharton, who worked at the BBC for ten years before Colin Welch recruited him in 1957 to write the Peter Simple column for The Daily Telegraph, made wonderful, despondent jokes about the whole “left-wing package deal”, personified in a range of ludicrous characters. There are virtually no jokes in Aitken’s book, but it maps a world of self-obsessed and irresistibly comic liberals against whom the pendulum may already have begun to swing.