There is nothing new about Conservative exasperation with the BBC. Some of us remember Nigel Lawson’s impatience with Brian Redhead over 30 years ago on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, setting a pattern we have become familiar with.
I suppose the difference is the collapse of professionalism. There has long been a general understanding that the BBC consensus was on the Left, but also that they took pride in seeking to tell the truth. They would at least seek to champion free speech, open debate, impartiality – to present the arguments both sides of any argument. This was known as “public service broadcasting”.
Officially, this is still in place. However, the memoirs of John Humphrys have brought home to us how there is no longer any pretence to uphold them in practice. Often the BBC is used as a generic term for the broadcast media – Channel 4 News, Sky News and Robert Peston on ITV feel under even less constraint to give Conservatives a fair hearing.
All this culminates in a tone of perpetual crisis on the airwaves facing the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. In some ways, the media should be friendly towards him. Professionally, he comes from the same tribe. Temperamentally, he is easy going and tolerant. Politically, he favours a free and independent media.
Yet he encounters a wall of hostility. “Donnez moi un break,” he mutters occasionally. His sense of humour must help him retain a sense of perspective. It must also be heartening that it is by no means clear that the public thinks what the broadcasters tell them to think. Opinion polling is an erratic guide. But, to put it cautiously, the pundits have yet to convince the electorate that Johnson is unfit for office.
This week, we have seen the most absurd double standards regarding the complaint about the Prime Minister’s dubbing Hilary Benn’s European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act, the Surrender Act. My understanding of this legislation is that it requires the UK agreeing to an extension of EU membership on any terms the EU dictates. Surrender sounds about right in terms of the substance – I suppose we could say “Capitulation Act” or “Enslavement Act”. Paul Goodman said yesterday on this site that we seek to avoid such synonyms as “simply a matter of taste” and instead choose the real title.
Others might have the confidence to challenge the essential point of whether “surrender” was an accurate description of the law our MPs have agreed to. But generally, they have found it easier to contend that anyone making the argument is using “inflammotory” language. The hypocrisy of such sanctimonious complaints is staggering to behold. Henry provided some examples yesterday of hateful comments made by Labour MPs including Shadow Cabinet members – we have had John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, calling for the lynching of Esther McVey, the Labour MP David Lammy describing Conservative MPs as Nazis; the list is very long and grows by the day.
In any case, most Conservatives will have seen the faces of the Left contorted with hate at some stage or another. It might be in Parliament, in a town hall, at a student union meeting, or at a protest outside a Conservative Party Conference. For them, hatred is a fuel, just as petrol is for a car. Conservatives are simply wired differently. We tend to do some gardening, or watch the cricket, or read a PG Wodehouse novel, or go to church. Perhaps even try to earn a living.
Naturally, we can find examples of Conservatives getting angry and swearing, or of socialists playing tennis or sipping sherry. But the suggestion that inflammatory language is happening equally on both sides is just not true. It is as bogus as the “theory of moral equivalence” during the Cold War which suggests that the United States was just as bad as the Soviet Union. Of course, the hate is overwhelmingly coming from the Left. The charges of Conservatives – such as this week against Johnson and Geoffrey Cox – using “inappropriate” language are synthetic, opportunistic and self-serving.
As Douglas Murray says:
“It is true that political language can be febrile and that it certainly can deteriorate. But just as there is such a thing as honest offence taking, so there is also dishonest offence taking. And if there is a political advantage to gained by behaving dishonestly then is it possible that some people might seize that opportunity?”
Even before the disgraceful intervention by Paula Sherriff, the Labour MP for Dewsbury, seeking to exploit the death of Jo Cox to restrict criticism of delaying Brexit, we had Emma Hardy, the Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle contriving to take offence at a reference by Geoffrey Cox to a “when did you stop beating your wife question.”
What is so irresponsible about spraying around false claims about language inciting violence is that it undermines attention for genuine instances. That is similar how casual accusations of someone being a Nazi, fascist, or racist devalue such labels and leave them worthless even when they valid.
When it comes to delivering a fair-minded verdict on Johnson, a lot of the complaints against him come across as displacement activity. His record was a success as Mayor of London, notching up tangible achievements. As Foreign Secretary, his accomplishments were left impressive but then he was constrained. When seeking to be Conservative leader, he put forward a clear plan for Brexit – that it must happen, deal or no deal, by October 31st. A majority of MPs are determined to thwart that and thus prevent the Government from functioning. Yet they are also afraid of the logical alternative of facing a General Election to resolve matters. Most assume that despite this we will have an election, although some suggest the “dead Parliament” could continue, in Zombie form, into 2020.
Either way, time is on Johnson’s side. “Put up or shut up,” is the message to MPs. Let the Government proceed, or else bring down the Government. But spare us this cowardly dithering. The electorate’s impatience at delay is scarcely likely to be solved by further delay. Obfuscation and fake indignation from broadcasters and Labour MPs may cause the Prime Minister some discomfort. Yet tactical successes by the Opposition may magnify their strategic failings. If Johnson keeps strong, he will eventually be rewarded at the polls.