Marcus Stead

Journalist Marcus Stead

Archive for May 2012

Biased? Definitely. But Does the BBC Know It?

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When you’re in a hole, should you keep digging? When you’re having a bad night in the casino, should you keep doubling up on black until you’ve lost your jacket, your car, your house? Should you give an alcoholic more drink, just to give them a temporary reprieve from their misery?

Probably not, but that doesn’t seem to stop the powers that be in Europe from living in denial. Sooner or later, they are going to have to swallow that bitter pill they’ve been putting off taking for years, and accept that the euro was doomed from day one. Furthermore, they’ll have to accept that political union won’t work, because the people don’t want it. Free trade? Yes. Friendship? Yes. Co-operation where it makes sense? Yes. Political union? No.

Europe is a place of varying cultures, climates, languages, histories and attitudes. It makes sense for the peoples of each nation to be proud of, and wish to maintain them.

The BBC, too, is living in denial, and is, in many ways, an extension of the political establishment.

After many years of side-lining thoughtful people who predicted the collapse of the euro, by prefixing their comments with loaded words like ‘Europhobe’ (a phobia is an irrational fear, concerns about the EU are anything but), and giving them limited airtime in comparison to Europhiles, they are still denying the blindingly obvious.

On the morning of 24 May 2012, BBC Radio Five Live began the 9am news bulletin with the empty statement: “European Union leaders ended six hours of talks in Brussels in the early hours of this morning with a pledge to make economic growth a priority.”
Well, that’s a relief, isn’t it? What else could they possibly have said? ‘We have decided to put this on-going crisis on the back burner until further notice’? Hardly!

After the news, presenter Nicky Campbell introduced the phone-in by introducing an ‘expert’ on European financial affairs called Graham Bishop. It’s a relief to hear somebody knows what’s going on and where we’re heading. Based on the events of the last few months, the governments of the EU, the markets, and the financial sector certainly don’t seem to. At last, it seemed Campbell had cracked it by finding this man and bringing him on to the programme to put all our minds at rest.

Ah, but hang on. A quick bit of online research teaches us that Mr Bishop is a long-term advocate of much greater political, as well as financial union. He is entitled to his opinion, but he should have received a far more accurate introduction by Campbell.

Before the interview began, Campbell introduced veteran Conservative MP and Maastricht rebel, Bill Cash, as well as Sony Kapoor, chairman of the Eurozone think-tank ‘Redefine’. Looking at its website, the overall tone is one of belief in the EU and Eurozone project, but that it should be subject to radical reform.

So, before the questioning had even begun, Europhiles outnumbered Euro-sceptics two to one. Why was this? Kapoor was invited to speak first, and said that the euro could survive and flourish ‘with reform’. Bishop spoke next, and said it ‘remains a good idea’, and that things would be worse if each country had kept its own currency, a statement that went unchallenged by Campbell.

Nine minutes into the programme, Bishop and Kapoor had spoken several times (Kapoor spoke about ‘the march of history’), but before Cash was invited to speak, the first caller, ‘Kevin from Norfolk’ had his say. He said: “We should move faster towards a United States of Europe. We, the British people, need to join the euro as soon as we possibly can.”

Where on earth do they find these people? As far as I can tell, it’s only the long-time left-wing bore Will Hutton, a former Bilderberg attendee with his own agenda, and ‘Kevin from Norfolk’, who believe Britain would still be better off joining the euro. Even the likes of Michael Heseltine and mega-enthusiasts in the Liberal Democrats tend to keep their mouths shut these days.

It was a full 10 minutes into the programme before Cash was invited to speak. While others were given a soft opening by Campbell, he began his questioning of Cash by asking: “Bill Cash, are you spitting out your kedgeree yet?”

As the programme continued, listeners heard horror stories about what would happen if Britain left the EU, using feeble arguments about how the EU wouldn’t want to trade with us. Not once did they point out that the EU sells more to us than we sell to them, so therefore it would be in their interests to sign a free-trade agreement with us, just as more than 90 non-EU countries around the would have done.

Campbell himself has plenty of previous form when it comes to pushing the euro’s cause. Way back on Sunday, 18 February, 2001, a few months before the general election, Campbell fronted a programme called ‘Referendum Street’, which went out on prime-time BBC One.

In it, the residents of a North London street were intensely canvassed by a team of politicians, journalists and businesspeople, from both sides of the argument, with a referendum taking place at the end of the weekend.

The ‘Yes’ campaign included, surprise, surprise, Will Hutton and the late Labour MP, Tony Banks. The ‘No’ campaign included David Mellor, who had long before become a figure of ridicule, and Austin Mitchell MP.

When the result was announced, the residents had voted ‘Yes’ to joining the euro. However, all was not as it seemed. An investigation by Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens revealed that some residents in the street, who were firmly against joining the euro, hadn’t even been invited to participate in the programme.

As a former BBC freelancer myself, I have seen the institutional pro-EU bias in action. I am not alone in my thinking. To quote Andrew Marr:  “The BBC is not impartial or neutral. It’s a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.”

It’s far from certain whether most of those who live inside the BBC bubble even realise this bias exists. From their days in the Oxbridge dormitories, through to the day they die, they rarely meet people who disagree with their world view. Those who are occasionally invited on to TV and radio programmes to give a different perspective are dismissed behind the scenes, by polite people as ‘swivel-eyed Little Englanders’ and by the less polite as ‘fascists’ and ‘bigots’.

The now-retired newsreader, Peter Sissons, who spent a considerable chunk of his career elsewhere before joining the BBC, summed up, in more specific terms than Marr, how the BBC mindset works in his autobiography: Whatever the United Nations is associated with is good — it is heresy to question any of its activities. The EU is also a good thing, but not quite as good as the UN. Soaking the rich is good, despite well-founded economic arguments that the more you tax, the less you get. And Government spending is a good thing, although most BBC ­people prefer to call it investment, in line with New Labour’s terminology.

“All green and environmental groups are very good things. Al Gore is a saint. George Bush was a bad thing, and thick into the bargain. Obama was not just the Democratic Party’s candidate for the White House, he was the BBC’s. Blair was good, Brown bad, but the BBC has now lost interest in both.

“Trade unions are mostly good things, especially when they are fighting BBC managers. Quangos are also mostly good, and the reports they produce are usually handled uncritically. The Royal Family is a bore. Islam must not be offended at any price, although ­Christians are fair game because they do nothing about it if they are offended.”

An example of Sissons’s claims in action came earlier the same week on the Victoria Derbyshire phone-in, which came from an abortion clinic. At the hand-over between Campbell and Derbyshire shortly before 10am, Campbell introduced it as ‘a very special programme’.

Critics of the idea point out that presenting the programme from an abortion clinic effectively turned it into an advert. Maybe, maybe not, but I’d believe the BBC’s coverage was balanced, if, on another morning, they presented it from a Roman Catholic-run centre that offers counselling to women who have suffered psychological problems following an abortion. We all know the BBC wouldn’t dream of doing that. Christian values? Nah, they’re a bit too stuffy and ‘old Britain’ for them.

The brilliant Yes, Minister co-writer, Sir Anthony Jay, adds another layer to the argument, and wrote in the Telegraph that the BBC has an anti-business bias. He said: “[The BBC has] a remarkable lack of interest in industry and a deep hostility to business and commerce……Very few of the BBC producers and executives have any real experience of the business world, and as so often happens, this ignorance, far from giving rise to doubt, increases their certainty.”

The BBC’s first business editor, Jeff Randall, was brought in by then-Director General Greg Dyke, who heard alarm bells ringing in his head when the BBC failed to cover the Vodafone bid for German company Mannesmann, which was, at the time, the world’s biggest takeover bid.

Dyke wisely understood the need for change, and told senior news executives that ‘we need to bring someone in who’s not like us’. Randall, with his vast experience with the Telegraph and elsewhere covering commerce and finance, was appointed to his role.

Randall was told by Dyke not to go native, but to be an agent of change. However, Randall openly admits he never really fitted in at the BBC. Speaking to the Observer, he said: “On the whole, they treated business as if it was a criminal activity. I was there to rattle cages and, if necessary, make myself unpopular to force business up the news agenda.

“They didn’t distinguish between me being passionate about business and me being an apologist for business.

“I never really felt like a BBC person. I was always an outsider looking in. I challenged a lot of values. There are certain issues the BBC regards as basic truths.”

Randall highlighted the NHS as one example where the BBC’s institutional bias shines through. He said: “Most people at the BBC would think it’s a good thing for the government to spend more money on the NHS and it goes unchallenged. There’s a section of opinion out there who think it’s throwing money down the drain.”
Asked by the interviewer whether BBC journalists ever give Labour ministers a hard time, he said: “They attack Labour ministers, but usually for not being sufficiently left-wing.”

One area where Randall really did feel he changed the tone of the debate was on immigration. On one occasion, he wore Union Jack cufflinks into work but was rebuked with ‘You can’t do that, that’s like the National Front!’. This horrid generalisation is not only a form of bigotry, but shows a lack of regard for the concept of Britain as a nation state.

Despite this absurd episode, Randall believes he made progress in this area. He said: “At the risk of sounding immodest, I think I changed the terms of the debate. Whenever we had an anti-immigration interviewee, it was a Nazi with a tattoo on his face who looked like he’d just bitten the head off a cat. I pointed out that it’s the white working class who have to make immigration work. Immigrants don’t move to Hampstead, mate.”

Are Marr, Sissons, Randall and, erm, Stead all wrong? Probably not. All four are examples of people who had experience of working in the commercial sector before entering the BBC. The institutional bias is very real indeed, and since Greg Dyke’s departure, steps to correct it seem to have been stopped. To an extent, at least, Dyke understood the problem, and acknowledged he was of that ilk, and his successor, Mark Thompson, has admitted the BBC had a problem with a ‘massive bias to the left’, but crucially added ‘in the past’. He seems to think things have improved in recent times, but declined to give practical examples as to how and what has taken place.

Following his recent electioral victory, London Mayor Boris Johnson put it both succinctly and bluntly when he said: No wonder – and I speak as one who has just fought a campaign in which I sometimes felt that my chief opponent was the local BBC news – the prevailing view of Beeb newsrooms is, with honourable exceptions, statist, corporatist, defeatist, anti-business, Europhile and, above all, overwhelmingly biased to the left.” Johnson said the corporation treated Eurosceptic views as “if they were vaguely mad and unpleasant” and “completely ignored” the private sector.”

Johnson added that he believes that Thompson’s successor should be a Tory. This is not desirable, and is overly-confrontational. What is required is a Director General who has experience in both programme making and business – somebody who will massively slim down the layers of management and streamline the decision-making process, while having a sound understanding of public service broadcasting and where the corporation’s priorities should lie.

Importantly, he or she needs to get to grips with the issue of institutional bias. Journalists from non-establishment perspectives need to be appointed to key positions: euro-sceptics, traditional Christians, people who believe in the small-state, or the death penalty. Such people are a rare species in the BBC offices and corridors at present, but in the real world they exist in their millions.

Of course, they will be expected to behave neutrally when in work and present a balanced perspective on all stories, but the word ‘balance’ is the key, and this could be better achieved by bringing in people from very different backgrounds from the ‘establishment’ BBC line.

The issue of the upcoming collapse of the euro must be a very difficult pill to swallow for BBC types. When it happens (and we are now talking ‘when’, rather than ‘if’) they will be forced to accept that all the smug assumptions they have been making at Islington dinner parties for years have been proved utterly wrong. It was the euro-sceptics, from the traditional left, to the Daily Mail reading right, who can take all the credit for having seen it coming a mile off.

Until then, the BBC seems happy to continue its deluded fantasy of an EU wonderland.

Written by Marcus Stead

May 25, 2012 at 4:14 pm