Confessions of a BBC liberal
The BBC has finally come clean about its bias, says a former editor, who wrote Yes, Minister - Antony Jay
In the past four weeks there have been two remarkable changes in the public attitude to the BBC. The first and most newsworthy one was precipitated by the faked trailer of the Queen walking out of a photographic portrait session with Annie Leibovitz.
It was especially damaging because the licence fee is based on a public belief that the BBC offers a degree of integrity and impartiality which its commercial competitors cannot achieve.
...The growing general agreement that the culture of the BBC (and not just the BBC) is the culture of the chattering classes provokes a question that has puzzled me for 40 years. The question itself is simple – much simpler than the answer: what is behind the opinions and attitudes of this social group?
They are that minority often characterised (or caricatured) by sandals and macrobiotic diets, but in a less extreme form are found in The Guardian, Channel 4, the Church of England, academia, showbusiness and BBC news and current affairs. They constitute our metropolitan liberal media consensus, although the word “liberal” would have Adam Smith rotating in his grave. Let’s call it “media liberalism”.
It is of particular interest to me because for nine years, between 1955 and 1964, I was part of this media liberal consensus. For six of those nine years I was working on Tonight, a nightly BBC current affairs television programme. My stint coincided almost exactly with Harold Macmil-lan’s premiership and I do not think that my former colleagues would quibble if I said we were not exactly diehard supporters.
But we were not just anti-Macmil-lan; we were antiindustry, anti-capital-ism, antiadvertising, antiselling, antiprofit, antipatriotism, antimonarchy, antiempire, antipolice, antiarmed forces, antibomb, antiauthority. Almost anything that made the world a freer, safer and more prosperous place – you name it, we were anti it.
Although I was a card-carrying media liberal for the best part of nine years, there was nothing in my past to predispose me towards membership. I spent my early years in a country where every citizen had to carry identification papers. All the newspapers were censored, as were all letters abroad; general elections had been abolished: it was a one-party state. Yes, that was Britain – Britain from 1939 to 1945.
...So how did we get from there to here? Unless we understand that, we shall never get inside the media liberal mind. And the starting point is the realisation that there have always been two principal ways of misunderstanding a society: by looking down on it from above and by looking up at it from below. In other words, by identifying with institutions or by identifying with individuals.
To look down on society from above, from the point of view of the ruling groups, the institutions, is to see the dangers of the organism splitting apart – the individual components shooting off in different directions until everything dissolves into anarchy.
To look up at society from below, from the point of view of the lowest group, the governed, is to see the dangers of the organism growing ever more rigid and oppressive until it fossilises into a monolithic tyranny.
Those who see society in this way are preoccupied with the need for liberty, equality, self-expression, representation, freedom of speech and action and worship, and the rights of the individual. The reason for the popularity of these misunderstandings is that both views are correct as far as they go and both sets of dangers are real, but there is no “right” point of view.
The most you can ever say is that sometimes society is in danger from too much authority and uniformity and sometimes from too much freedom and variety.
In retrospect it seems pretty clear that the 1940s and 1950s were years of excessive authority and uniformity. It was certainly clear to me and my media liberal colleagues in the BBC. It was not that we in the BBC openly and publicly criticised the government on air; the BBC’s commitment to impartiality was more strictly enforced in those days.
But the topics we chose and the questions we asked were slanted against institutions and towards oppressed individuals, just as we achieved political balance by pitting the most plausible critics of government against its most bigoted supporters.
Ever since 1963 the institutions have been the villains of the media liberals. The police, the armed services, the courts, political parties, multi-national corporations – when things go wrong they are the usual suspects.
But our hostility to institutions was not – and is not – shared by the majority of our fellow citizens: most of our opinions were at odds with the majority of the audience and the electorate. Indeed the BBC’s own 2007 report on impartiality found that 57% of poll respondents said that “broadcasters often fail to reflect the views of people like me”.
There are four new factors which in my lifetime have brought about the changes that have shaped media liberalism, encouraged its spread and significantly increased its influence and importance.
The first of these is detribalisation. That our species has evolved a genetic predisposition to form tribal groups is generally accepted as an evolutionary fact. This grouping – of not more than about five or six hundred – supplies us with our identity, status system, territorial instinct, behavioural discipline and moral code.
We in the BBC were acutely detribalised; we were in a tribal institution, but we were not of it. Nor did we have any geographical tribe; we lived in commuter suburbs, we knew very few of our neighbours and took not the slightest interest in local government. In fact we looked down on it. Councillors were self-important nobodies and mayors were a pompous joke.
We belonged instead to a dispersed “metropolitan media arts graduate” tribe. We met over coffee, lunch, drinks and dinner to reinforce our views on the evils of apartheid, nuclear deterrence, capital punishment, the British Empire, big business, advertising, public relations, the royal family, the defence budget – it’s a wonder we ever got home.
The second factor that shaped our media liberal attitudes was a sense of exclusion. We saw ourselves as part of the intellectual elite, full of ideas about how the country should be run. Being naive in the way institutions actually work, we were convinced that Britain’s problems were the result of the stupidity of the people in charge of the country.
This ignorance of the realities of government and management enabled us to occupy the moral high ground. We saw ourselves as clever people in a stupid world, upright people in a corrupt world, compassionate people in a brutal world, libertarian people in an authoritarian world.
We were not Marxists but accepted a lot of Marxist social analysis. We also had an almost complete ignorance of market economics. That ignorance is still there. Say “Tesco” to a media liberal and the patellar reflex says, “Exploiting African farmers and driving out small shopkeepers.” The achievement of providing the range of goods, the competitive prices, the food quality, the speed of service and the ease of parking that attract millions of shoppers does not register on their radar.
The third factor arises from the nature of mass media. The Tonight programme had a nightly audience of about 8m. It was much easier to keep their attention by telling them they were being deceived or exploited by big institutions than by saying what a good job the government and the banks and the oil companies were doing.
The fourth factor is what has been called “isolation technology”. Fifty years ago people did things together much more. The older politicians we interviewed in the early Tonight days were happier in public meetings than in television studios.
In those days people went to evening meetings. They formed collective opinions. In many places party allegiance was collective and hereditary rather than a matter of individual choice based on a logical comparison of policies.
These four factors have significantly accelerated and indeed intensified the spread of media liberalism since I ceased to be a BBC employee 40 years ago.
But let’s suppose that I had stayed. Would I have remained a devotee of the metropolitan media liberal ideology that I once absorbed so readily? I have an awful fear that the answer is yes.