Let us imagine for a moment that you are a visitor from the Planet Zarg, a civilised and agreeable world somewhere near the great gaseous star Proxima Centauri. Your spaceship landed here a few weeks ago as part of an interplanetary inclusive outreach scheme funded, on your own planet, by a sort of sophisticated private-finance initiative. Your mission is to observe Earth and its multifarious political and cultural doings, and so, with that in mind, you park your ship on Shepherd’s Bush Green, just down from the delectable Nando’s chicken franchise on the Uxbridge Road. And you start to observe.
By now, week four, you are deeply confused and befuddled. You have been watching too much television and reading too many newspapers. And the thing that confuses you is this: stuff happens, down here on Earth, or in Britain, at least – stuff which you have seen with your own eyes. And then the pundits and the broadcasters either ignore it or tell you – citing no evidence whatsoever – that precisely the opposite has happened and that what you actually saw was wrong.
Your bewilderment comes to a head while watching a very long television programme about some elections. There’s this cumbersome and derided political party led by a balding, boring man who coughs a lot and whom nobody seems to like, and quite clearly, in front of your eyes, this useless party wins the election by a mile. You know this because the results of each council vote are flashed up on the screen: ‘Con Gain’ it keeps saying. But the people on the television tell you that the Cons have done really badly and that the balding man won’t be with us for much longer because he’s so crap. And the people on the television tell you that Labour, the other party, the one everybody seems to like, has done pretty much OK, really. And you check your Zarg political factsheet for Britain and find that, actually, these Labour people have managed to poll precisely two percentage points more than they did in their worst, most disastrous ever parliamentary election (1983), when they nearly went out of business. Worse even than then, this time they were on a par with the Lib Dems.
And on this programme a strange, gangling man – who looks a bit like someone from back home, from your own planet where everybody has elongated limbs, a huge head and went to public school – hops around in front of a giant computer screen and ‘proves’ that the Cons have done very badly by the use of various coloured graphs and charts.
This, you think to yourself, is a country in denial. You begin to make some notes for immediate transmission back home under the heading ‘Things the People of Britain Are Not Allowed to Think Despite Being Palpably Self-Evident’. Here’s what you observe, in no particular order:
1) The people of Wales do not give a monkey’s about their National Assembly.
Only about nine people bothered to vote in Wales. Had such a turnout – 38 per cent, actually – occurred in a general election, we would have been bewailing the end of representative democracy as we know it. And yet on the BBC’s election special, a woman psephologist who looked like the pianist from the 1970s novelty pop group Lieutenant Pigeon assured us that the low turnout did not reflect a lack of interest in the National Assembly and, of course, everybody agreed with her. In fact, the precise reverse of her statement is an incontestable truth. The whole point of a democratic assembly for Wales is that people vote for it. They didn’t. Ergo, they couldn’t care less about it. Someone – not the Lieutenant Pigeon woman – suggested the rain may have put people off voting. Well, a bit of drizzle didn’t discourage the bleedin’ Tolpuddle Martyrs, did it? If the people of Wales felt truly committed to their expensive white elephant of an assembly, they would have taken radical political action and bought a brolly. And, incidentally, the party most avid in its support for the assembly, and which wants to give it even more powers – Plaid Cymru – did extremely badly in the election.
2) The people who voted for the BNP in Burnley (and elsewhere) did so because they don’t like their Pakistani neighbours and would like to see them ‘repatriated’.
A lot of people voted for the BNP in Burnley: they won eight council seats to become the second largest party. However, we were assured, on the BBC election-night programme and in the following day’s newspapers, that the burghers had voted BNP because of a disaffection with the previous council, or as a general protest vote. But, oh no, they certainly weren’t racist. No evidence was brought to support this oft-repeated, glib and stupid assertion – and, again, the precise reverse is true. There is one single thing for which the BNP is known – and that is its antipathy to immigration. Its leader has said he wished Britain could be ‘all-white’. Everybody knows this. Even the most disadvantaged, jelly-headed, white, trailer-trash cretin in Burnley knows that the BNP is a racist party. As one Burnley woman voter said of her Asian townsfolk the following morning, ‘I want them out. I’m sorry, I’m a bigot.’ The BNP succeeded in Burnley because it is racist.
3) The BNP, actually, did rather well in the election.
We were told time after time that the BNP contested only a small number of seats and gained comparatively few successes. Well, maybe. But it did better than any far-Right party has ever done in any British election of any kind ever, and now forms the opposition group on a major town council. It picked up five seats elsewhere. That, by my reckoning, is a strongish performance, whether we like it or not.
4) The votes lost by Labour as a result of the war in Iraq were not a ‘blip’.
The war in Iraq was repeatedly held up as an excuse for a poor Labour performance which would be arrested next time around. Don’t bet on it. Bombing Baghdad was not an unavoidable mishap which the government was powerless to stop, as seemed to be implied last Thursday night. New Labour took a decision to invade Iraq. The votes it lost through doing so will not come back, particularly within the Asian communities (and especially in Birmingham and Coventry).
5) The Conservative party did astonishingly well and won the election.
The compelling thing about the BBC’s election-night programme was that almost every assumption made by its producers gave the wrong general impression or was irrelevant. Our visitor from Zarg would have been staggered to see a whole table of people – politicians, including disaffected Conservatives, pundits, correspondents – all heaping ordure upon the sole loyal Tory present, Michael Howard. There were, incidentally, no disaffected Labour or Lib Dem politicians invited on to the show.
And we got all this stuff despite the fact that Michael Howard’s party racked up success after success. What did it really mean, the election result?
Well, first and foremost it meant that the Tories are now the largest party in local government, that they performed far better than anybody, including themselves, expected, and that they have taken a step forward to being a force at the next general election.
The result also meant that Labour did woefully, abysmally badly. These two important points should, you might argue, have been made more forcefully. Or, indeed, at all. Nobody expected the Conservative party’s scale of successes. Nobody expected things to be quite so bad for Labour. And in that, I suspect, was the problem. The programme was written before the results came in. It was based on the assumption that the Conservatives were bloody useless and would perform badly. And it was insufficiently flexible to change when reality did not meet its expectations.
Was there bias, unconscious or otherwise? Not, I think, in the people on screen. Andrew Marr is as fair-minded a correspondent as it’s possible to get. And I always assumed that Dimblebore dressed a little to the right, if anything.
But in the choice of guests, in the pre-planned graphics, in the off-base inserts from reporters and correspondents, and, most tellingly, in the assumptions behind the questions, there seemed a certain predisposition against the Conservative party. Good grief, people are never going to vote for it, are they?
What bothers me more than this, though, is the purblind political correctness. The inability to accept that the people who voted BNP might be racist; the refusal to acknowledge that the BNP did quite well; the repeated assertions that the Welsh National Assembly is, really, adored by the people of Wales despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (and ditto Scotland, for that matter).
Where did this political correctness come from, and why is it swallowed and then spat out so unquestioningly? It’s a sort of terror of the truth, arrogant in its assumptions because it believes ‘ordinary’ people cannot cope with the truth and need it either sweetened or altered entirely.
You could see it at work during the war in Iraq. Now, I was opposed to the war but I was aware that the military campaign was carried out with devastatingly brilliant precision and speed. And yet, watching television – Channel 4 or the BBC or, for that matter, Sky – there seemed a determination to present at every juncture the worst-case scenario as if the war, because it was inherently ‘immoral’, could not therefore possibly be expedited with success. Maybe it is just my imagination, but I seem to remember being told, every night, that the prospect which awaited our troops was a ‘quagmire’ of ‘hand-to-hand street fighting’. Where’s the quagmire, huh? Where are the fights? I don’t object to the speculation; just the one-sided nature of the speculation – as if it were in some way indecent to have someone suggest that the war would be over by the end of next week and very few people would be killed.
The night before the election I watched a BBC News report about the two British Muslim suicide bombers. It was, for the most part, a perfectly good piece of journalism – until the last line. The correspondent, Niall Dickson, concluded by saying that the vast majority of British Muslims were vehemently opposed to such violent attacks. Howja know that, Niall? You asked them all? You haven’t, have you? You just made it up. You sort of hope it’s true. It’s an article of faith that we have to believe such things, so bung it in the end of the report. Like Welsh people really love their assembly and the people of Burnley aren’t racist and the Tories can’t possibly win. There’s no evidence for any of this stuff – indeed, there’s rather more evidence to the contrary – but let’s say it anyway because the alternative is, frankly, too unpleasant to contemplate.
This is the result of institutionalised political correctness; every bit as corrupting as institutionalised racism. It is the result of seminars and workshops (I remember them well) where journalists are instructed time and again that the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are bloody important and don’t you dare suggest that they aren’t.
And that, whatever happens, Muslim people in Britain mustn’t be offended by whatever news is reported; ergo, don’t report anything which might offend them. Or, if you do, sweeten it with shibboleths like ‘most Muslim people don’t think like this, actually’, even if you haven’t a clue whether they do or don’t. It is a singularly paternalistic and insulting approach to viewers and readers.
The rest of the BBC’s coverage, by the way, on News 24 and its main television bulletins and especially on the radio, was excellent. And for those of you who howl about the licence fee, bear in mind that without it there wouldn’t have been an election-night special at all. I suspect, in the end, that I was the only person watching at 1.50 a.m.
Well, me and a rather perplexed creature from the planet Zarg, near Proxima Centauri.