I well remember the Conservative party’s shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport. As I never tire of reminding him, in days long gone, before John Whittingdale became the Member of Parliament for Maldon & East Chelmsford, he and I were young Turks together at the Conservative research department. Our boss was Chris Patten. The year must have been about 1978, and Chris had deputed me over to the office of the leader of the opposition, where I served Margaret Thatcher as her correspondence clerk.
But I kept in touch with pals at our office in Old Queen Street, not least John Whittingdale, for he and I shared a love of punk rock. I remember in particular a night out at the Lyceum in the Strand. John recalls the entire billing that night so I had better not venture my hazier recollections, lest he correct me as to whether that was or was not the night Stiff Little Fingers were playing, or who else was on the bill. But I do distinctly remember a band called 999 and a number they had made their own whose chorus was ‘Police oppression!’
Everybody on the floor of the Lyceum — or at least everybody whose plastic pint glasses of cheap lager were not too full to permit it — used to leap up and down in a dance of the utmost simplicity called the Pogo. To this chorus we would punch the air with a clenched right fist as we shouted along with the chorus: ‘Police oppression!’, punch, ‘Police oppression!’, all the while leaping into the air. It was hot, it was sweaty, it was heady and it was fun.
So permit me a wry smile as I read in my newspapers this weekend, the following:
‘Whittingdale: BBC’s judgment is a disgrace.
‘Commenting in advance of the transmission of the BBC drama Faith on Monday 28 February 2005, John Whittingdale, shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport, said:
‘Faith presents a wholly partial and one-sided picture of the miners’ strike. It contains consistently negative images of the police, security services and Margaret Thatcher’s government while ignoring the violence and intimidation suffered by those who wanted to work, as well as the political motivation of the leaders of the strike. It is the latest in a long line of left-wing dramas screened by the BBC without any attempt to provide balance or the alternative view.
‘At any time the BBC’s decision to screen or to transmit such a politically controversial drama in prime time on BBC1 would be questionable. To do so just ten weeks before the likely date of the general election is a disgrace.’
Mr Whittingdale went on to deplore the ‘institutional bias’ of the BBC.
He has a point. After Michael Cockerell’s mean and lazy stitching-up of Michael Howard in his fly-on-the-wall documentary No More Mr Nasty (this time on BBC2) nearly three weeks ago, one does begin to wonder. ‘Institutional bias’ is the right phrase, for I am sure there is no conscious plan, just a tendency to be pushed one way rather than the other. I think Alastair Campbell’s and Lord Hutton’s onslaught in the Andrew Gilligan affair after the suicide of Dr David Kelly has been a kind of trauma for the BBC, and when it comes to offending the government, there will be some in the corporation who now start at shadows. Nobody there is very afraid of the Tories.
But I do not think the BBC was wrong to broadcast Faith. It cannot start pulling programmes with controversial political content just because a general election is in the air. None has been declared and, until then, the special rules do not apply. No broadcasting doctrine I know of implies some sort of penumbra of political blandness, cast forward by the advancing shadow of a general election campaign.
As for John Whittingdale’s assertion that the decision would have been ‘questionable at any time’ — that is in itself questionable. I write on the eve of the screening of the programme and so have not yet seen it but, however biased in an anti-Thatcherite direction it is, I do not see why such programmes should be banned from the BBC, which has a fine record of polemical television drama. I should certainly not be complaining if next week the Corporation screened a hard-hitting docudrama depicting the present Prime Minister as an airheaded and untrustworthy fantasist surrounded by bullies, twisters and liars; or a major new play about the Iraq war suggesting that Tony Blair was George W. Bush’s lickspittle ally in a disgraceful and dishonest cause.
It’s just that I don’t think that the corporation would — do you? Whittingdale senses as much. One may fault his statement in the particular — I do — but Conservative unease about whether the BBC has the stomach to balance dramas like Faith by commissioning and backing work which would be likely to enrage the present government is well founded. John said some of the wrong things for some of the right reasons.
And in a slow-news weekend he got better coverage than he might have hoped. He will not be unhappy.
Oddly enough, I think it is No. 10 Downing Street (or the shrewder among those who advise Tony Blair there) who may feel uncomfortable about programmes like Faith. If anyone involved in making a drama about the brutality of the Tories’ treatment of Arthur Scargill and his National Union of Mineworkers supposes that this is helpful to New Labour, they make an interesting mistake.
Any mention of the miners’ strike is good for the Conservative party. As a professional in the communications business would tell you, to drag up images with strong associations for people, and on which most made up their minds long ago, is more likely to remind them of those associations and reinforce those opinions than it is to alter either the associations or the opinions. Say ‘miners’ strike’ and most people think: ‘Maggie Thatcher — strong leader; Arthur Scargill — dangerous leftie — strike with no ballot; trade unions — got their comeuppance; Neil Kinnock — all over the place.’
The idea that Labour is, was or would be soft on the unions (or anyone else) is precisely the thinking Tony Blair has striven to bury. When the thought lurks that there is something squishy and insubstantial about Tony Blair’s government, that you don’t know where you are with them, that they try to be all things to all men and that they have no idea where they are going, I should be wary indeed of recommending New Labour to portray the Tories or their leader, Michael Howard, as hard.
Hard is good. Drift is what people fear. Go on, BBC1: remind us of Margaret Thatcher; remind us of Scargill; remind us of Orgreave; but don’t imagine that Tony Blair wants you to.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.