John Simpson

Bias, Boris and the Beeb

A political commissar as director-general is the last thing the BBC needs

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The Today programme ended, and John Humphrys walked out of the studio yawning and stretching. The phone was ringing in the empty programme office, and he picked it up. A spin-doctor’s foul-mouthed rant about how rotten and biased and stupid the programme had been came pouring out of it. Humphrys asked after a couple of minutes, ‘Can I just make a point?’ ‘Yes?’ said the spin-doctor warily. ‘Fuck off,’ said Humphrys, and slammed the phone down.

Lord Reith wouldn’t have liked the language, but he would have approved of the instinct. And when Boris Johnson told the Daily Telegraph on Monday that the next BBC director-general ought to be a Conservative, and that the BBC was ‘statist, corporatist, defeatist, anti-business, Europhile and overwhelmingly biased to the left’, there was only one proper response for people at the BBC to make: the Humphrys one.

The bosses of French state-owned television and radio are chosen for their political allegiance; they’ll be clearing out their offices quite soon now. German television has a tedious system which hands out its top jobs according to politics. American television may be all about private enterprise, which is why you get advertisement breaks every seven minutes; but the networks prefer not to upset the President, especially when it was George W. Bush and some of the biggest advertisers were friends of his.

Of course British politicians like Boris would love to get their hands on the BBC. Churchill tried it during the General Strike; various Labour ministers wanted to do it during the war; Anthony Eden suggested controlling the BBC during the Suez crisis; Margaret Thatcher would have privatised it if she could, but she was too wary of middle Britain to try. The only prime minister who succeeded in nobbling it (though only for a few months) was Tony Blair, with the 2004 Hutton inquiry. Look where it got him.

I’ve worked for the BBC since 1966, and loved it and loathed it in sometimes equal proportions. But in my 46 years I have never seen the slightest indication of a settled bias in favour of one or other of the political parties; and I have never been aware of any story that was commissioned, reported or distorted for party-political purposes.

Today, as in 1966, the right in Britain accuses the BBC of being instinctively left-wing, while the left accuses it of being instinctively conservative. In exactly the same way many supporters of Israel say the BBC is pro-Palestinian, and many supporters of the Palestinians say it is pro-Israeli. The BBC is obliged by its charter to give a voice to alternative opinions. That is usually enough to light someone’s blue touch-paper.

Curiously, the complainants gained some support from the director-general himself. ‘In the BBC I joined 30 years ago,’ Mark Thompson said in 2010, ‘there was in much of current affairs, in terms of people’s personal politics… a massive bias to the left. Now it’s a completely different generation.’ Well, at that point I’d been working for the BBC in news and current affairs for 13 years, and I never thought it was true then, any more than it is now.

Various disgruntled employees, on being let go, have also written about the BBC’s left-wing bias. This doesn’t noticeably harm a book’s chances of getting a newspaper serialisation. But it’s tosh. In a community as loud and varied and bitchy as the BBC, the entire country would immediately know the full chapter and verse of any concerted effort to slew its political tone.

Maybe Boris doesn’t understand the nature of the BBC. An avowedly political director-general simply wouldn’t be able to oblige it to follow a particular political line. The corporation isn’t a pyramid, like a newspaper or a company, with the boss up there at the top telling everyone what to do. The BBC is like a marketplace, with every stall competing against every other with great independence, and success going to those who are noisiest, most innovative and most able to attract an audience. The D-G is the one who has to sort out the disputes and make sure the litter gets cleared up.

Actually, on second thoughts, Boris probably does know all this perfectly well. So why is he saying it now? Politics, I assume. David Cameron’s links with the BBC have been pretty benign; could it simply be that Boris wants to stir things up for him? But politicians are fools if they forget one thing: around 70 per cent of British people have always said they like the BBC and are proud of it. For anyone looking for a majority, that’s a pretty big one.

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor.