My response to the appointment of Ian Katz, deputy editor of the Guardian, to the editorship of BBC2’s Newsnight has been one of disbelief and amusement. Of course there’s nothing new in the Beeb hiring a paid-up Guardian-ista. It’s what we have come to expect. But one might have expected its new director-general, Tony Hall, to tread a little more carefully. Newsnight has a long history of Tory-bashing, and it disgraced itself last November with an orgy of false accusations against Alistair McAlpine, claiming without any evidence that he was a paedophile. Can one doubt that the programme threw caution to the wind at least in part because Lord McAlpine was once a friend and champion of Margaret Thatcher, and a hated Tory?
Lord Hall’s hiring of Mr Katz follows his recruitment of the former Labour cabinet minister James Purnell as the BBC’s ‘director of strategy and digital’ on a salary of £295,000 a year. Both are doubtless able men, and their appointments would be unobjectionable were there a level playing field. But there isn’t. We only have to ask ourselves whether we could imagine a former Tory cabinet minister becoming a very senior BBC executive, or a deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph becoming editor of Newsnight. Of course we couldn’t. The chairman of the BBC, Lord Patten, may once have served in a Conservative cabinet, but he is hardly a traditional Tory.
Mr Katz seems a pleasant chap, though some colleagues accuse him of arrogance. Until quite recently he was thought the most likely successor to the long-serving, and seemingly immovable, Alan Rusbridger as editor of the Guardian, but two female candidates have pulled ahead of him — hence his willingness to accept the lesser, though not contemptible, crown of editor of Newsnight. He will find some sympathetic souls there. Allegra Stratton, who once worked with him at the Guardian, is now the programme’s political editor. Some furlongs further to the left is its economics editor, Paul Mason, by many accounts an absolutely charming fellow. In May 2011 he took part in Leveller’s Day march in Burford in Oxfordshire under the slogan ‘Jobs! The Future of Employment’, which was sponsored by the trade union Unite and CND among others. If he does not already know her, Mr Katz should get on well with the presenter Kirsty Wark, who with her husband invited the then Labour First Minister of Scotland, Jack McConnell, and his family to her villa in Spain in 2002.
I can’t see many closet Tories on Newsnight. In fact, none. Mr Katz will doubtless strive, at least at first, to appear even-handed for the sake of appearances, but the point stands. Why is it considered acceptable for the corporation’s leading current affairs television programme (though it has been haemorrhaging viewers lately, and is practically unwatchable unless Jeremy Paxman is presenting and on form) to recruit its personnel from the centre-left? The same question could be asked of the entire BBC news and current affairs operation. Mark Thompson, director-general from 2004 until last year, conceded in a magazine interview in 2010 that the corporation had been guilty of ‘massive’ left-wing bias in the past, though without defining when the past ended. A few months later he admitted that the BBC had been ‘historically rather weak and rather nervous’ in its coverage of immigration and Europe.
And yet, despite this apparent breast-beating, along comes Lord Hall, a senior BBC apparatchik during the 1990s, when he failed to be appointed director-general, carrying on as though nothing has changed. He has cast his net in waters where only Guardian-istas and other assorted lefties are likely to be found. At first glance his appointment of the former Times editor James Harding as head of news and current affairs might seem to challenge my thesis until one reflects that Mr Harding was celebrated by many hacks on his paper for not being right-wing, which was why Rupert Murdoch decided to get rid of him. He is no Tory.
Let me repeat that I have no objection to either Mr Purnell or Mr Katz. Nor would I deny that many of the best reporters are left-wing. My point is about balance and equity — or the lack of them. Mark Thompson’s analysis was obviously correct, and Andrew Marr, another man of the soft left who has thrived at the corporation, was also right when he said the BBC has ‘an innate liberal bias’. The most senior executives don’t -dictate this. It’s the way most BBC -journalists and executives are. Andrew Neil of this parish is the exception who proves the rule.
By the way, I remember Lord Hall slightly from Oxford of 40 years ago. One of his mates was Peter Stothard, later editor of the Times. Their respective girlfriends, later their wives, were even greater pals. Whereas Sir Peter made a journey of sorts towards Thatcherism, later veering towards Blairism, Lord Hall appears to have stayed safely on the social democratic left. The new director-general evidently subscribes to ‘Young’s Law’ as adumbrated by the late Hugo Young, for many years the Guardian’s chief columnist and sage.
When the Blairite cheerleader Andrew Marr was made political editor of the BBC in 2000, one or two pundits, including myself, questioned whether with the best will in the world he could ever be wholly even-handed. (He wasn’t.) Mr Young ventured down the slopes of Mount Olympus to deliver his dictum. He explained that while it was possible, indeed relatively easy, for a lefty columnist such as Mr Marr to be objective, a columnist of the right could never be. Right-wing journalists were, by training and disposition, incapable of balance. ‘The right,’ he wrote, ‘still speaks from the bunker of the dispossessed’ and, unlike the left, ‘is a long way from attempting to tease out the truth in what is actually happening.’
Ah! This must explain why the BBC is hiring James Purnell and Ian Katz, and will continue to avoid recruiting Tories. We must never forget that lefties are uniquely interested in telling the truth.