Self-hatred at the BBC

The broadcaster is feeling guilty about its liberal guilt. Can it fix it?
November 19, 2006

Andrew Marr, the former BBC political editor, recently stood before an audience and said that "the BBC is not impartial, or neutral. It's a publicly funded urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias, not so much a party political bias: it's better expressed as a cultural liberal bias."

Quite a few in the audience could claim to have been his boss. There was Mark Byford, deputy director general and head of journalism; Jana Bennett, head of television; Alan Yentob, director of drama and entertainment; Helen Boaden, head of news; Mark Damazer, head of Radio 4… and so on. Highest of all was the BBC's head of state, Michael Grade, chairman of the board of governors, who had called this meeting. The BBC had set aside a day for a discussion of impartiality—mainly for themselves, with some others invited to share in the reflections.

It was an extraordinary day, momentous even. Extraordinary in that it did not discuss impartiality as one might have expected: as a set of practices for use in describing events through broadcast journalism. These concerns did come up, but mainly from the invited audience. Tim Gardam, former director of programmes at Channel 4, said the approach of BBC journalism must be one of rational scepticism displayed on all occasions—a remark which acted as a leitmotif of later debate. Jean Seaton, the professor of media studies at the University of Westminster, Adam Bolton, political editor of Sky News, and I all talked of how journalism must seek something which was at least a sketch of the truth.

But this was not the day's project. It went deeper into the BBC's emotional hinterland, unleashing a certain amount of controlled anger, even of self-contempt. There was a sense that the BBC was saying to itself what it roundly condemns others for saying. Much of what came out in the open—and it was not private: it was webcast, and I was told I could write about it—can now be used by its opponents to say "Look! Even the BBC says it!"

Perhaps the most powerful moment was a brief exchange towards the end of the day between Sue Lawley, who was the event's compère, and the BBC's Washington correspondent Justin Webb. Webb, whose question-and-answer reports with some of his BBC colleagues sometimes reveal a certain testiness at their assumptions on the US, said that the BBC was generally biased against America. He said that in the tone in which it reported the US, the BBC tended to scorn and derision, and that it didn't give America "any kind of moral weight." It is not hard to imagine what the BBC would say if this had been put to it by the US ambassador, but Webb got grave nods, including from Byford, who sat with him on the panel. Asked by Lawley if he saw himself in a corrective role, he agreed that he did: "I consciously try to redress the balance, with the help of Mark [Byford] and others." Webb was saying no less than that one part of BBC news and current affairs was fighting another part's view of the world's hegemon.

Before this, the Daily Telegraph columnist Janet Daley was given the lectern to lambast the BBC, as she does sometimes in her columns, for showing "an uncritical acceptance of smug consensual opinion." It was, she said, staffed by people whose views and beliefs, and those of their dinner party companions and the writers they read, were so entrenched as to be no longer visible. People outside this consensus—as she was—were given space, but put on air "with a health warning" that they were right-wing. She admitted that the liberal consensus did change its mind, giving examples of certain propositions that could now be aired, if gingerly—that children of two parents have better life chances than children of one, that there may be more effective ways of providing healthcare than a state-funded public monopoly, or that multiculturalism can lead to alienation of ethnic minorities. However, a new raft of topics could not be discussed—such as the corrupting effects of foreign aid or that a benefit system which rewards the poor ensures the continued existence of poverty. Take note, she told the audience, of the circulations of the papers you despise—the Telegraph, Mail and Sun. "You cannot afford to treat the opinions of the great mass of people with contempt."

At one point, a slightly nervous man named Magnus Willis, head of the Sparkler brand consultancy, told the corporation that focus groups and in-depth interviews he had conducted showed that people generally valued impartiality, and wished the BBC to retain that virtue. But they thought this sometimes transmuted itself into political correctness, which they saw as a white liberal middle-class response to a diverse world. The white majority, he said, thought of themselves as disenfranchised.

Interspersing the sessions were cameo appearances, on video, by well-known people in the broadcasting world who said that the BBC was absurdly elitist, or had gone soft, or presented a caricature of liberal leftism.

Most vehement was Jeff Randall, the former BBC business editor and now editor-at-large for the Daily Telegraph. Randall had found himself, a man of centre-right views, regarded "as an extremist" at the BBC. When he had complained to a "very senior news executive" that multiculturalism was being uncritically accepted, he was told that "the BBC is not neutral in multiculturalism; it believes in it and it promotes it. Jeff, let's face up to it." In a story which closed the day, Randall told of wearing Union Jack cufflinks to work. A producer asked him if he would wear them on air: Randall said he would, and was told: "You can't do that, that's like the National Front!" But, he said, "I did wear them on air: I was making no statement other than that I'm proud to be British."

The "producer" of the day, John Bridcut, who works for Grade's governance department, had set up virtual situations in which the BBC's top people were asked how they would respond to fictitious dilemmas put to them by the presenter, Clive Anderson. One of these was an episode of Room 101—a programme in which celebrities are asked to demonstrate what they most dislike. In this imagined programme, the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen throws into Room 101 some kosher food, the Archbishop of Canterbury; a Bible and the Koran. The producer Alan Hayling, in charge of the show, was asked what he would do: he said he would not baulk at the kosher food, the archbishop and the Bible, but would refer the Koran up. Alan Yentob agreed that he wouldn't have allowed the Koran in; Bennett, after some to-ing and fro-ing, said she wouldn't allow either the Bible or the Koran; Damazer said they were "bending over backwards to be too concerned" and said he would have made up a book called "organised religion," and thrown that in. Not one of the BBC executives said—go ahead! All took the same view as Kirsten Harms, director of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, who in September cancelled a production of Idomeneo because she feared a scene featuring the severed heads of Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad would cause offence to Muslims.

The most delicate part of the day was a session with the playwright Sharon Foster, whose play Shoot the Messenger, broadcast earlier this year, attracted a lot of criticism from blacks for portraying many in black communities as lacking responsibility for their own and their children's failures, blaming them instead on white racism and a history of oppression. The discussion underscored a thread that had run through the day: guilt about excessive guilt. Dorothy Byrne, controller of current affairs at Channel 4, said on video that a programme which claimed that all street gang rapes had at least one black participant was almost stopped from being broadcast—until she insisted. Helen Boaden said that a Radio 4 Analysis programme, which claimed that most bullying at Feltham young offenders' institution was by black on white youths, had been close to being dropped by those making it—until she insisted. In the discussion later, Mary FitzPatrick, recently hired as the editorial executive of diversity (and already irritating her colleagues by having suggested, in August, that BBC reporters be of the same ethnic background as the countries from which they were reporting, especially in Africa), said that care had to be taken when broadcasting such a programme to "contextualise" why black youths acted like that. No one audibly agreed. The impression was left that Fitzpatrick was having a harder time pushing this line than she would have done five years ago—or even last year—when the BBC was "not neutral on multiculturalism."

At the end, Lawley asked: if the BBC is like this, can it correct the bias? Why not? A left-liberal institution had just produced a self-critique of left-liberalism. But the question hangs in the air.