The madness of Lord Adonis

The centrist ex-minister has joined Left and Right in denouncing the BBC for its political bias

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Andrew Adonis: Bad news is fake news (National Archives OGL 1.0)

I knew Lord Adonis before he became famous for his attacks on the BBC. Even then, he was disparaging the corporation; or to be specific, its presenter Andrew Neil. His tweets revealed that Neil had right-wing politics (who knew?) and His Lordship was going to start a campaign to have him fired from the BBC.

I pointed out that he needed evidence of right-wing bias in Neil’s interviews on air, and as far as I could see, Neil mauled everyone without regard to creed. It was wrong to purge broadcasters because of their tweets rather than their work on screen, I argued. In any case, if Adonis demanded Neil’s dismissal, he must also demand the sacking of Jon Snow, whose tweets showed (and once again, be ready to clutch your pearls) that he was of a leftish disposition.

Lord Adonis was nonplussed. He would not accept that if you fired right-wing broadcasters for reasons unrelated to their job, you must fire left-wing broadcasters on the same irrelevant grounds. His bovine inability to see let alone justify double standards should have made me realise that Lord Adonis would soon stake a claim to be the greatest berk in the peerage.

So it has proved. In the past weeks, Adonis has launched an assault on the BBC, which with a few tweaks the Daily Mail could run. He has denounced the “Brexit Broadcasting Corporation” in the same derisive voice old Tories once denounced the “Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation”.

“Brexit and Farage are largely the creation of the BBC,” he insists. The BBC “vetoes output likely to offend government and Mr Farage . . . On the biggest issue by far facing the country the BBC is the public disservice broadcaster. It fanned the populist flames.” On and on Adonis rolls, without once being held back by anything so burdensome as facts.

It is important to get the easy explanations for disappointed Remainers’ anger at the BBC out of the way. The simplest is that Lord Adonis and other Labour figures are trying to divert opponents of Brexit from the failure of the opposition to oppose. Labour has not exposed the fantastic claims made by Vote Leave in the referendum campaign. When broadcasters put shadow ministers on air, they agree with Theresa May that we must leave the EU and the single market. Broadcasters are bound by tight rules on party balance. If Labour supports the Tories on everything except Britain’s continued membership of the customs union, there is little the BBC can do about it. Pro-Europeans who complain that broadcasters treat a hard Brexit as inevitable conveniently forget that unless Labour changes its mind, a hard Brexit is just that.

A second and to my mind compelling argument is that Lord Adonis has gone mad. Yet if he has, many others have gone off their rockers with him. In my experience, the belief that the BBC failed to do its job is everywhere in liberal Remainer circles. As the journalist Henry Porter, a more serious thinker than Adonis, put it, the requirement on broadcasters to be impartial meant that the overwhelming consensus among economists that leaving the EU would damage growth had to be balanced by cranks asserting it would lead to a bright new dawn (a claim you will have noticed supporters of Brexit have shuffled away from now). It may be true, as Porter says, that the BBC failed to provide “judgment and guidance”. But how far any broadcaster can give the viewers “judgment and guidance” and remain impartial is a question he does not discuss. Nor does he wonder whether guidance would have had the desired effect. It’s not just that the evidence for journalists’ ability to brainwash their audiences is weak, to put it mildly. If the “establishment” BBC had campaigned for Remain, the Leave campaign would have tried to use its bias as a means to push its vote higher, and I have no doubt it would have succeeded.

For every successful political movement now targets journalists in general and the BBC in particular. Even politicians who affect to oppose Donald Trump imitate his methods. Jeremy Corbyn and his circle have so inflamed their supporters against the BBC’s supposed right-wing bias that the political editor of the BBC needed bodyguards to escort her to the Labour Party conference. The Tory Right and the Tory press insist that, on the contrary, left-wing bias has corrupted it. Scottish nationalists persuaded their supporters to march on the offices of BBC Scotland to protest against supposed unionist bias. Now the supposedly sane voices of the centre have joined the deranged chorus.

All modern movements have learned the advantage of attacking the media. The tactic binds your tribe to you and gives them an excuse as they sit around the campfire nursing their wounds. It’s not their fault they lost. It’s the fault of the broadcasters. The tribe, whether it be left, right, unionist, nationalist or centre, is not only comforted, it is taught to ignore hard facts that might cause nagging doubts. The position of Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson, Nicola Sturgeon or Andrew Adonis is strengthened if they can convince their followers that bad news is fake news: the lies of a conspiracy of sinister broadcasters.

The old argument that, if the BBC is being attacked by all sides, “it must be doing something right” is scant consolation in the circumstances. The public may agree — the BBC, ITN and Channel 4 all enjoy far higher levels of trust than the press, Facebook and Google News. But what the public wants and what the public gets are different matters. Despite its name, politicians, not the public, control the fate of public-service broadcasting. With a mixture of cynicism and fanaticism a growing number of politicians have convinced themselves and their activists that they are the victims of a media plot.

The absurdity of the BBC being simultaneously pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit, left-wing and right-wing, ought to protect broadcasters, but I wonder for how long. Unless we are lucky, demagogic leaders, who have ridden to power on an anti-BBC ticket, will lead Britain one day. To increase their control of information and satisfy their supporters’ desire for vengeance, they will find it natural and indeed pleasurable to move against broadcasters’ independence.