David Cameron’s appointment of John Whittingdale — a right-wing critic of the BBC — as Culture Secretary was greeted with delight by the Conservative press. “Payback Time” yelped the Sun. “War on the BBC” cried the Telegraph. The life of a much-loved and much-despised British institution appeared to be over. The Right’s long propaganda campaign against the corporation appeared to have reached its culmination.
It had been remarkable for both its intensity and mendacity. Toby Young, for instance, a friend of and cheerleader for the Conservative ministers now in power, was the author of one of thousands of attacks on the corporation. If words have any meaning, his connections would make him a member of the elite, or at least its pet or servant. In his own account in the Mail on Sunday, however, he put himself forward as the tribune of the outcast, put-upon masses in their struggle against the “liberal metropolitan elite”.
I should admit that we have all struck ridiculous prolier-than-thou poses on off days when we didn’t know what else to write. And Young is correct to say that the liberal metropolitan elite is real and powerful. (I should know. I keep trying to join but they won’t have me.) But then he went from being a poseur to something more sinister.
He accused the BBC of “squandering” licence fee payers’ money on biased pollsters, who upheld the left-wing narrative that the Tories had no chance of forming a majority governmen. Young forgot to mention that every opinion pollster for every media organisation was saying the same. He could not bring himself to admit that the very newspaper whose money he was taking ran polls predicting a hung parliament. Nor did he add that on the day of the election the Tory pollster, Lord Ashcroft, who was not when I last looked a member of the liberal elite, tweeted: “All the final polls so far seem to be showing a move towards Labour.”
Young damned the BBC for ridiculing Rupert Murdoch’s claim that the Tories would do slightly better than every pollster expected. It is a measure of the man that he left it there, and did not continue that Mystic Murdoch later downgraded his hardly optimistic forecast of 294 Conservative seats — in fact they got 331 — and said: “Maybe I guessed 10 too many for Cons”. His readers’ minds cleared of anything that might stand in the way of his conspiracy theory, Young demanded that the BBC be exposed to “commercial realities”.
I don’t pick on Young because he is an unusually prejudiced writer, but because his prejudice is so commonplace. You have to read the right-wing press to see how unrelenting the assault on the BBC is in England. You have to read Bella Caledonia or one of the other SNP blogs to see how Scottish nationalists ape English Tories. It’s not that the BBC deserves to escape scrutiny for its biases and faults, or for the many follies of its managers. Rather, you need to look at the cultish refusal to allow one good word to be said about the corporation, and at how this stifling uniformity reveals the emptiness of nationalist and Tory myths.
Conservative intellectuals are fond of Jonathan Haidt’s argument in The Righteous Mind that liberals do not understand tradition and therefore cannot tolerate conservatives. Haidt’s thesis is highly dubious — the American and European liberal-Left are suffused with traditions of their own. But when conservatives go on to say that the Right is more broadminded than the Left, they reduce Haidt to absurdity.
A glance at the conservative press shows you that dissent not only on the BBC but also on the EU is simply not allowed to exist. Even civilised conservatives, who deplore the dumbing-down of British culture, can never discuss in public what would happen to that culture if their allies succeeded in abolishing Radios Three and Four. Scottish nationalists boast that theirs is a warm and cuddly “civic” nationalism, yet they demand the sacking of BBC journalists who fail to show proper deference to their leaders.
The easy explanation for the group-think is that many journalists act like prostitutes, whoring out their integrity to whoever pays them. It is certainly the case that you cannot defend the BBC in most right-wing newspapers without running into trouble.
In his memoir Hack, Graham Johnson, who worked on the News of the World until the hacking scandal closed it, describes the Murdoch press as being like a dictatorship: “You learn to become a good functionary, a good corporate functionary. You learn to instinctively edit your ideas to fit the newspaper and the political views of the proprietor and the editors.”
But the usual complaints about mercenary journalists miss the point. The Scottish nationalists’ assault on broadcasters is led by political activists not commercial competitors. And in England the journalists most likely to go along with Hacked Off or demand the destruction of the BBC aren’t proper reporters but ideological commentators.
And therein lies the answer. Scottish nationalists and English Tories obsess about the BBC because they want it to be more not less biased. They want their prejudices confirmed, and if they can’t have that, they want BBC reporters to think once, twice, a hundred times before giving Nicola Sturgeon or David Cameron too hard a time.
Because the BBC is funded by a licence fee everyone must pay, because it is in the end a state broadcaster, fanatics from all sides know that it folds under pressure, which was why Tony Blair’s government attacked it with a ferocity it never displayed towards its opponents in the Tory press.
For all the sectarian fervour he has aroused, John Whittingdale is not saying he will end the licence fee. For all its attempts to intimidate journalists, the SNP does not want to close the BBC but seize control of it.
Scrupulous politicians know they must show restraint if free societies are to remain free. In London and Edinburgh unscrupulous politicians know that an “independent” broadcaster that can be threatened with cuts to its grants and bullied in a way no truly independent journalist would ever accept, is much too useful an institution to destroy.