“Sack Kay Burley! Watch the BBC!” chanted the protester, as the Sky News presenter fixed her expensively maintained teeth into a sickly grin. ”Sack Kay Burley! Watch the BBC!” he cried again as she tried to carry on with her outside broadcast, at a post-election demonstration in favour of PR in Westminster. It was no good. He who controls the microphone controls the medium, as every politician who has refused to let an interviewer stop him knows. The voice of the lone protestor boomed over the airwaves.
“Down with Murdocracy!” he cried.
“Rupert Murdoch is poison!”
“Down with the Murdoch empire! Watch the BBC!”
“They don’t like the Sun, they don’t like us and they don’t like Rupert,” sighed Burley just before her panicking producer pulled the plug.
As the confusion deepened, Alastair Campbell played the old spin-doctor’s trick of deflecting attention from unwelcome news by attacking a journalist’s impartiality. Adam Boulton, Sky’s political editor, had made the reasonable point that Labour had lost close to 100 seats and had no moral right to stay in power. “You’re obviously upset that David Cameron is not Prime Minister,” said Campbell. Buffeted by the incessant accusations that Murdoch’s TV station was biased, Boulton made the fatal mistake of losing his temper on live television. “You keep casting aspersions…Don’t keep telling me what I think…I’M FED UP WITH YOU TELLING ME WHAT I THINK.”
Like a boxer who has tricked his opponent into throwing a wild punch, Campbell squared his shoulders as he prepared to deliver the knockout.
“Oh my God, unbelievable,” he said with a voice filled with mock concern. “Adam, calm down.”
For Campbell, the demonstrator and many others, the “Murdocracy” tried to rig the election by turning on Labour and denigrating Nick Clegg. All disinterested outsiders could do was listen politely to their case and burst out laughing. Rupert Murdoch himself is no longer interested in Britain. His son James and Rebekah Brooks (née Wade), the former editor of the Sun, run his British interests and they do not impose a party line. James Harding, the editor of The Times, is his own man. If anyone tried to turn him into a grubby propagandist, he would walk out and walk into another job within days. The paper backed the Tories in its editorial columns, but columnists expressed opposing views during the campaign and Times reporters remained robust and sceptical. Similarly, the Sunday Times‘s deputy editor, Martin Ivens dominated its political coverage; as with Harding, he is a thoughtful conservative, not a corporate lackey.
As for Sky News, Kay Burley deserved all she got. Just before the protester wrecked her broadcast, she had conducted a thuggish interview with a mild-mannered supporter of PR, in which she all but screamed at him to go home and forget about the right of the British to demonstrate (a right that had given her the vote, although she didn’t seem to know it). But there are badgering broadcasters who are as stupid as Burley elsewhere, and overall Sky News is as balanced and informative as the BBC. If you want partisan broadcasting, turn to Jon Snow. If you must hear the line of the political and cultural establishment parroted repeatedly, listen to Andrew Marr. Boulton is straight by comparison.
And yet, although the people shouting about the Murdocracy are wrong about the present, they may be right about the future. For all the fine journalism it produces, News International is like a mafia family that has gone legit. Most of its business is respectable, but it retains the option of turning nasty to get its way.
The Sun is where its gangsters hide. In the 1980s, it supported Margaret Thatcher and damned her enemies out of genuine ideological conviction. However, the Sun‘s support for the Tories brought it the added advantage of persuading the Thatcher government to allow the expansion of Murdoch’s newspaper business. In the 1990s, it switched from the Tories to Labour. In return, for its feverish support for Tony Blair, Labour allowed BSkyB to evade the rules other broadcasters must obey. Last year, the Sun announced that it was backing David Cameron. Using every deceitful art at its disposal, it sought to convince its working- and lower-middle-class readers that they should elect Britain’s 19th Old Etonian Prime Minister. As in the past, there is a price. It expects Cameron to deliver cuts to BBC budgets in return. The company’s newspapers, like newspapers the world over, are seeing the internet wreck their finances, but if BSkyB can expand into the space left by a destabilised BBC, the profits will start rolling in again, and then perhaps it can chip away at the impartiality rules as well.
A section of Standpoint‘s readership may ask why it should not want to swap the BBC’s liberal bias for the conservative bias of a privatised future. I would ask them to consider that BBC bias is mainly confined to Radio 4, and even there is found in particular presenters and programmes rather than across the station. Radio 4’s controller is leaving, fortunately, and in any case, no one can pretend that the BBC as whole was campaigning for a liberal-left government last month. If it had even hinted that it might, its nervous managers would have U-turned at the first complaint.
More urgently, conservatives should wonder whether they should trust the BBC’s enemies. The hypocrisy behind Campbell’s encounter with Boulton was that the former’s true complaint was not that the Sun was biased but that it was no longer biased in Labour’s favour. Cameron is a fool if he doesn’t know that one day the Sun will stand on its head and become an anti-Tory paper again. Then as now, there will be no ideological malice behind the switch in loyalties. It’s business, not personal, as Gordon Brown realised in his final days when he complained that whereas he could have honest political arguments with, say, Paul Dacre of the Mail, executives in News International did not appear to care about history or politics or the battle of ideas — just money and showbiz.
Such empty-headed cynicism should remind you of the media oligarchs who fawn before Berlusconi and Putin in their search for favours while pumping out celebrity journalism and soft porn to the masses. Do you want such people to expand their control of British broadcasting, not because of their honest endeavours to win a larger audience share, but because of a fix by an inexperienced government looking for short-term advantage?
I am sorry to be the one to break this to conservative readers, but I am afraid that for all your justifiable reservations and all the BBC’s inexcusable faults, you must join with the chanting lefties in Parliament Square. Deep breaths, you neo-cons. Sing it out, you mumbling libertarians. All together now: “Down with the Murdoch Empire! Watch the BBC!”