Robert Peston, the BBC’s economics editor, has described persistent claims that the BBC is institutionally biased to the left as “bollocks”.
Taking questions after giving the Charles Wheeler lecture on journalism in London, Peston was asked about comments made by former BBC business editor Jeff Randall. “Look, I love Jeff. He’s a very old mate of mine,” Peston said. “But I think it’s bollocks really.”
Peston said the constant criticism from the right actually makes the BBC swing in that direction in an effort to calm its detractors. “Because the BBC’s routinely so anxious about being accused of being left-wing, it quite often veers in what you might call a very pro-establishment, rather right-wing direction, so that it’s not accused of that.”
Specifically, Peston said BBC agenda-setters are in hock to right-wing newspapers. “If I’m honest, the thing that’s most frustrating is… the BBC is completely obsessed with the agenda set by newspapers.
“There’s a slightly ‘safety first’ thing at the BBC – if we think the Mail or the Telegraph is gonna lead with it, then we should lead with it. I happen to think that’s mad. But it does exist.”
Peston described the attitude as cultural, rather than an institutional bias handed down from above. “People who don’t work there misunderstand what a bizarre organisation it is,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of people [in senior management] with very good titles who are in theory very powerful, but actually many of them don’t get involved in day-to-day news judgment. When you join the BBC you’re not joining a homogeneous institution, but a sort of industry.”
Different flagship news programmes on TV and radio have their own editors to whom power is delegated, Peston explained. “They all have more or less charismatic and interesting bosses. But a lot of [programme editors] do have this view that the safe thing to do is to go with what the newspapers are likely to go with, even at a time when the influence of newspapers is radically declining in other ways.”
Peston added that the public’s response to his own reports has convinced him that bias towards one side of the political spectrum is not a problem for him personally. “The thing that gives me most comfort in all of this is that if you make the mistake of looking at my Twitter stream, you’ll see that I am unbelievably passionately attacked by certain people for being too right-wing, and by other people for being too left-wing. It seems to me that if one is in the position of being attacked from all sides, one might be in the right place.”