“Bollocks.” As counter-arguments go, it was a succinct one. BBC economics editor Robert Peston had been asked whether former business editor Jeff Randall was correct to say the Beeb is institutionally biased to the left.
This idea never goes away. Any publicly funded organisation will always have the accusation hurled at it by those who see such bodies as a curb on their freedoms, and the political climate in this country has recently swung still further in that direction, so the attacks on the BBC for being overtly lefty have increased. But the evidence says otherwise.
If the BBC is institutionally left-wing, its key personnel should be too. Yet the recently departed chairman Chris Patten is a former Conservative cabinet minister. Veteran newspaper editor Andrew Neil, presenter of two high-profile political shows, is quite openly right-wing. Making the case that Andrew Marr and former national Young Conservatives chairman Nick Robinson, two of BBC TV’s other leading political broadcasters, are rabid pinkos is a hopeless task.
You’d also expect to see a flow of top staff leaving the bike-riding, kale-chewing Beeb to join revealingly right-on organisations. But successful BBC journalists have gone on to work as advisers for David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson (twice). Peston himself got his current job when Stephanie Flanders left to work at JP Morgan Asset Management. This is all very curious.
Perhaps the BBC’s output can be found to skew left? Studies from Cardiff University, based on simple counts of who appears and how often, have found the reverse. Analysis of the airtime given to different political parties found that, while the government of the day is always favoured on the BBC, that dominance increased twofold after the Conservatives took power in 2010.
The BBC is much more likely than other broadcasters to turn to right-wing politicians or business leaders, Cardiff Uni says – a thesis borne out by totting up the number of appearances by business representatives and right-wing journalists on Question Time, as compared to union leaders or environmentalists. The BBC’s most august political forum is moderated by David Dimbleby, another face of the Corporation who probably doesn't secretly hanker for a workers’ uprising.
Peston’s response, however, was more interesting than simply denying that the Beeb is as left-wing as claimed. He said this: “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."
He added: "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."
Here is the real problem: the BBC’s mounting fear of criticism and loss of bottle. Right-wing papers like the Mail try to set the agenda by shouting the loudest, daring everyone else to risk looking wishy-washy by disagreeing. Peston’s only one voice claiming that individual programme editors at the BBC tend to limply follow their lead, but he’s a very well-placed source, and if he’s right it might explain why, for instance, Nigel Farage – the human embodiment of that loudhailer, fact-averse strand of hardline politics – finds a home on the BBC so bewilderingly often, including being Question Time’s most-used guest. It might explain how hollow scare stories such as Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants imminently flooding the UK can end up leading the BBC1 evening news, or how the privatisation of the NHS doesn’t.
Newspapers are dominated by plutocrat proprietors and corporate advertisers. They are themselves businesses. The BBC is, or should be, uniquely free of such taints. It’s natural that it be to the left of its print rivals (although a study by the Media Standards Trust of which think tanks get exposure in which outlets placed the Beeb pretty squarely in the centre) – as indeed are the public, according to numerous polls.
For those of us who believe the BBC is currently gravely under threat, a supine news agenda is a loud alarm bell. The Beeb’s enemies will keep hitting it, whatever it does. Letting them set the parameters of debate is, like Ed Miliband awkwardly holding up a copy of The Sun, a futile and self-destructive gesture. There's a huge audience out there for a sober, fact-based antidote, not a tail-chasing imitation.
Right now, the Beeb needs those people on its side to fight for its future. The recent uproar about the BBC's non-coverage of the People's Assembly anti-austerity demo in London might not have been too heavy an indictment on its own terms - it's likely that the demo didn't have the 50,000 attendees its organisers claimed, and wasn't particularly noteworthy - but the anger came from a feeling of having been repeatedly let down.
In 2003, the attack on Iraq – the major political event of my and many other people’s lifetimes, and a moment when unbiased reporting could scarcely have been more crucial - was instructive. Knowing that the BBC was the public’s most trusted source of news and therefore key to the push towards invasion, the government and warmongers in the media hammered it for what was supposed to be an anti-war stance. The hoo-hah about a single Today programme report claiming a WMD dossier had been “sexed up” led to the resignation of the director-general and the chairman. The BBC’s spirit of robust inquiry has never recovered.
Yet a Cardiff study showed that the BBC had in fact been the most pro-war broadcaster, less likely than anyone to quote critics of the invasion or to mention Iraqi casualties. Its critics were demanding that the BBC be something it shouldn’t be, but already was.
Lose your editorial independence and you lose the ability to deal properly with stories of fundamental importance. At the moment, the obvious example is climate change: repeatedly the BBC ropes in unqualified "skeptics" to talk against experts. The scientific consensus is overwhelming, so this "false balance", to use the phrase from a critical March report from the Science & Technology Select Committee, can only be an attempt to avoid flak: there's a large overlap between those who believe the BBC is too left-wing and those who think decades of rigorously cross-checked and peer-reviewed climate science are an outlandish hoax.
The BBC urgently needs to stop listening to those people. The stakes are too high.