The businessmen who jump on the Blair bandwagon do him no favours

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The Independent Culture
THE LANKY ghost of Norman Tebbit is stalking Conservative Central Office. Inspired by the memory of the old warrior's attack on the BBC for its coverage of the bombing of Libya in 1986, William Hague has brought in the ground troops of political warfare, the media monitors, to prove that the corporation is doing him wrong. He will gain a few rounds of extra ammunition to hurl against Tony Blair. The impact will not be great.

In his desire to get his retaliation against Greg Dyke in first, Mr Hague is in danger of missing the point for the second time. By first breaching protocol in damning the director general's candidature, he made the governors doubly determined to reach a decision without succumbing to external influence. Now he wants a search-and-destroy mission against Labour bias. We have been down this road before, and very tiresome and counter-productive it is too. Alastair Campbell will pick his moment before making a counter- claim that some interviewer was less respectful than required to be to a government minister. And so on, ad infinitum.

No institution is without cultural values and the BBC is parti pris to the extent that it takes a broadly liberal, progressive, something-must- be-done view of the world. It is easy to attack this, but hard to conceive of a neutral alternative. Invert the BBC's values and you would get an illiberal, let's-do-nothing view of events: hardly the most inspiring identity for a public service broadcaster.

If Mr Hague really wanted to hit home, he could have been more precise in attacking parts of the corporation's political output as too lenient on grilling ministers on policy. After she was attacked by David Trimble last week, Mo Mowlam was treated on the Today programme with the kind of sympathetic awe usually reserved for the Dalai Lama. The substance of Mr Trimble's allegation - that the Government, having failed to get anywhere with the IRA on decommissioning, was desperately shifting the pressure points to the Unionists - went unchallenged. The heat has also gone out of questioning about the future of Kosovo. Too many victory speeches are encouraged, and there is too little scrutiny of what will follow. In its political coverage, the corporation has become hostage to a tone and priorities set by its Millbank-based political department. The model leaves far too little room for fresh ways of holding the powerful to account.

But Mr Hague has fallen into the politician's trap of thinking that his woes would be cured if only the public could see and hear more from his front bench. I have to disillusion him. The Conservatives have a far graver problem than whether Francis Maude gets three or five minutes in which to nip at Gordon Brown's ankles. Since 1997 the Tories have shrunk as a national constituency. New Labour has succeeded beyond its own wildest dreams in co-opting what we would once have called the Establishment.

Try this simple test. A prominent businessman/ banker/ cleric/ judge looms on to your TV screen. He/she is making sage and reasonable points. You are asked to say, without any further knowledge of this person, whether they are likely to be Tory or New Labour. I suspect that where you might once have instinctively replied "Conservative", you now think, "New Labour". In a post-ideological climate, prominent people are inclined to side with success rather than keep a steady political allegiance. Mr Blair has offered, then, success aplenty and a warm, uncritical welcome unto the centre- left broad church.

An eminent scientist and long-time Labour supporter tells me of a colleague - a household name - who called him a week before the election asking how he might offer his support to New Labour. The Old Labour scientist bit his tongue and passed on the requisite contact number, muttering about Vichy Blairites. New Labour, on the other hand, greeted the late convert with no hint of amusement or scepticism about his 11th-hour realignment, and made sure that he was invited to Downing Street at the first opportunity.

Mr Blair learnt at the knee of Thatcher and Tebbit that the way to secure a base as the natural party of power is to create an envied sense of being "one of us". He has expanded this category to the point where even the appointment of the Poet Laureate became a political primary. Number 10 wanted Seamus Heaney, because his civilised republicanism would have been a useful instrument in the peace process. When Mr Heaney turned the post down, the next best choice was Andrew Motion, who has general New Labour sympathies. Great efforts were expended to persuade a cast of influential characters to talk up Mr Motion's suitability, regardless of whether they had in fact read his poetry.

A lump of worry refuses to shift in me about the longer-term consequences of the Government's neglect of the importance of impartiality. The worst consequences will be felt in the very area where the centre left should take a strong stance, defending sound public services and the pursuit of the public good, often against opposing commercial interests.

We are moving closer to the models of countries in which appointments are dominated by the see-saw of interests. But mere political balance is not the same as accountability. The recent Belgian judicial and food scandals and the criminal negligence of the French authorities faced with the HIV-infected blood scandal were the result of protection given from on high to authorities who had put party considerations before the public interest they were appointed to serve.

Power, not ecstasy, is New Britain's dominant drug of choice. An amusing shift could be observed at the weekend in newspapers that had argued that Mr Dyke's Labour donation should have ruled him out of the job. Suddenly they were full of commentaries headlined, "Why Greg Dyke is the right man for the BBC". The least credible, though not uncommon, position is the one that opposed him on grounds of impartiality, but is now in favour because the Tories have made a bad case against it, or to spite Rupert Murdoch or, crudely speaking, because he has got the job after all.

I don't blame only the politicians for the retreat of the principle of non-aligned public good. It is up to the rest of us to defend it more strongly. Yet I sense among my own centre-left tribe a reluctance to do so when a sensitive case arises, for fear of falling out of a circle of social and career shakers and groovers. Over time, the net effect will be a political culture that reinforces the mistakes it has made (the handling of GM foods is the obvious example) by simply shouting its message more and more loudly. Tied too strongly to the orthodoxies of the present, it will discourage any ideas that are ahead of their time. Too many people who should be thinking the unthinkable are otherwise engaged telling New Labour that it is flawless as it is. That does no service to good government, or to the governed.

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