Is the BBC really left wing?

On the day of the corporation's annual report, Kevin Marsh says some bias may be impossible to avoid, and might even be necessary

Six months after September 11, Radio 3 broadcast a lengthy and thoughtful discussion on America since the attacks. One panellist marvelled at the plurality of views. "We've got every shade of political opinion here," he said, "from the radical left all the way to the centre." The BBC's critics on the right will have nodded knowingly. Soft left and just can't see it.

Any BBC editor (I've been one for 15 years) is used to a steady flow of complaints that this or that story was biased, usually for or against the Government (Labour or Tory). The volume hasn't changed much over the years and nor has the balance of outrage. Nor has the argument against, which, in spite of being routinely mocked, has some merit: that getting it in the neck with similar force from different directions at the same time tends to suggest some degree of impartiality, though that's not to discount that from time to time an item or an interview might, inadvertently, lean one way or another.

Recently, though - probably dating from September 11 and the declaration of the so-called War on Terror - a new charge of systematic bias has become much more evident. It is not a charge of deliberate partisanship, but of an unconscious and systematically left-leaning mind-set.

Charles Moore captured the charge concisely in the Daily Telegraph in September 2003, when he launched "Beebwatch" - designed to spot and expose "unconscious acts of bias" that, he claimed, arose out of the BBC's "mental assumptions... of the fairly soft left."

John Lloyd - though arguing from a New Labour standpoint - levels another charge familiar to our critics on the right. In What the Media are Doing to Our Politics, Lloyd reports a conversation between the then director general Greg Dyke and a senior BBC editor in which they agreed that BBC journalists were "infected with a knee-jerk sense that all business was suspect... and all profits were too high." According to Lloyd, this is explained by the fact that most BBC journalists are arts graduates. Soon after this conversation, Enron crashed and burned in a fireball of false accounting and malfeasance. Some businesses were suspect and some profits too high after all.

On the face of it, both Moore and Lloyd seem to have a point. BBC journalists did and do question repeatedly, and with some rigour, the decision to go to war with Iraq. But exactly how surprising should that be, when taking a nation to war is the gravest thing a government can do, and it is the journalist's role to audit the use of power by those to whom the people give it?

"Impartiality" has become the trickiest word in the modern journalist's vocabulary. In a simpler political age, public expectations were clear and "impartiality" was straightforward: don't back Heath, Callaghan or Thorpe and watch it with the CBI and TUC. For the on-air greats then - the Hardcastles and Days - the trick was to find the midpoint and attack the right from the left and the left from the right (an oversimplification, but not by much).

If the BBC were to try to build a modern notion of impartiality on these foundations it would fail. It's not just that the world is more fragmented and so it is more difficult to find a midpoint. Fragmentation has seriously weakened the shared understandings on which we constructed our representative democracy, civil society and journalism. Through its responses to Hutton and its internal thoughts on charter renewal, the BBC has made it clear it understands we are no longer dealing with old simplicities.

The charter review document Building Public Value sets out the BBC's approach. It proposes the restatement and the renewal of its partnership with all its stakeholders, recognising that some will be positioned within the traditional right/left spectrum but that many will not. And it has reminded its stakeholders that impartiality is only one criterion by which its journalism can be judged. Alongside it are also accuracy, inclusivity, fairness and accountability. From time to time, the requirements of truth will mean an argument is not put in quite the uncritical way its proponents would wish.

In this process of setting out its renewed partnership with stakeholders, the BBC has confirmed that, at heart, it is biased. It is unequivocally on the side of active and informed citizenship; investment in social capital, and added public value. The question for our critics of the right is this: do they accept that it is the proper function of a publicly-funded broadcaster to lean in favour of the civic and the public rather than the individual and the private? Or is that the final confirmation of a soft-left mind-set?

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