The quarrel between the Government and the BBC is a farce that risks sliding into tragedy. With the licence-fee negotiations adding spice to the sauce, two groups of vain men and women - No 10 and its hangers-on and the BBC higher-ups - are willing to risk the future of a worthwhile British institution, and have already sullied the face of British politics. Yet both are so wrapped in self-righteousness that they seem incapable of escaping from this corrosive quarrel.
The current imbroglio can be understood only as part of a long-running deterioration of relations between politicians and the media. All the politicians and all the media. The debate goes back, at least, to when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister. Wilson had an obsessive interest in the media, which has been matched by most of his successors. In those primitive days when politicians did not produce advance manuscripts for election meetings, a television producer would raise his handkerchief high into the air when they were ready to go live into a news bulletin - and Wilson would dutifully abandon what he had been speaking about and dive into the key policy statement he wanted to get on the air.
Innocent enough, but spinning has come a long way since then, and has done much damage - to politics and to the media. The debate is basically about who sets the public agenda. That struggle has produced unforeseen results. For example, the only advantage that broadcasters have over newspapers in this field is that they can quickly bring the politician live into their audience's homes. Yet because the Today programme long ago evolved a policy of never reporting what had happened, but of setting an agenda for the day ahead, shrewd political advisers learned to plant stories. The newspapers weren't conceding that advantage to broadcasters, so the politicos found themselves obliged to leak stories in Fleet Street also, inevitably using patronage to buy favours. So what once was a scoop became a plant, and nobody could tell the difference.
More confusingly broadcasters constantly find themselves reporting what a minister "is expected" to say, rather than using the actual words. As I was writing this I heard Education Secretary Ruth Kelly on Today pathetically trying to avoid pre-empting her own White Paper, to be published the same afternoon. Jim Naughtie rightly reminded her that Tony Blair had revealed its contents in a speech the previous day. Side effect: what began as an enterprising journalistic idea for agenda-setting ended up with the politicians having multiple bites of the cherry.
This brings us to a central aspect of this quarrel. Politicians and broadcasters/journalists have different jobs to do. Each group contains a large quota of bright men and women. But they are not nearly as clever as they think at handling each other. In my years at the BBC, I was often oppressed by the naivety about politics among those who ran the outfit. And among politicians, I rarely met an individual who understood that journalists do not serve a cause - they just want to get interesting news which will serve their own long-term career prospects, rather than anybody else's agenda.
At his death, Robin Day, having fought a long battle to get television cameras into the Commons, was disappointed with the results. The broadcasters quickly discovered that the Speaker was oblivious of their schedules, that the meatier bits of Budget or censure debate were delayed by obscure points of order. So they did what they have always done: controlled their output by organising yet another studio-based programme of interviews about the story of the day. Count the seconds of actual proceedings of Parliament on television and you will see why Day wondered why he had created such a fuss. Collectively, we have debased the public taste for serious information. The end result is that a citizen has great difficulty finding out what his MP has said in Parliament. Another diminution of democracy.
But do you blame broadcasters/journalists for contempt of Parliament or the Government for neglecting it? The public is thought to be interested only, it seems, when politics become personal, when Tory MPs are ousting Margaret Thatcher or elevating David Cameron. But I personally am interested in policies that affect schoolchildren, hospital patients, criminals and victims of crime and taxpayers. I think the public could be interested also.
When you listen to Yesterday in Parliament, you realise that Conservative and Liberal Democrat frontbenchers, all specialising in their allotted subjects, put ministers under more effective pressure than most broadcast interviewers. No prizes for guessing why. While Humphrys and Paxman have to be briefed on every subject under the sun, the frontbencher can concentrate on Iraq, taxation or schools. So why not report more politics from Parliament?
The BBC and others are right to emphasise rigour in their questioning of politicians. But in their wish to avoid being thought of patsies, they must avoid sliding from proper scepticism into corrosive cynicism. The late Brian Redhead once said that if they invited anyone into the studio, it was because they thought he was not a fool, and must have something worthwhile to say. He should be allowed to get his point across.
I think the problems of public service broadcasting are not soluble, except through mutual self-restraint by politicians and the BBC. The Prime Minister is much concerned with his legacy. Surely it would be a poor one for either him or the current generation of broadcasting bosses to leave the BBC either destroyed or emasculated, and to earn for the Government the reputation of a bully. Tony Blair ought to remember that one chairman and one director-general have already been lost on his watch. Faults on both sides, true, but anything more would count not as mere carelessness but a flaw of character.
John Cole was deputy editor of The Guardian before becoming political editor of the BBC, 1981-92. A longer version of this article appears in the British Journalism Review, Volume 16 Number 4, available from SAGE Publications, 1 Oliver's Yard, 55 City Road, London EC1Y 1SP. Subscription hotline: 020 7324 8703. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org