Stephen Glover: Not biased, just too nice: Is Davis quite the right man for Today?
Monday 12 October 2009
Twittering is a new political weapon. Once, if you did not like some aspect of the BBC, you would say so openly. Norman Tebbit attacked it for bias. So did Alastair Campbell. Last week Ben Bradshaw, the Culture Secretary, twittered his disapproval of the Today programme's allegedly soft interviews of leading Tories. He described Evan Davis's questioning of Michael Gove as "disgracefully feeble," and his grilling of George Osborne as "wholly feeble and biased".
Coming from the minister ultimately responsible for the BBC, these fierce remarks bordered on the unconstitutional. Yet although widely noted, they did not cause great controversy, and Mr Bradshaw was not much criticised for making them. That is the beauty of twittering. A minister can throw off a remark in a careless, distracted way, and it is not taken as seriously as a forthright speech or a newspaper article. And yet it makes an impact all the same. In this case, the target – and victim – was Evan Davis.
The notion that the BBC in general, or the Today programme in particular, is pro-Tory is obviously laughable, although the Corporation is certainly less anti-Tory than in pre-Cameron days. There is nonetheless a lot of truth in Mr Bradshaw's somewhat cowardly attack on Mr Davis. I don't at all suggest the Today presenter is a closet Tory, but it is undeniable that his questioning of Mr Gove and Mr Osborne was as robust as a game of vicarage rounders. The same can be said of most of his interviews of Labour ministers.
I am a fan of Mr Davis in his other incarnations. He was a brilliant BBC economics editor because he understands economics, and could present complex arguments in a cogent way. As the anchorman on the BBC's Dragons' Den he is also impressive, partly because he is so good at soothing would-be entrepreneurs who have been savaged by those sneering businessmen. Indeed, there is a quality of sweetness about Mr Davis which has served him well in his other jobs, but disables him on the Today programme. His gentleness does not help him when he engages with hard and slippery politicians – which means most of them.
Mr Davis has been hopelessly miscast by BBC executives. I am not sure whether the Today new boy Justin Webb is much more robust. With John Humphrys' retirement approaching, we face the prospect of Britain's most influential current affairs programme on either television or radio becoming toothless.
Still on the subject of the BBC, guidelines issued at the end of the last week warned its journalists against being opinionated in blogs. I have banged on about this several times. According to the BBC Trust, "Nothing should be written by [BBC] journalists and presenters that would not be said on air".
In other words, journalists should beware of editorialising in their blogs. One example among many last week was Nick Robinson's description of George Osborne's speech as "a massive electoral gamble". This was opinion – one with which I happen to agree, but opinion nonetheless. Mr Robinson is a gifted reporter, and his reputation for objectivity is liable to be undermined by judgements of this sort.
Hence the BBC Trust's advice. Its shortcoming is that BBC journalists are now in the habit of giving their opinions on air as well. Mr Robinson offered the view on television last week that the Tories had not had a particularly successful party conference. Opinion again. Unfortunately many BBC reporters fancy themselves as pundits in blogs and on air.
The dilemma facing Lebedev over London Lite's future
Last week I suggested that the giveaway London Lite will probably close as a result of the London Evening Standard's decision to go free from today. London Lite buys some of its editorial copy from the Standard – I am told the charge is about £800,000 a year – and this arrangement could hardly persist if the two giveaways were in direct competition.
But that, of course, does not mean that London Lite has to close. It could generate more of its own editorial copy, and continue as a rival to the Standard. But with the advertising market in its present condition it would go on losing money, though not as much as it did before the closure of Rupert Murdoch's freesheet thelondonpaper last month.
For the Standard's owner, Alexander Lebedev, it is make or break whether or not London Lite shuts. Without any giveaway rivals, his paper might eventually prosper. However, even in a recovered market the Standard would be most unlikely to generate enough advertising revenue – on which, as a free newspaper, it will be wholly dependent – with London Lite still around.
This means that Mr Lebedev must persuade Jonathan Rothermere, the proprietor of Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT), which owns London Lite that there is no point in soldiering on with the loss-making freesheet. After all, DMGT retains 24.9 per cent of the Standard, and has an interest in its survival, and possible eventual profitability.
Mr Lebedev could conceivably offer DMGT a larger share in the London Evening Standard, but is unlikely to want to do so since it would make DMGT an active partner rather than the passive one it is with its existing shareholdings. No doubt there are other possible arrangements which I have not thought of. All the same, this is not going to be easy.
FT needs a reality check on Tory Eurosceptic hobgoblins
The Financial Times is famously Europhile. Fair enough. Nonetheless, I was struck by a phrase in its first leader last Monday. The paper spoke of "the swivel-eyed euro-frothing on the fringes of the Tory party".
That very afternoon I attended a meeting of the Bruges Group at the Conservative party conference in Manchester. If one can entertain legitimate hopes of encountering slavering Tories with rotating eyeballs, this was the venue in which to find them. I am afraid to report that no one in the audience remotely lived up to the FT's expectations. A meeting of the local Rotary Club would have been more animated.
Perhaps no one at the paper has ever met a real Eurosceptic, and so in the way of these things they tend to demonise what they don't know, as little children will imagine hobgoblins in the wood beyond the end of the garden. The FT's mandarins sometimes complain about the tendency of the Eurosceptic press to manufacture scare stories from Brussels, yet think nothing of representing Eurosceptics as sub-Neanderthal. I wonder how they would respond if they were described as "swivel-eyed, euro-frothing Europhiles".
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