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Polly Toynbee: the truth about BBC bias

Here we go again - the first swallow of spring, election time and the BBC is under fire for political bias. Yesterday's Sunday Telegraph carried a long attack on the BBC by Charles Lewington, Tory communications chief.

True, there is something a little half-hearted about this sally - more of opening salvo - for it is full of broad smears that will convice few. Take this for instance: "Tales abound of BBC journalists weeping when Labour lost the 1992 election." Well, tales may abound, but I certainly never saw any tears.

The broad allegation is that "For every one BBC journalist with broad common sense, there are three with undisguised left-wing predjudices." Quite who is counting what here is not explained. I suppose as a left- of-centre journalist myself, I may not be the best person to describe what I found in my seven years in the BBC newsroom. But having arrived there straight from the David Owen wing of the SDP, I was always clearly labelled as a non-Tory. That made me (and my bosses) all the more aware that I was under constant scrutiny for the least hint of political bias. It is not a nice feeling, but every single reporter in the BBC feels it all the time. And you are never off-duty, for fear of a casual remark at a party maliciously reported in a gossip column. (None of this makes for the best journalism - but that is the BBC's perennial problem.)

The tension in the BBC newsroom during the last election hung heavy in the air. Threat and counter-threat rained in on us nightly, as the spin doctors tried to move their leaders' speeches up the running order or complain about some piece of "unfair" analysis. It is an exceedingly hard climate to work in. Are you being biased? Or are you being successfully intimidated? Each side claims you have been spun by pressure from the other and you become uncertain yourself. You doubt your own judgements of fairness.

The heavy hits came first from Chris Patten (the "nice" one?) at the party conference, calling on all the faithful to call the BBC and complain, giving out the number on television. Then came a bullying threat from Kenneth Baker, then Home Secretary, in the form of a reminder to us that the licence fee still had to be negotiated.

The loyal newspapers were quick to snap at any reporters heels. There was a nasty and unfounded attack by the Express on a health report of mine, and an education report from one the correspondents in my Social Affairs unit. How do you defend yourself? Not easily.

Was the atmosphere overwhelmingly pro-Labour? Most of the news and current affairs producers were surprisingly apolitical. They were far more worried about getting a good story on air than in promoting some private political agenda - ambition and fear came first. No doubt if I had probed (it was not done to ask) there were more centre and centre-left producers and reporters than rightists. But did it make them biased? As graduates, they merely reflected what the recent British Social Attitudes survey found, that those with degrees are more liberal than those without.

As for membership of one party or the other, I can remember as many cases of people coming from or going to Tory Central Office than Labour's Walworth Road. My own former BBC PA is in Central Office now. In all of newspapers and broadcasting, there is a regular traffic between politicians and journalists, each perpetually thinking they can do the other's job better. (Bernard Ingham is now in the chair of the political programme The Midnight Hour).

Someone I worked closely with, a senior Panorama producer, was Shawn Woodward. I had no idea of what his politics were until he suddenly left the BBC and popped up in Charles Lewington's current post as head of Tory communications, (whence he too harried the BBC through the 1992 election). When Joy Johnson left after years in the BBC, I was surprised when she went off to work for Labour. (Now Lewington is complaining at her return to the BBC and it does look like a clumsy pre-election move.) Another friend was the late Stephen Milligan MP, who startled us all with his abrupt announcement that he had been selected as a Tory candidate. Travelling the other way came Jeremy Mayhew whom I knew as a close adviser to Peter Lilley. All of a sudden, there he was in the BBC, first as a Newsnight producer, now as a high-up apparatchik. Patricia Hodgson, head of policy and planning no less, came to the BBC from the Tory candidates' list. None of this is cause for surprise, so symbiotic are politics and journalism.

In fact, it is entirely neccessary that the BBC has close contacts with both sides, so at one point both Peter Mandelson and Sir Tim Bell were on the payroll. For the charge to stick, Lewington has to prove bias on screen, and here his accusations are particualrly inept. He claims all "Euro-realists" are treated as misfits. This is distinctly odd, since the one thing everyone knows about Peter Jay, economics editor and setter of the tone of Euro and business reporting, is that he has always been profoundly anti-EU. And he has Panoramas under his belt to prove it.

But it is not worth challenging each of Lewington's attacks, for they miss thier mark. I sense that this time, clutching at straws, Tory attacks on the BBC will do the Government no good and will have little resonance with any but their own party activists: BBC polls show most viewers see the BBC as pro-Government-biased. Perhaps now Labour, in the ascendant, would do well to take the high ground and with dignity rein back its taste for nit-picking nightly nigglesn