Stephen Glover on the Press

See-saw of political prejudices can be balanced from Left and Right
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The Independent Online

Most columnists leave an impression behind them; it is difficult to recall any columns they wrote. But I do vividly remember a piece written by the late Hugo Young in The Guardian shortly after Andrew Marr had been appointed political editor of the BBC some five years ago. Some pundits, including myself, had wondered whether, with the best will in the world, Mr Marr could be perfectly objective given that he had quite recently been a columnist with marked New Labour sympathies. (He was also editor of this newspaper). Mr Young rallied to Mr Marr's defence, and, in so doing, laid down a startling doctrine. A former centre-left columnist such as Mr Marr could be trusted to be objective, whereas his counterpart on the centre-right could not. According to Mr Young, right-wing journalists were, by training and disposition, incapable of balance. "The right," he wrote, "still speaks from the bunker of the dispossessed."

Most columnists leave an impression behind them; it is difficult to recall any columns they wrote. But I do vividly remember a piece written by the late Hugo Young in The Guardian shortly after Andrew Marr had been appointed political editor of the BBC some five years ago. Some pundits, including myself, had wondered whether, with the best will in the world, Mr Marr could be perfectly objective given that he had quite recently been a columnist with marked New Labour sympathies. (He was also editor of this newspaper). Mr Young rallied to Mr Marr's defence, and, in so doing, laid down a startling doctrine. A former centre-left columnist such as Mr Marr could be trusted to be objective, whereas his counterpart on the centre-right could not. According to Mr Young, right-wing journalists were, by training and disposition, incapable of balance. "The right," he wrote, "still speaks from the bunker of the dispossessed."

That column has swum back into my mind with the news that Mr Marr is stepping down as the BBC's political editor. He will take over the Sunday morning programme of Sir David Frost, a man whose mild narcolepsy has not prevented him from asking the odd penetrating question. Everyone will have a view as to whether Mr Marr was as objective as it is possible to be in this fallen world. My own feeling is that he struggled manfully with his inclinations without being quite able to overcome them. But he was - is - an exceptional broadcaster, at once deeply knowledgeable about the political process, and yet able, with his gift for metaphor, to bring it alive for ordinary people.

As it happens, Mr Marr's translation to Sir David's sofa is only one of several important moves amongst leading political journalists. Trevor Kavanagh, the political editor of The Sun, is supposed to be throwing in his quill, though some say he is having second thoughts. David Hughes, his opposite, and much respected, number at the Daily Mail, is assuming a new role at the paper. John Humphrys, of the Today programme, has said that his current BBC contract is "definitely, definitely" his last. Elinor Goodman, the political editor of Channel 4, will be leaving after 23 years in the job. In their way, these departures are quite as significant as any Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. One person who will not be moving is Jeremy Paxman, aka Paxo, who has been at Newsnight for as long as anyone can remember. I cannot conceal that I am rather concerned about Paxo, who increasingly resembles a slightly desperate pantomime dame, working his face into amazing contortions of contempt and incredulity as he regards his unfortunate victims. His election-night interview of George Galloway has already established itself as a collector's item. But I suppose he is, in his way, a national treasure.

Inevitably, the identity of Mr Marr's successor is much discussed. I certainly don't want to damage the chances of any of the candidates by recommending them. My only plea is that no taint of bias should hang over the BBC's next political editor. There is Mark Mardell, the BBC's larky chief political correspondent, who gives the impression of having slept fully clothed in a haystack, and enjoyed it immensely. Politically, he seems pretty straight to me. Then we have Martha Kearney, Newsnight's political editor, whom I find I cannot always follow, though it may well be the late hour. She is said to be strongly fancied by Helen Boaden, the BBC's director of news. Another possible candidate is Adam Boulton, Sky's rumply political editor, who is an attractive fellow, though suspected in some quarters of harbouring New Labour sympathies, and, in any case, probably beyond the BBC's pocket.

Nick Robinson, ITV's political editor and a former senior BBC man, would have a strong suit if he were interested. Mr Robinson was a member of the Conservative association at Oxford, but that was 20 years ago, and it is hardly proof that he is a paid-up Tory. His political reporting seems to me admirably objective, though he is certainly combative, and does not give the impression of being part of a cosy political class, which probably explains why some in New Labour dislike him. During the election campaign, John Prescott referred to him as "a f***ing pillock". It would be an outrage if the BBC failed to appoint Mr Robinson for fear of offending the Government, to which it has been noticeably deferential since the fallout over the Hutton report. This is a process we should all watch very carefully.

Mr Young's doctrine is, of course, nonsense. Perhaps there are dangers in asking pundits to report, whether they are of the Right or the Left, since they are in the habit of voicing their opinions, and this may be difficult to suppress. Even so, I can think of one right-wing pundit who has successfully conquered his political prejudices in his role as an interviewer. I speak of Andrew Neil, whose daily politics programme on BBC2 during the election campaign was both informative and balanced. The closest student could not have detected the slightest bias. As an interviewer, Mr Neil is the Cinderella of political television, shunted into a late-night slot on Thursdays, or restricted to party conferences and elections. Paxo is a sort of gladiator-cum-nihilist who wants to smite everything and everyone. Mr Humphrys (let's hope he won't leave after all) is a heroic figure, but best on radio. In Mr Neil, the BBC has the perfect political interviewer - balanced, knowledgeable, forensic and fair. Think of how many millions of pounds his employers, the Barclay brothers, could have saved on Mr Neil's botched publishing enterprises if only BBC executives had had the gumption to recognise this unsung genius in their midst. The trouble is that far too many of them think as Mr Young. In Mr Neil, we have found the triumphant refutation of that pernicious doctrine.

Predictable liberal papers should get crotchety

Whenever a Tory leadership campaign is announced, well-established traditions are followed. Certain so-called modernisers step forward to assert that the country still believes that the Conservatives are the nasty party, and something must be done. Then the liberal newspapers - by which I mean The Guardian and The Independent - invite modernisers, of whom few have previously heard, to put their case. On this occasion, this newspaper published an article by John Bercow, and The Guardian another by Tim Yeo, which were largely interchangeable, and could, indeed, have been written at any time during the past 10 years.

I sometimes wonder what the likes of Mr Bercow and Mr Yeo do between writing such articles. Readers who seize their tablets of stone should not run away with the idea that these Tory MPs are particularly important. My worry about this ritual is that if the Conservative Party was to follow their strictures, its policies would become even more indistinguishable from those of New Labour than they already are. Surely, a properly functioning democracy should offer a degree of choice. Liberal newspapers should not want all political parties to share their own views. When these occasions arise in the future, as doubtless they will, I would like to see The Guardian and The Independent running pieces by crotchety non-modernisers.

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