Time to take sides

Alastair Campbell believes that the BBC is motivated by an anti-war agenda. But in a climate of depressing viewing figures for political programmes, writes Tim Luckhurst, is bias always a bad thing?
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Tony Blair's communications chief thinks that the "lying" BBC - or the part of it that lets Andrew Gilligan on air - is driven by bias: a feeling that the Prime Minister should never have gone to war in Iraq. The BBC, for its part, says its mission is nothing more than to present the unvarnished truth, and that it does not take sides.

But is impartiality realistic? Is it even desirable? Political programming is failing to engage viewers and listeners - witness the tiny audiences for the BBC's new shows: 250,000 for Andrew Neil's The Daily Politics, and fewer than 600,000 for Rod Liddle's Weekend on BBC2. Could allowing explicitly "right-wing" programmes - albeit balanced in the schedule by "left-wing" ones - draw viewers into the debate?

At Channel 5, Chris Shaw, controller of news and current affairs, thinks so. Shaw has called for a relaxation of impartiality rules. He said recently: "I feel very strongly that this is the way forward. We have a liberal, middle-class consensus of impartiality that we all subscribe to in the industry, but that impartiality is not necessarily shared by others. We know that people from ethnic minorities are seeking their news elsewhere. The C2-D-E majority are the people who are abandoning the news the fastest, yet the liberal consensus prevails."

Six months after the BBC's long-awaited relaunch of its political coverage, Mark Damazer, its deputy head of news and current affairs, says that increasing audiences for politics is "one of the most fundamental questions. There is a real problem." Ratings are close to what they were before the BBC emerged from its year-long fit of self-analysis. Harder evidence comes from turnout figures in real elections. Contests for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly provided proof of the scale of popular disengagement. Turnout in Scotland fell from 59 per cent in 1999 to just 49 per cent this year, Welsh participation slumped still further to a mere 38 per cent.

Blame the politicians, not the broadcasters? That's the view of Rod Liddle, co-presenter of BBC2's Weekend, which has just finished a trial run. "Why are people not interested? Because there is no great ideological dispute."

Damazer agrees that the political context is making life hard. "Compared with the ideological debate that shaped British politics in the 1980s, things have changed." But he draws attention to a more complex problem. "We have seen a classic example in the past fortnight. Peter Hain popped up asking about the most fundamental question in politics - who gets what? He said he wanted a debate. He said it 15 times. Everyone at the BBC started sharpening their pens to engage in that debate. But the sound of the portcullis slamming could be heard all over the country. As far as the political class was concerned, the debate on taxation was dead. We have a problem with political debate on television, but who is to blame for that?"

Damazer acknowledges that, in an era when broadcast interviews and debates have replaced rallies and door-to-door canvassing, there is no doubt that a key way to improve political campaigns is to improve the way they happen on television.

In a recent interview, the BBC's director of news, Richard Sambrook, ruled out the idea of taking sides. He alleged: "Murdoch would like to turn Sky into a version of Fox. But I think that regulated impartiality is what has driven the high quality of broadcast journalism in Britain."

Earlier this year, Sky brought the arch-reactionary columnist and commentator Richard Littlejohn back to television in a talk show in which he is actively encouraged to vent his full range of non-consensual political opinions. Littlejohn has already provoked one complaint to the ITC. Murdoch seems unconcerned. Asked by The New York Times whether Sky was now modelling itself on his overtly partisan US cable station Fox News, he replied: "I wish. I think that Sky News is very popular and they are doing well, but they don't have the entertaining talk shows." He is said to be irritated by his British channel's "liberal bias".

Fox is now America's top-rated cable station, attracting more than two million regular viewers to overtly ideological shows such as the right-wing O'Reilly Factor and the nightly confrontation between two news presenters, Hannity & Colmes, one liberal and the other clearly not. Could it work here? Nick Pollard, Sky's head of news, declined to discuss that.

But the idea is not restricted to right-of-centre media moguls. A report published last year by Ian Hargreaves, former editor of The Independent and professor of journalism at Cardiff University, suggested that the new regulator, Ofcom, should consider allowing some broadcasters to take a partisan approach.

Chris Bryant MP, who sits on the Commons Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport, is appalled by the idea. "When you buy a newspaper, you assume it might be true. Television you assume to be gospel. To surrender that would be a risk. The USA has blatantly biased shock-jocks and the lowest turnout in the world."

Rod Liddle would not entirely abandon the obligation to impartiality, but he thinks it is interpreted in an excessively conservative way. "The most sophisticated assumption broadcasters make about politics is that there are two sides to every story. There are not. There are lots. There is room for people to adopt more partial positions. They know that. If you ask me to present a political programme, you are not seeking impartiality." He cites as an example an interview he conducted with a British Muslim on the first edition of Weekend - when he asked whether the 72 virgins in Paradise promised as a prize to each suicide bomber would be sexually attractive. "It seems like a reasonable question when someone is surrendering his life for something."

Liddle does not accept that existing political broadcasting is impartial. He thinks it centres on a set of clearly liberal and élitist opinions. Could shattering that consensus do more for electoral participation and audience figures than Andrew Neil on a sofa?

The veteran political interviewer Brian Walden doubts that the debate will be allowed to develop enough to consider the attitude of viewers. "I don't think there is the remotest possibility that it will happen. The demand for impartiality is too jealously promoted by the political parties themselves. They count balance in seconds and monitor it with stopwatches."

It is a telling point. The decision on political bias will be taken by legislators, not broadcasters. Given their history of spotting partiality in the most innocuous political coverage, it takes a substantial leap of imagination to envisage a day when the director general of the BBC will respond to a protest from a minister by saying: "Biased? Yes, it was - blatantly. That was the whole point."