BBC-bashing: a modern ritual

It was in the autumn of 1991 that the Conservative Party last declared war on the "bias" of the BBC's political coverage. The casus belli was a report in the Nine O'Clock News, in the week of the Tory Party conference, looking at the state of the NHS. Senior Tories who had previously distanced themselves from the pre-1990 Thatcherite taunts about the "Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation", went nuclear. "The Prime Minister had to be scraped off the ceiling," said one source. The party chairman, Christopher Patten, roused the faithful with a call to write, telephone and pester the biased Beeb.

From then until the general election of 1992, the editors of television and radio news programmes were plagued by the self-appointed bias-detectors of Smith Square, Walworth Road and Cowley Street. Staff would swap stories of phone-calls from the parties' press officers - or "heavy breathers", as they became known - criticising bulletins, arguing with adjectives and even querying running orders for programmes yet to be broadcast.

Now it is all happening again. Outwardly - as then - the BBC stance is one of stolid rejection. It stands by its journalists, just as it did in 1991. Internally, however, things are rather more complicated. Right now editors, producers and reporters will be examining every story and every prospective interview for their potential to cause a row. They are very nervous.

In the old days the Corporation's management of its journalism was characterised by long periods of smugness punctuated by short but intense panics. Journalism was whatever the BBC said it was; but it broadly reflected the pragmatic and empiricist values of the liberal establishment. By the late Eighties this complacency was evaporating, as the Corporation realised that somehow it had failed properly to take account of the Thatcher revolution.

John Birt's appointment to the BBC in 1987, to run its news and current affairs, was widely interpreted as an attempt to bring the BBC to heel. Birt himself was more worried by what he saw as a lack of intellectual rigour. He ushered in an era of guidelines. There are now guidelines for producers on treating grieving relatives properly, on not paying criminals, on courtesy in interviews, on almost everything.

In the new internal audit system, the annual performance review, qualities such as scepticism and regional representation are tested throughout the Corporation. Each department and each programme has to account for its performance under these and a series of other headings. The idea is to create a culture of constant self-questioning and high standards.

But this new culture has been only partially understood or absorbed by many at the BBC. The News and Current Affairs Directorate is packed with brilliant and highly ambitious young men and women, but they, too, often lack intellectual confidence and end up second-guessing what their bosses might want. Self-regulation can all too easily become self-censorship.

This matters less for the kinds of issues covered by the producer's guidelines. But it offers no assistance when programme-makers are dealing with the shifting sands of news values: which stories should run, and how much weight they would be given. Here, there are no pat answers. A news story is important because enough people in the business say it is.

When I worked briefly on the Nine O'Clock News three years ago, I was struck that one definition of a good story was that it might be expected to appear on the front page of the next morning's Independent, whilst the Today programme's yardstick was what might run on that evening's Nine O'Clock News. A clever news editor knows that the judgement which matters most is that of his or her peers. A decision to downplay a story that everyone else is keen on can be a sign of real courage, or just foolishness.

Mindful of Birt's mission to explain, the need for seriousness and analysis, open-mindedness and rigour, journalists are also too well aware of the competition from ITN, the world of news norms, stuffed with personalities, moral panics and attractive ephemera. They are genuinely torn. Which explains why it is possible on the same day to find intelligent and searching journalism on a BBC current affairs programme - and yet have a minor and unimportant comment by a government minister absurdly blown up into a top headline.

Contrary to politicians' claims, they are rarely on the side of enlightenment. Virginia Bottomley is famously willing to appear on the Today programme for a four-minute mauling at the drop of a cue. Last year, however, she resolutely and repeatedly refused to take part in a major BBC2 programme debating the future of the NHS. She is by no means the only minister to take this view - whatever bias ministers worry about, it is not the one against understanding.

The bottom line, of course, is that the BBC is always under pressure, because of the licence fee. Even with the promise of a new Charter and five years more funding, the Corporation is still dependent upon the level set by the government. The Charter, by institutionalising "objectivity", also makes it difficult for the BBC to initiate debate rather than simply reflect it. There is too little room for people to develop new arguments and opinions without the spectre of bias being raised. Thus, the charter protects, but it also restricts.

In this atmosphere a combination of pressure from political parties, and a nervousness about exactly what management is up to with all its calls for greater scepticism and courtesy, can combine to create a surprising timidity on the part of hardened journalists. In 1992 the BBC managed in the end to shake off the heavy breathers and assert itself. It will do so again.

David Aaronovitch

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Day In a Page

Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference