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

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
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
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little