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

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