A touch of ministerial paranoia

Come off it, Mr Aitken, that phoney lament of a Tory-bashing media conspiracy is wearing thin John Humphrys' multifaceted career could be the subject of a Tory broadcast
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The Independent Online
At the weekend the clocks went forward, temporally speaking, and backward, politically speaking, as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Jonathan Aitken, launched an attack on the "open partisanship" of the BBC, suggesting it should be renamed the "Blair Broadcasting Corporation". If the first development marked the start of British Summer Time, the second just as surely marked the beginning of British Election Time.

Many have drawn comparisons between the remarks by Mr Aitken - backed up yesterday by the minister responsible for the media, the National Heritage Secretary, Stephen Dorrell - and hostility towards the corporation in the Thatcher period from the Prime Minister herself and from Chairman Norman Tebbit. But this parallel is false. We are dealing with two intriguingly different kinds of political conspiracy theory.

The hatred of Tebbit and Thatcher for the BBC was what we might call triumphalist paranoia. These politicians believed that they had changed the country absolutely, remade its institutions, and yet, to their fury, there remained a single pocket of (as they saw it) liberal resistance - the BBC - which therefore had to be crushed. This is an unusual variety of paranoia, which arises not from the traditional fear that everyone is against you, but from the perception that everyone is for you, expect for one single person or institution, who must, therefore, be holding out deliberately or maliciously.

By contrast, the dislike of Aitken and Dorrell for the BBC is what we might call defeatist paranoia, the more conventional strain of the psychosis. Doomed to almost certain defeat at the next general election, these politicians become obsessed that everyone is against them and, moreover, for Tony Blair. This extends even to the formerly supportive right-wing press, in which Paul Johnson is to be found almost daily comparing the new Labour leader to Margaret Thatcher. In this context, the BBC becomes an easy and obvious target, because unlike other apparent fans of Tony Blair - former life-long Conservative voters, for example, or the Daily Mail - it has a statutory duty to "impartiality". Lashing out at the BBC becomes a way of consoling yourself that Blair's poll lead is all some kind of media conspiracy.

In the Eighties, strong Tories attacked broadcasters because they thought they would be in power for ever. In the Nineties, weak Tories do so because they fear they are about to be thrown out of power.

Even so, the latest row does raise useful questions about modern politics and journalism. Let's examine, for example, Jonathan Aitken's central proposition: that BBC journalists are closet Blairites. Well, although Mr Aitken was not speaking with any subtlety whatsoever, he did brush up against a subtle truth. Journalists, particularly in news, tend not to be Tories, because a certain contempt for the status quo is a professional requirement. But neither were they ever committed Kinnockites or Smithites. Anyone who saw the blanched press doing hasty sums on the back of the text of Mr Smith's "mock budget" during the 1992 election was aware of serious media doubts about Labour's taxation plans.

Because salaries in journalism are much higher than in other generally liberal professions, such as teaching or social work, the politics of very many journalists, at least since the Eighties, have probably been "liberal on social issues, conservative on taxation". This is what Blairism offers, and therefore a large number of journalists probably are broadly Blairite, in the same way that the platform on which Bill Clinton ran in 1992 matched the prejudices - touch my conscience, leave my wallet - of mainstream American journalists.

It is, though, a huge and accusatory leap to suggest, as Mr Aitken does, that the work of journalists automatically reflects these private beliefs - as the battered President Clinton is now in a position to confirm. And anyway, attempts to generalise about the politics of broadcasters crash into inconvenient facts. Most in the Labour Party would be surprised at the idea that Robin Oakley, the BBC political editor, is blatantly on their side. The corporation's foreign affairs editor, John Simpson, directs his written contributions not to Living Marxism but to the impeccably right-wing Spectator. Star political interviewer David Frost wears a Major knighthood.

Or take Mr Aitken's chosen target: John Humphrys, of the Today programme. I couldn't begin to guess what Mr Humphrys does in the polling booth, but his attitude to work is, if anything, vividly Thatcherite. As well as presenting Today, he hosts a Sunday lunchtime show on BBC1, another short series on Radio 4 and reads the television news on certain evenings and weekends. In terms of getting "on your bike" to look for work, as Thatcherism urged us to do, Mr Humphrys is the holder of the yellow jersey. He even, we now discover, cycles off between broadcasting commitments to chair in-camera events.

On the subject of the outside activities of presenters, the minister has a stronger case. There are even, reportedly, cases of BBC interviewers running outside training courses on answering tough questions from broadcasters, which does seem rather like the police holding evening classes about how to beat the breathalyser. Yet even here, Conservative complaints are somewhat hypocritical. The increased ability of freelances to exploit their skills and connections is in part a result of the looser employment contracts and reduced trade restrictions encouraged by Conservative governments. John Humphrys' multifaceted career could virtually be the subject of a Tory election broadcast.

Mr Aitken further objects that Humphrys is rude and aggressive. He picks on Tory ministers, we are told, and is soft on their shadows. To my ears, Humphrys is, if anything, a little too determinedly avuncular, but it probably is true that Tories get a tougher time from him than do their opposites. Governments, of whatever colour, will always suffer more hostile scrutiny than aspirant administrations, because the interview about a concrete cock-up, an actual calamity, will inevitably be meatier than the one about hypothetical avoidance of the situation.

There are those in the Labour Party who believe that the BBC is ideologically committed to it. There are, God help them, those in the Labour Party who believe that Blairism has already had a hard time from the media. There are probably voters who believe that, morally, Tories deserve to be treated worse than Labour. But what matters is that these things are not believed by BBC news executives.

Humphrys and Paxman and others will be as persistent and interrogative towards ministers in a Blair administration as they have been towards Major's representatives. If they are not, then it will be a scandal, and Jonathan Aitken will be right to raise the matter from the wilderness of opposition. Perhaps be could even appear on one of John Humphrys' numerous media vehicles, On the Ropes , in which public figures discuss the experience of failure, the fear of which has prompted his infantile outburst.

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