Night follows day, alcohol gives you a headache and the BBC clashes with the Government. These are laws of the universe, and the only surprise about the Chancellor's attack on the "hyperbolic" BBC was that he seemed to want to draw attention to a story that would do him no good.
George Osborne is right. The BBC is biased. Most of its staff take a dim view of the Conservatives, naturally. That is another law of the universe. That bias is not very strong, though, and most people in the BBC try to compensate for it. The bias that really matters is a bias against power. The BBC is biased against big companies and above all against governments. That is why, although BBC people tend to disapprove of Tories, the corporation ends up having rows with governments of whichever party.
The BBC clashed with the Thatcher government, over its coverage of the Falklands War, the miners' strike, the 1986 bombing of Libya, and over interviews with IRA people and a libel action brought by MPs named "Maggie's Militant Tendency". But its most serious crisis was the clash with Blair's government over the case for the Iraq war.
For people such as me, plagued by a sympathy for those charged with the responsibility of making decisions, the BBC's bias is irritating, or worse. In the case of the Hutton Report, I thought the corporation's failure to take responsibility for having published the most monstrous untruth about the Blair government was corrosively anti-democratic.
The BBC's bias presents a peculiar challenge to a party in government. Alastair Campbell, Blair's director of communications, became so frustrated that he and his boss were accused of lying to take the country to war that he burst into the Channel 4 News studio and demanded to be allowed to defend himself. Craig Oliver, his No 10 successor, said to David Cameron when he took the job that, if he ever suggested going into a TV studio unannounced to defend the Government, "Please stop me and fire me."
How, though, is the Government supposed to defend itself when the BBC's reporting is unfair? There is no doubt, it seems to me, that a few sentences on the Today programme on the day after the Autumn Statement were uncalled for. "It is utterly terrifying... You are back to the land of The Road to Wigan Pier." The Chancellor was entitled to be enraged. He called it "hyberbolic" and "nonsense". A Conservative spokesperson told me it gave an impression of "absolute destitution, poverty and disaster". It suggested "people having no shoes and 20 people living in a room". This may overestimate the public's knowledge of George Orwell's Depression reportage but, on this, the BBC is guilty as charged.
The corporation defended itself by the standard tactic of appeal to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, that monastery of unimpeachable integrity. The IFS says that the spending cuts implied by the Autumn Statement in later years are "colossal", which the BBC thinks gives it licence for a literary flourish.
This is typical. The Macpherson inquiry a few years ago found the Metropolitan Police guilty of institutional racism. A similar inquiry would find the BBC guilty of institutional stubbornness. When criticised by the Government, its reaction is always to assume that it is being bullied because it "speaks the truth to power", one of its favourite clichés. It should have occurred to the BBC that it had been "slapdash", as a Tory spokesman said, and that a prompt retraction and apology might be justified.
Instead, the BBC raised the stakes by reporting prominently and with relish that the Chancellor had objected to its reporting. Thus the scale of future cuts became the focus of the "day two" reporting of the Autumn Statement.
Osborne's response seems miscalculated. Campbell could have told him that the more he protested, the more the BBC was sure (a) it was right, and (b) its rightness was an important story. And the more likely it was that the Daily Mail front page would be, as it was on Friday: "Tories Go To War With BBC Over Cuts".
One source close to the Prime Minister told me the BBC's dominance of the media was "like being in bed with an elephant". He said: "The BBC accounts for over half of media impact in this country. I'm not saying the BBC is biased, but what the BBC is capable of doing is magnifying and amplifying."
He realised that attacking the BBC would make matters worse in the short term, but argued that "a shot across the bows and move on" was needed. "We need to let the BBC know that we are not going to tolerate it."
It didn't work for Blair and Campbell, and it won't work for Cameron and Osborne. The BBC's anti-government bias is too strong. Still, I would rather live in a country in which the public broadcaster is biased against authority than one in which it is biased in its favour.Reuse content