A few flaws don't make the BBC institutionally biased

'Maybe what Greg Dyke needs now is a big juicy row with the Labour Government'
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The Independent Online

Over 30 years ago, when I was - in every sense - a revolting student, the great actor and director Jean Louis Barrault came to give a lecture at my university. At the end, I summoned up my fractured O-level French to ask him why, as a man of the left, he hadn't backed an occupation by workers and students at - I think - the Comédie Française in Paris. "Ah," he replied, "you have to understand that when I go on stage, I leave my party card in the dressing room."

That now seems a much better answer than it did then. At the time, it seemed to be no more than the "show must go on" routine favoured by luvvies everywhere. Now it seems more like a profound statement of the way in which the true professional transcends ideology when he works, rather as Robert Tressell's downtrodden house-painter in that primer of the left The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists muses on the fact that he cannot bear to paint an absentee plutocrat's drawing-room other than perfectly.

It is a long way from all that to the latest row at the BBC, in which some simmering discontent among Conservatives, or at least elements of the Conservative press, has come briefly to the boil over the appointment of the former editor of this newspaper and "Blairite" columnist Andrew Marr as the BBC's political editor. Marr doesn't have a party card. And he isn't remotely as ideological, if indeed he is ideological at all, as Barrault or, for that matter, the Edwardian house-painter in Tressell's novel. But that makes it more rather than less useful as a reminder that you can do your job very well indeed without being a bloodless person who has no views about anything.

Which is worth remembering in the context of the present fracas, in which The Daily Telegraph has been leading the charge. As it happens, much of it is not about Marr at all; Conservative Central Office has been muted to (sensibly) warm about the appointment. But those who purport to be outraged by it are actually engaging in another exercise - precisely the same one, as it happens, that Labour engaged in intensively in opposition and still does quite frequently in government: good old-fashioned party political intimidation of the sort that the BBC has become commendably good at resisting, but that always reaches a crescendo as an election draws nearer.

That is not to say that the BBC has no ground at all to make up with the Conservative Party. I thought at the time, and still think, there were problems in appointing as director general a man who had given £50,000 to a single political party, even if he was almost certainly by far the best-qualified of the candidates otherwise. William Hague expended much of the capital he should have stocked up by denouncing Greg Dyke publicly before the appointment - which had the perverse effect of making it more difficult not to appoint him.

But it still meant that, fairly or not, every big decision taken by the corporation would be coloured in the public, or at least the media mind by that single fact - never mind that, although he met Marr after the choice was made, Dyke was not much involved in his appointment. Maybe Dyke needs a big juicy row with the Government.

Second, the Tories may have a half a point when they complain about "issue-based reporting" when a spending decision is "balanced" only by pressure groups complaining that it is not generous enough. Third - and again because of decisions well below Dyke's pay grade - the BBC has given cause for anxiety to its fans about its partiality on the odd occasion. One of those may have been Jeremy Hardy and Linda Smith taking the mickey out of all the London mayoral candidates except Ken Livingstone on BBC 2 - though the polls had already closed by then, and it hardly conforms to Lord Tebbit's claim that the BBC is "owned by, run by and takes its orders from Labour Party".

The other lapse, admitted with hindsight by the BBC, was much more serious. To omit a Conservative voice from a recent Question Time was an affront to the 31 per cent of the electorate who voted Tory in Great Britain in 1997, and William Hague was right to complain. The initial defence, moreover, was an affront to the BBC itself. It was that, since the programme was coming from Scotland, the SNP should be treated as the official opposition. That might just have run if the programme had been transmitted only in Scotland. In a networked broadcast it was was an inexcusable - albeit, as it now seems, a one-off - betrayal of the BBC's role as a uniquely British institution.

So it was bad. But it's not the norm. Class-A politician though he is, Lord Tebbit could not be farther from the mark. And not only because his credibility as a BBC-basher is severely undermined by his unrestrained - and unjustified - attacks on Kate Adie's on-the-spot reporting of the bombing of Libya when he was a senior minister in 1986. Owned by the Labour Party, when healthy but frequently pain-inflicting anti-government satire is probably at its highest level since the Macmillan era? Run by the Labour Party, when the Government ceaselessly complains about its output, from protesting about coverage of the Lisbon EU summit as a story about ministers travelling in three jets, to - indefensibly - trying to rubbish John Simpson's superb coverage of the Kosovo war? Taking its orders from the Labour Party, when the BBC has a fine record of resisting pre-election incidents of threatening behaviour by Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson too numerous to mention?

Which brings us back to the rather synthetic row about Marr's appointment, which I predict will rapidly die down. It may be that his predecessor, Robin Oakley, has been poorly treated - and if he's a Conservative, which I doubt, he has never shown it in his work. It may even be that the job should have been advertised, though Marr would, I suspect, still have got it. But what he will bring to the job is insight, objectivity and, above all, the capacity to make politics interesting. Which matters as much to the Conservative Party as to any other, if not more - and all the more so, now that ITN has pandered to the growing and worrying cynicism about the political process with its inexcusable and democracy-sapping decision to junk the million-plus viewers who used to enjoy News at Ten.

Marr is also straight - and interested in British Conservatism. His predecessor but one, John Cole, was personally a dyed-in-the-wool Labour man, indeed much more so than Marr, and also had pronounced Unionist views on Northern Ireland. But his coverage of, say, Thatcher's fall in 1990 was a model of the balanced and exciting reporting that made him a national treasure. He was trusted by Tory politicians as much as by Labour ones because they knew he was a first-class reporter.

And that's what Marr will now be doing. Commentating is something different. It can rarely work unless the commentator expresses a point of view. But Marr is now returning to the trade that lies at the heart of all journalism. He doesn't, as I say, have a party card. But if he did, he, too, would be leaving it in the dressing-room.