A serious flaw at the heart of the corporation

There is a bias within the BBC and the row with Alastair Campbell has exposed it. By Steve Richards
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Like most conflicts, the war between the Government and the BBC is more complicated and multi-layered than it seems. At first sight it might appear as if a besieged government is turning on an easy target to divert attention from its follies over Iraq. I suspect that will be the instinct of most readers of this newspaper: here is a predictable twist in the narrative, the scheming spin-doctor attacks the noble BBC. Not surprisingly, many in the media have also seen the story in those terms, siding with fellow journalists against the government machine.

As readers of my column will know, I was opposed to the war against Iraq and continue to believe that Tony Blair made a series of misjudgements that have damaged his credibility in Britain and parts of Europe. I also regard some of the BBC's journalists as the best in the business, while a few of its managers almost explode with agonised integrity. On the whole the BBC's Today programme is incomparably sharper under its recently appointed editor. Yet I find myself more or less entirely in agreement with Alastair Campbell in his onslaught against the BBC. I would go further and argue that Campbell's broader analysis highlights a serious flaw in the corporation's journalism.

On the specifics of the charge that Campbell "sexed up" the intelligence material, the BBC has introduced a whopping great red herring. This is not only the view of the apoplectic Campbell but it is also the verdict of senior opponents of the war. Robin Cook is almost as cross with the BBC as Campbell. As Cook said on Friday: "It's very important that we don't get distracted into the argument about deception and sexing up". From what I can gather, Campbell will be able to demonstrate conclusively that the material in the controversial dossier was not "sexed up" in the way the BBC reported. This is also Cook's view. The key questions relating to the war are different and should not be lost in the fog: why was the intelligence wrong, and why did Blair choose to believe the most alarmist reports? The answers to these questions may well be highly damaging to the Government. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee has been on a wild-goose chase, while paying less attention to these more serious questions.

It would be quite wrong for senior BBC figures to convince themselves that Campbell is attacking them as a diversionary tactic, wallowing in the wild-goose chase. It was the BBC that broke the story and the Foreign Affairs Committee that decided wrongly to focus on this issue. At which point Campbell had little choice but to respond to the allegation. Senior ministers and officials, not just Campbell, are genuinely furious with the BBC. You might think they are affecting anger because they support the Prime Minister on the war in Iraq. Not so. Some of them admit privately that other aspects of Blair's approach to the war were flawed. They do not believe that one of the flaws was sexing up the intelligence in the way the BBC suggested.

So why did the BBC choose to make the sexed-up claim at such a high volume? It is for the BBC to answer the precise question, but here are some broader points, partly based on my experience of reporting politics for the BBC for several years.

First, we need to deal with another red herring. The BBC is emphatically not biased in favour of political parties or in its approach to specific issues. Campbell was wrong, for example, to allege that its coverage was anti-war. From my experience, the BBC goes out of its way to avoid being partisan and to report issues fairly. That is almost part of its problem.

The real issue is that the BBC suffers from a bias of a different sort and all politicians should be aware of it, including Conservatives who wrongly detect a left-wing prejudice. Parts of the corporation choose to work on the assumption that politicians and their advisers, especially spin-doctors, are up to no good. That is their starting point, the prism through which they view politics. They begin by being biased against all politicians and their advisers, convincing themselves that this is a form of impartiality. How can we be biased if we treat them all like bastards?

Some affect this machismo because they think it will impress their many bosses. Others are highly intelligent people fascinated by politics. They want to be players, to make waves in the same way that newspapers manage to do. There is, though, a huge obstacle for them. They cannot make waves by taking a stand on policies or by mounting an attack from the left or the right. Newspapers have a variety of ways to make waves. The Sun may decide to take on Blair over the euro. The Independent will have a go at him over the war. Others might attack or praise the Tories' proposals for the NHS. The BBC cannot do this. Even privately, the discussions of senior BBC figures are often limited to banal observations on the nature of a political performance: "I thought Blair was brilliant deal- ing with the anti-war audience on Newsnight". "I disagree. I thought he looked nervy and exhausted." They comment in a vacuum, like civil servants. They are limited to a debate about performance as if politics is no more than another branch of theatre.

Some of these frustrated onlookers revel, therefore, in related stories about process. This is where they can play the game without being positioned on the political spectrum. It is not biased to be against spin-doctors, to highlight divisions in a party or to continue running sleaze stories even when the newspapers have given up. So there is a disproportionate focus in parts of the BBC on the way policies are presented, on internal tensions and allegations about sleaze, sometimes giving the impression that politicians are a bunch of crooks. No wonder there was a frisson of misjudged excitement when a defence correspondent arrived with a story about Alastair Campbell. Spin! Campbell! Bingo!

Another distorting factor comes into play. The BBC is never knowingly understaffed in its coverage of politics. As well as having some brilliantly dedicated correspondents and editors, the BBC is full of managers in ill-defined jobs trying to look busier than they really are. This can lead to a sense of panic and hyper-activity that is not justified by what is going on. That is why the volume on some stories is louder than it should be. As a BBC political correspondent, I recall getting breathless phone calls late at night from BBC people during the John Major era. They were along these lines: "Steve, tomorrow's Mail says Bert Thung, the PPS to Bert Thong, the junior Agriculture minister, has called for a referendum on the euro. We think this could be the end of the Major government." I would try to say that few had heard of Bert Thong, let alone Bert Thung, and it might not be the end yet of the Major government. But too many people were scared that their layers of chronically insecure managers would accuse them of underplaying a story, so on it went, often for days: hysteria based on very little.

This is made worse by the fact that many BBC managers and producers do not often meet politicians and their advisers. Their "impartial" prejudice against all politicians is rarely challenged by human contact. Their link with the outside world is the newspapers. They do not see what some correspondents based at Westminster know to be the case: that most politicians and their advisers are decent people struggling with nightmarish problems 24 hours a day, often in the face of a hostile media.

My hope is that, in spite of the united front this weekend over a specific story, the BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, and the director-general, Greg Dyke, sense that there are genuine issues which need addressing. They would be wrong to take comfort from the fact that the main parties are furious with the BBC for different reasons, as if that is a form of vindication, a reversal of the its hypothesis about impartiality: "It's all right. Both parties think we're a bunch of shits." Dyke has rightly raised concerns about the disengagement of voters. The sad twist is that sometimes the BBC is to blame.