Not biased, just timid

David Walker fears for the BBC's general election coverage

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The Today programme's deputy editor, Francis Halewood, has just done the BBC a big election-tide favour. He has left. That is to say, he has decamped from Broadcasting House to work for the right: he has become Operations Manager at Conservative Central Office.

What a boon to the panjandrums of BBC News - doesn't it just show how politically plural they are. It draws the sting from the Beeb bashing which, on past form, Brian Mawhinney and his video monitors at Smith Square will surely be tempted to indulge in. It is not that Mawhinney would not have a pretext. In Britain, unlike the United States, "right-wing broadcaster" is an oxymoron. Newsreader Martyn Lewis, the prophet of good news, and political editor Robin Oakley, The Spectator's part-time horse- racing correspondent, stand out precisely because they sound as if they could be Tories. That is something you just could not say about most apparatchiks or presenters. It's conceivable that when she enters the booth Sue MacGregor (and news supremo Jenny Abramsky likewise) votes right; it's just unlikely.

That Labour guru Peter Mandelson and Director General John Birt are buddies dates innocuously enough from their time together at London Weekend Television, but it also serves to show how unlikely are friendships and alliances between BBC people and men and women of the right. The idea of, say, James Naughtie and Sir Ivan Lawrence hitting it off socially is implausible - party invites to Chris Patten are another matter.

For all that, the BBC is set to have a good election - meaning, in its terms, one where the parties won't lay a glove on it. In 1987 and 1992, one way or another, the great matter of political debate was the size of government. The BBC was vulnerable because, at a subliminal level, the old Tory charge that BBC News is a nest of pinkos stuck. It sounded plausible for the obvious reason that the denizens of a big public-sector bureaucracy will always tend to be temperamentally inclined towards collectivist politics. Birtism has not changed that.

In 1997 it just matters much less. Blair has largely shot the Tories' Big Government fox. Europe is the issue, and on that the BBC is fireproof. It has no institutional take, no hidden bias. News presenter Michael Buerk sounds as if he could be quite sceptical. Tony Hall, the Director of BBC News, may holiday on parched Siennese hills but the BBC has no in-built sympathy for the European project - if anything the progress of political unification in Europe could threaten its status as a nation-state broadcaster and also scupper its hopes of playing a global role.

Besides, Europe is an easy issue for bulletin editors: they can juggle a left-wing Euro-sceptic with a Tory Europhile (the Chancellor of the Exchequer), even invite on someone from Brussels or Bonn with an accent and insure themselves against the charge of partisanship.

No, the BBC question this election is not partisanship or professionalism, it's journalistic self-confidence, that inner buoyancy that comes from a stable sense of purpose and identity - which obviates the need for presenters and editors to be looking over their shoulders at how this item will play with their "line managers" (the heavy irony with which that phrase is uttered!) and the big bosses above them.

This charge would of course be rejected by the apparatchiks of public- service broadcasting - we will ask tough questions without fear or favour and take the brickbats if they come flying. The new editor of Today, John Barton (he took over at the start of the year) has a folded push bike in the corner of his office and a somewhat ascetic air. When he talks of "interrogative drive" you can feel his presenters, especially John Humphreys, putting the bite on ministers and their shadows. "We're going to be the awkward squad," he says and there is no reason to disbelieve him - within limits.

Those are limits based on fear of exciting controversy. A good part of election planning at BBC News is firing up machinery to handle complaints from the parties. "Since politics occupy a substantial part of our airtime, one would expect consistent monitoring of output. Parties have a right to complain and occasionally they will have a point." That is Richard Eyre, deputy chief of BBC News and former Controller of Editorial Policy (less Orwellian in practice than it sounds).

In television they have not quite gone as far as setting up a "rebuttal unit" to strike back quickly at allegations that one party has had a millisecond more than another, but there is in place a system for speedy electronic logging of complaints. There is no reason to doubt John Morrison, head of Television News, when he says the BBC will respond robustly, but equally he and his editorial colleagues are going to be spending a lot of time monitoring and following up complaints.

Talking to the hierarchs of BBC News I came away prepared to accept the ancient verities - objectivity, impartiality - are safe enough. And yet it is also hard not to sense this is a ship without a gyroscope, an animal without a backbone. The culture is "safety first". In this environment (the phrase comes from high up the food chain), "John lifting the phone to pass on a thought from a politician is a pretty damn rare event". But it happens, and editors and managers with careers to nurture take could care to ensure John Birt does not breathe a word in Tony Hall's ear which is then passed down the chain to end as a big black blot on the staff assessment report forms. Sometimes, however, public service means sticking your neck out and this election season is unlikely to see much of that.

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