Thursday, 26 March 2009

The Conservatives vs The BBC

If you want to induce apoplexy in a Conservative activist, simply tell them what a good job the BBC does in covering politics and how fair and impartial it is compared to Sky News.

While you're waiting for the ambulance to arrive or for the jumper cables to power up, it's probably worth remembering that there is a lot of history between the BBC and the Conservatives.

In the early 60s, satirical programmes such as That Was the Week that Was (TW3) were openly critical of the Governments of McMillan and Douglas-Hume in a way that had not been seen before. In the early 80s, Tories said the BBC was not sufficiently patriotic in the way it covered the Falklands conflict and in 1997 Conservatives alleged BBC staff openly cheered the fall of the Major Government (but then so did many others).

More recently, the claim is that the BBC is pro-Labour or anti-Conservative and that it doesn't properly scrutinise the Government or the Prime Minister and the tenor of that criticism has sharpened noticeably since the recession started. This week, the speech by Daniel Hannan attacking Gordon Brown at the European Parliament hasn't, to my knowledge, been shown on the BBC and this has irritated the Conservative blogsphere further.

The Conservative "charge" against the BBC is that it is part of the institutional bias against the Tories that the Hannan speech hasn't been shown every hour on the hour (but then the Fox News interview with the idiotic Glenn Beck hasn't been shown either) and by not showing the speech it is showing a bias in favour of the Prime Minister and protecting him from fair criticism and scrutiny.

Well, this simply doesn't stand up to much in the way of scrutiny itself...

The BBC is NOT the Labour Party, Conservative Party or even the Liberal Democrat Party. It is there to report news of general interest rather than of interest to Tory activists. It provides a medium for any Government to announce policies and items of public information in a way a commercially-funded broadcaster might not and, because we don't have a television channel directly controlled by the Government (unlike many other countries), it offers a medium for the dissemination of Government information.

Is the BBC impartial ? The fact that politicians and political activists of ALL sides complain about bias suggests to me that it's got things about right. The Government DOES get challenged though not as strongly as opposition activists might like while David Cameron has been afforded some easy interviews and, as a Liberal Democrat, it angers me that a party that polled 22% of the vote at the last election gets so little day-to-day coverage.

David Cameron has announced he intends to freeze the licence fee at current levels should he become Prime Minister. There were Tories in the Thatcher era who wanted a much more radical approach to the BBC but it didn't happen then.

As I've argued elsewhere, so much of what Cameron says and does is twin-track - on the one hand, he's trying to convince a lot of sceptical voters that the Conservatives have "changed" and are no longer the "nasty" party but he has to keep his activists in line so he throws them the occasional bone - leaving the EPP, attacking the BBC - to keep them sweet.

Arguments about BBC bias will go on whichever party is in power. The Tory obsession with the BBC is not predicated on some great point of principle but merely that the BBC should adopt a pro-Conservative line.

It won't do that now or at any time in the future, I hope. As long as everyone is complaining, I reckon the balance is about right.

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