In this article from one of the world's best news organisations, The Times, the writer of the wonderful British comedy Yes Minister, Antony Jay, 'fesses up to the problems of institutional BBC liberalism.
In the past four weeks there have been two remarkable changes in the public attitude to the BBC. The first and most newsworthy one was precipitated by the faked trailer of the Queen walking out of a photographic portrait session with Annie Leibovitz.It must have come as somewhat of a surprise to those at the BBC who believed the organisation presented a fair and balanced view to the public. As I've pointed out previously, to the BBC 'fair and balanced' means a left wing presenter and a panel consisting of someone from the left, the hard left and the loopy left all bashing the United States, Israel or the Tories.
It was especially damaging because the licence fee is based on a public belief that the BBC offers a degree of integrity and impartiality which its commercial competitors cannot achieve.
But in the longer term I believe that the second change is even more significant. It started with the BBC’s own report on impartiality that effectively admitted to an institutional “liberal” bias among programme makers. Previously these accusations had been dismissed as a right-wing rant, but since the report was published even the BBC’s allies seem to accept it.
It has been on parade again these past few weeks on the Radio 4 programme The Crime of Our Lives. It included (of course) the ritual demoni-sation of Margaret Thatcher (uninterested in crime . . . surprisingly did not take a closer interest), a swipe at Conservative magistrates and their friends in the golf club and occasional quotes from Douglas Hurd to preserve the illusion of impartiality, but the whole tenor of the programme was liberal/ progressive/ reformist.A pretty good question, that, and a clear example of the BBC's bias. The left in the UK still can't get over the fact that Thatcher saved the place from a societal meltdown induced by foolish leftist policies.
The series even included a strong suggestion that Thatcher’s economic policies were the cause of rising crime. So presumably she shouldn’t have done what she did?
There is a perfectly reasonable case for progressive liberal reform of penal policy. There is also a perfectly reasonable case for a stricter and more punitive penal policy.
This programme was quite clearly on the side of the former and the producer/writer was a member of BBC staff. Can you imagine a BBC staff member slanting a programme towards the case for a stricter penal policy?
The growing general agreement that the culture of the BBC (and not just the BBC) is the culture of the chattering classes provokes a question that has puzzled me for 40 years. The question itself is simple – much simpler than the answer: what is behind the opinions and attitudes of this social group?What is behind it? Intellectual immaturity. Most of these people are the product of left-biased education institutions who then enter places like the BBC or return as university lecturers and never have to experience the 'real world' in which they have to create real value.
They are that minority often characterised (or caricatured) by sandals and macrobiotic diets, but in a less extreme form are found in The Guardian, Channel 4, the Church of England, academia, showbusiness and BBC news and current affairs. They constitute our metropolitan liberal media consensus, although the word “liberal” would have Adam Smith rotating in his grave. Let’s call it “media liberalism”.Do they award knighthoods for honesty and clarity? If not then they should and Antony Jay should be the first recipient. "Almost anything that made the world a freer, safer and more prosperous place – you name it, we were anti it." Bravo! The United States has been the cause of peace and stability in the world since WW2 and it's the leftist cultural elites typified by those at the BBC, the Guardian and the universities etc that breathe life into those movements that challenge our liberty. Now that communism is dead they enable Islamic terrorism through their policies of cultural and moral relativism and envy of the success of free market economics.
It is of particular interest to me because for nine years, between 1955 and 1964, I was part of this media liberal consensus. For six of those nine years I was working on Tonight, a nightly BBC current affairs television programme. My stint coincided almost exactly with Harold Macmillan’s premiership and I do not think that my former colleagues would quibble if I said we were not exactly diehard supporters.
But we were not just anti-Macmillan; we were anti-industry, anti-capitalism, anti-advertising, anti-selling, anti-profit, anti-patriotism, anti-monarchy, anti-empire, anti-police, anti-armed forces, anti-bomb, anti-authority. Almost anything that made the world a freer, safer and more prosperous place – you name it, we were anti it.
Although I was a card-carrying media liberal for the best part of nine years, there was nothing in my past to predispose me towards membership. I spent my early years in a country where every citizen had to carry identification papers. All the newspapers were censored, as were all letters abroad; general elections had been abolished: it was a one-party state. Yes, that was Britain – Britain from 1939 to 1945.
I was nine when the war started, and 15 when it ended, and accepted these restrictions unquestioningly. I was astounded when identity cards were abolished. And the social system was at least as authoritarian as the political system. It was shocking for an unmarried couple to sleep together and a disgrace to have a baby out of wedlock. A homosexual act incurred a jail sentence. Procuring an abortion was a criminal offence. Violent young criminals were birched, older ones were flogged and murderers were hanged.It's hard to imagine, isn't it? A time when a free country like the UK could institute such draconian measures.
So how did we get from there to here? Unless we understand that, we shall never get inside the media liberal mind. And the starting point is the realisation that there have always been two principal ways of misunderstanding a society: by looking down on it from above and by looking up at it from below. In other words, by identifying with institutions or by identifying with individuals.I think we're a little way away from having too much freedom and variety.
To look down on society from above, from the point of view of the ruling groups, the institutions, is to see the dangers of the organism splitting apart – the individual components shooting off in different directions until everything dissolves into anarchy.
To look up at society from below, from the point of view of the lowest group, the governed, is to see the dangers of the organism growing ever more rigid and oppressive until it fossilises into a monolithic tyranny.
Those who see society in this way are preoccupied with the need for liberty, equality, self-expression, representation, freedom of speech and action and worship, and the rights of the individual. The reason for the popularity of these misunderstandings is that both views are correct as far as they go and both sets of dangers are real, but there is no “right” point of view.
The most you can ever say is that sometimes society is in danger from too much authority and uniformity and sometimes from too much freedom and variety.
In retrospect it seems pretty clear that the 1940s and 1950s were years of excessive authority and uniformity. It was certainly clear to me and my media liberal colleagues in the BBC. It was not that we in the BBC openly and publicly criticised the government on air; the BBC’s commitment to impartiality was more strictly enforced in those days.I bet they didn't expect that result. I'm concerned that it's only 57%.
But the topics we chose and the questions we asked were slanted against institutions and towards oppressed individuals, just as we achieved political balance by pitting the most plausible critics of government against its most bigoted supporters.
Ever since 1963 the institutions have been the villains of the media liberals. The police, the armed services, the courts, political parties, multi-national corporations – when things go wrong they are the usual suspects.
But our hostility to institutions was not – and is not – shared by the majority of our fellow citizens: most of our opinions were at odds with the majority of the audience and the electorate. Indeed the BBC’s own 2007 report on impartiality found that 57% of poll respondents said that “broadcasters often fail to reflect the views of people like me”.
There are four new factors which in my lifetime have brought about the changes that have shaped media liberalism, encouraged its spread and significantly increased its influence and importance.Powerful, powerful stuff. I wonder when Antony Jay was mugged by reality, as the saying goes? One of the features of leftist thinking is to claim that their opponents on the right are stupid or bad while on the right we simply think that the left is wrong.
The first of these is detribalisation. That our species has evolved a genetic predisposition to form tribal groups is generally accepted as an evolutionary fact. This grouping – of not more than about five or six hundred – supplies us with our identity, status system, territorial instinct, behavioural discipline and moral code.
We in the BBC were acutely detribalised; we were in a tribal institution, but we were not of it. Nor did we have any geographical tribe; we lived in commuter suburbs, we knew very few of our neighbours and took not the slightest interest in local government. In fact we looked down on it. Councillors were self-important nobodies and mayors were a pompous joke.
We belonged instead to a dispersed “metropolitan media arts graduate” tribe. We met over coffee, lunch, drinks and dinner to reinforce our views on the evils of apartheid, nuclear deterrence, capital punishment, the British Empire, big business, advertising, public relations, the royal family, the defence budget – it’s a wonder we ever got home.
The second factor that shaped our media liberal attitudes was a sense of exclusion. We saw ourselves as part of the intellectual elite, full of ideas about how the country should be run. Being naive in the way institutions actually work, we were convinced that Britain’s problems were the result of the stupidity of the people in charge of the country.
This ignorance of the realities of government and management enabled us to occupy the moral high ground. We saw ourselves as clever people in a stupid world, upright people in a corrupt world, compassionate people in a brutal world, libertarian people in an authoritarian world.
We were not Marxists but accepted a lot of Marxist social analysis. We also had an almost complete ignorance of market economics. That ignorance is still there. Say “Tesco” to a media liberal and the patellar reflex says, “Exploiting African farmers and driving out small shopkeepers.” The achievement of providing the range of goods, the competitive prices, the food quality, the speed of service and the ease of parking that attract millions of shoppers does not register on their radar."...an almost complete ignorance of market economics. That ignorance is still there." - I wonder what any of those people who work at the BBC or identify with its positions think about that. No doubt they disagree with Jay's statement.
The third factor arises from the nature of mass media. The Tonight programme had a nightly audience of about 8m. It was much easier to keep their attention by telling them they were being deceived or exploited by big institutions than by saying what a good job the government and the banks and the oil companies were doing.Can you imagine? "Here is the 6PM news' headlines. Exxon today was voted the world's best company for its environmental program, great employment conditions and contribution to society over the last 50 years..."
The fourth factor is what has been called “isolation technology”. Fifty years ago people did things together much more. The older politicians we interviewed in the early Tonight days were happier in public meetings than in television studios.The Internet has been a key factor in bringing together people with 'out there' political views, who would normally have had their voices drowned out by the mainstream, into more powerful political blocs. The most obvious example of this is DailyKos, which now exerts so much influence over the Democratic Party that it has pushed it leftwards and into an almost unelectable position in the United States. Unless their nomination for President moves back towards the centre, and Hilary Clinton seems the most likely one to do so, then their chances come November '08 are zero.
In those days people went to evening meetings. They formed collective opinions. In many places party allegiance was collective and hereditary rather than a matter of individual choice based on a logical comparison of policies.
These four factors have significantly accelerated and indeed intensified the spread of media liberalism since I ceased to be a BBC employee 40 years ago.
But let’s suppose that I had stayed. Would I have remained a devotee of the metropolitan media liberal ideology that I once absorbed so readily? I have an awful fear that the answer is yes.
Congratulations to Antony Jay for his clarity and honesty. As the old saying goes, there are only two types of people in the world - the decent and the indecent - and I'd suggest Jay is the former.