The Richards-Robinson spat revisited

by Stephen Tall on December 21, 2006

Steve Richards’ accusation in Tuesday’s Indy that the BBC’s political coverage ‘is symptomatic of an anti-politics movement that serves no one’ has touched a nerve with the BBC’s Nick Robinson, who has penned a long rebuttal on his blog.

It’s a shame that Mr Richards chose to focus his argument on the BBC’s reporting of Tony Blair helping the police with their enquiries in the ‘cash for honours’ row. This has allowed Mr Robinson to brush aside his more substantive points, rehearsing the rather dull argument that “the police’s first ever interview of a serving prime minister was a major news story”.

Well, yes, of course it is. But, as President Bartlett would have said, “What’s next?” Mr Richards’ critique of the BBC seems apt and justified:

There was little attempt to explain, place the event in context or question what the police were up to. Instead the assumption was that the day had been simply another disaster for Blair.

(Though I might add that such a criticism should appear in, of all ‘quality’ newspapers, The Independent – which long since ditched the ideological aspiration of its title – is a pretty cute irony.)

In a lecture in Oxford last month, the head of BBC TV news, Peter Horrocks, noted how artificially binary used to be the corporation’s understanding of impartiality:

How did we interpret the BBC’s key value – impartiality? Well, on arrival we were soon taught how to handle that. In an era of neatly polarised Left/Right views – both domestically and internationally – it was easy to make sure that you delivered impartiality – simply by balancing interviews. A Tory minister balanced by a Labour spokesman. An industrialist with a union leader. An American foreign affairs expert with a CND activist.

And yet, all too often, this attitude persists in BBC coverage. It is exemplified by its late-night weekly discussion show, This Week, in which Diane Abbott and Michael Portillo battle it out, with tedious flirtatiousness, to prove who can be the most critical of their respective red ‘n’ blue leaderships. Occasionally a Lib Dem, or other (non-)party representative, is wheeled on to demonstrate how balanced the Beeb truly is (and, if they are female, to show-up quite how contemptuous Ms Abbott is of members of her own sex).

In spite of itself, the programme is sometimes interesting – though that has far more to do with the sceptical intelligence of the host, Andrew Neil, than of his so-last-year guests – but only when it attempts to understand the complexity, the subtlety, the nuance of today’s political issues. Programmes which follow the old adage – never under-estimate the public’s intelligence, nor over-estimate their knowledge – are the ones which work. They are all too rare.

But it is not just the BBC’s over-reliance on Crossfire-style debate, in which a rock and an immovable object are pitted against each other to slug it out in the name of neutrality, which compromises its integrity. (And if you’ve never seen it before, by the way – or even if you have – Jon Stewart’s brilliant demolition of CNN’s Crossfire is one of the most sparkily intelligent 15 minutes of television you will ever watch.)

Every time a journalist uses loaded words of any figure in public life – that they have ‘admitted’, ‘conceded’, ‘defended’, ‘denied’ whatever has been put to them – there is an implicit assumption that this figure has been tripped up, that they were being evasive, concealing, or even duplicitous until their double-dealing was exposed by the media. It is an unconscious journalistic tic, but one which feeds the ‘anti-politics’ agenda which Mr Richards has described.

I have concentrated here just on the BBC – which is perhaps unfair, as its reporting is far, far more objective than any of the newspapers (with the exception of the FT), which long ago gave up any serious pretence of reporting news, and have transformed themselves into identifiably partisan brands with news agendas to match.

But the BBC is held to a different standard, not least owing to its public funding, and indeed wishes itself to be held to a different standard. If it is honest with itself, and does not allow itself (pace Mr Robinson) to become over-defensive, it will recognize the justice of Mr Richards’ central thesis:

The BBC is not anti-Labour or pro-Tory, but unable to take a stand on policy issues, and, wanting to make waves, it has inadvertently become anti-politics. … I cite its thoughtlessly clichéd output last Thursday as symptomatic of the way as a country we have lapsed into a complacent view of politics, assuming the worst, unable or unwilling to understand the dilemmas politicians face.

I think Mr Robinson’s boss, Mr Horrocks, does recognize precisely this. He has set out what should be the BBC’s mission:

So, the days of middle-of-the-road, balancing left and right, impartiality are dead. Instead I believe we need to consider adopting what I like to think of as a much wider “radical impartiality” – the need to hear the widest range of views –all sides of the story. So we need more Taleban interviews, more BNP interviews – of course put on air with due consideration – and the full range of moderate opinions. All those views need to be treated with the same level of sceptical inquiry and respect. The days are over when the BBC treated left wing or pro-diversity views as “loony” or interviewed anti-Europe or anti-immigration spokesmen insufficiently often. We lost considerable credibility with some of our audience by excluding views that significant parts of the population adhere to. So please get used to hearing more views that you dislike on our airwaves. This wider range of opinion is a worthwhile price to pay to maintain a national forum where all can feel they are represented and respected.

I hope he achieves that national conversation, and that the BBC will once again become politically engaged. We need it.