27 November 2018

How groupthink took over the BBC


For as long as I can remember the surest way to provoke indignation from Conservatives has been to raise the question of whether the BBC has maintained political impartiality. Under its Royal Charter, which gets renewed every decade or so, “controversial subjects are treated with due impartiality in our news and other output dealing with matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy”.

As a teenager growing up in the the 1980s, during the Thatcher era, I had an unsuitably keen interest in politics. The cabinet ministers of the time were happy to get stuck in. There was Nigel Lawson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, denouncing the BBC as the “Bashing Britain Corporation”. Lawson was really the warm up man for Norman Tebbit who really laid in. Heady days.

But there was a country to run — and others matters to attend to. The Falklands War. The Cold War. The Miners’ Strike. Always something. After the standing ovations at Tory conference had been secured, the BBC was allowed to quietly carry on gathering in an increased Licence Fee — to pay even higher salaries, for ever more staff, to express even more left-wing opinions.

In one sense the BBC has got a raw deal. Due to its status, it has been challenged to a greater extent than other broadcasters. Channel 4 News doesn’t even pretend anymore. Its presenter, Jon Snow, attended the Glastonbury Festival last year and spent his time wandering around the place chanting: “F*** the Tories!”. Perhaps a bit more surprising has been the way that Sky News, founded by Rupert Murdoch, has come to be on the same political wavelength.

Perversely the greatest success at impartiality in broadcast media at present is provided on the radio by LBC. One of the station’s phone-in hosts, James O’Brien, is so negative about Brexit it is surely redolent of the defeatist messages from William Joyce (“Lord Haw-Haw”) during the Second World War. Nobody at the BBC can compete with his negativism. But LBC then give listeners a chance to “phone-in” to others such as Nigel Farage or Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Anyway, one man who is a fierce critic of the BBC and who can not be brushed away as an ignorant outsider is Robin Aitken. He spent 25 years working for it. Nor is he easy to dismiss as some kind of bitter, uncaring reactionary. Aitken is the co-founder of the Oxford Foodbank, which collects five tons of food from supermarkets a week and distributes it to charities; he was awarded the MBE for this work in 2014.

Aitken’s latest volume, The Noble Liar, is very much an account more of sorrow than of anger. It recalls, for instance, the “remarkable series” of 33 short talks broadcast by C.S. Lewis during the Second World War. The collection was later published as Mere Christianity and had great religious significance. Can you say the same for the vacuous guff served up on Thought for the Day each morning on Radio 4 during the Today programme?

The trouble is that it was precisely the admirable qualities of the BBC (“highly respected, ubiquitous in the life of the nation”) that made it a target for takeover. We generally suppose it was Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, who called for “the long march through the institutions”. Aitken says the phrase actually came from a German student revolutionary called Rudi Dutschke who was providing a catchy summary of Gramsci’s proposal.

Either way, in the BBC, that is what transpired: “By the 1990s the whole institution was in the hands of the ’60s generation. The infiltration was complete and the radicals were snugly ensconced in the higher echelons of the Corporation, able to ensure that all its output conformed to ‘correct’ thought.”

There is a chapter on feminism, another on Islam, another on sexual morality. Inevitably there is a chapter on Brexit. Time and again an opinion that is widely held – perhaps even a majority opinion — is derided or is excluded from the airwaves. The Brexit chapter mentions a laborious piece of research by Lord Pearson which found that between 2005 and 2015 of the 4,275 guests invited on to the BBC to talk about Europe, only 132, that is 3.2 per cent, favoured leaving the EU.

All this is depressing stuff. Not just for Conservatives but for all those who favour fair play and rigorous open debate.

But how has it all come about? We have already mentioned the Gramscian infiltration effort. That is probably part of the story. Another side is the noble efforts of those seeking to impart the truth, but incapable of identifying and overcoming their own prejudices.

Most of us speak positively about meritocracy — not so Michael Young who gave us the term in his influential work The Rise of the Meritocracy. He said this of the emerging ruling class:

“They can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side. So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.”

While the BBC might maintain high academic standards among its recruits, Aitken points to the view of Leave campaigner Dominic Cummings that more educated people may be “more susceptible to social pressure from within their group”. In this view a good standard of education “does not necessarily lead to independent thought, but rather a fashion-driven group think.”

Cummings makes the following counter-intuitive assertion:  “I’ve learned over the years that ‘rational discussion’ accomplishes almost nothing in politics, particularly with people better educated than average. Most educated people are not set up to listen or change their minds about politics, however sensible they are in other fields.”

As well as the insistence on a university degree to work for the BBC, there is the hereditary aspect and the networking element — those with friends and relatives at the BBC are more likely to pitch up there themselves. Ever more reinforcement for the ‘group think’.

Aitken is sympathetic to his former colleagues, but emphatic: “How can an organisation fairly represent the views of the country when it is staffed by individuals who overwhelmingly favour one side of the argument? This is not to say that BBC journalists do not strive to overcome this problem — I believe that most do and do so valiantly — but it is very difficult to discount one’s own opinions and put the same value on them as the other bloke’s.”

For all his misgivings about the Corporation, Aitken is not among those who would happily see the BBC abolished. He concludes, quite reasonably, that “any replacement is unlikely to be an improvement”.

Aitken still predicts that the “old beliefs” of the Reithian era — Christianity, patriotism, traditional morality — will return. The “liberal hegemony” with its “inchoate philosophy”; with its “divisiveness, arbitrariness, unfairness and sheer unnaturalness” will be overcome.

Who knows if Aitken is right. He doesn’t say how the culture of the organisation will change – and he certainly makes a strong case for how well-entrenched it is at present.

At least their power over us is not absolute. After all, winning the battle for the airwaves does not always mean victory in the war for public opinion.

Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist