The BBC is a world, not a law, unto itself
By Janet Daley
(Filed: 23/07/2003)

I work for the BBC. There - I've said it. In spite of everything I have written in the past and am about to write now, you should know that a proportion of my income comes from the very news and current affairs operation that is taking a deserved hammering in the print media.

Along with a few other newspaper journalists, I cross the line regularly to act as a pundit for the comment and analysis programmes that constitute the BBC's outer fringe of broadcast opinion and argument.

I am a token Right-of-centre political voice, permitted to express my views provided that I am cancelled out by an acceptably Left-of-centre one (or two) and carefully framed by health warnings about my notorious political sympathies. I am often metaphorically backlit like something out of Leni Riefenstahl .

Oddly, columnists from Left-wing newspapers are not described as "Left-wing commentators" and are even considered to be sufficiently impartial, in BBC terms, to be appropriate as presenters and chairmen of discussions. But never mind, at least I get to speak. I also get to see the two worlds that the two sorts of journalists, newspaper and broadcasting, inhabit.

Going from a newspaper (and I have worked for four different ones, not all of them "Right-wing") to the BBC is like travelling to another professional planet. The newsroom culture, the attitudes and assumptions of the staff, even the social habits of the two journalistic tribes, are very different.

Anyone who wonders why the world view of the BBC seems so alarmingly homogeneous, unself-critical and smug - whether on tax-and-spend economics (good) or US foreign policy (bad) - should spend a few hours on the phone with BBC researchers. The most startling difference between them and their newspaper counterparts is that they have, almost invariably, never worked anywhere but the BBC.

Where print journalists tend to move around from one paper to another, or even in and out of other walks of life (the City, academia or politics itself), BBC people are generally born, grow up and mature within the BBC's own incestuous world. (The exception to this has been the recruiting of political editors, such as Andrew Marr and Robin Oakley before him, from newspapers. But significantly, such "outside" appointments have been contentious within BBC internal ranks.)

Staff are recruited sometimes straight from university into the hermetically sealed environment of a corporation that is so huge and powerful that when you are inside it, you cannot see the edges.

What strikes you most about the BBC scene is what a closed world it is. Walk into a BBC newsroom and you will hear more talk about the BBC itself than about the outside world: more office and corporate politics than real politics. (The atmosphere always reminds me of a university: all bitchy, cliquey, internal gossip and personal rivalries on which the wider world scarcely impinges.)

A corollary of this is that most of the people involved in putting together current affairs programmes have almost no personal contact with politicians. They do not do what newspaper commentators do as a matter of course, which is to talk to and mix socially with politicians all of the time. Perhaps they feel that this preserves their purity. What it certainly does is to make it easier to maintain the rather babyish, demonological view of politicians as inveterate liars and charlatans which seems to inform most BBC coverage.

This isolation is most obvious at party conferences, where the print journalists all inhabit a big press room into which the politicians wander freely to chat and gossip, as well as to give official briefings. The newspaper correspondents, pundits and leader writers perambulate around the conference floor, looking for informal conversations and contacts. They sit in on the fringe meetings and go to the dinners run by think tanks.

But where are the broadcasters? They are in an enclave of their own, walled up with the cumbersome technology of their medium, to which politicians are invited to be interrogated on air and then spat out. (Whereupon, looking rather hunted, they seek out their favourite print commentator at the bar to say what they really think.)

Needless to say, the events of the past week have brought all my rather haphazard observations into focus. A man is dead - driven to despair, at least in part, by decisions made by BBC journalists. The BBC is described blithely and repeatedly as being "at war with the Government": no one seems to think this locution at all strange.

Nobody asks what should be the obvious questions. What business has the BBC to be "at war" with anybody? Is it a state? Or a political party? Or an activist group that engages in guerrilla tactics? In what has been described as a carefully worded statement, Richard Sambrook, the head of BBC news and current affairs, has said that the corporation believes that it "accurately interpreted and reported" Dr Kelly's remarks.

Interpreted? If it was straightforwardly reporting what Dr Kelly said, where did the "interpretation" come in? Does the use of that word not imply that Andrew Gilligan took liberties with his material? To what end? To reinforce the BBC's (and particularly the Today programme's) own political message that the Iraq war was unjustified?

BBC staff often say proudly that it is their responsibility to oppose whatever government is in power. Well, actually, it isn't. To question the Government with critical rigour, to be sceptical about its claims - yes. To oppose systematically everything that it does - no. Examination and analysis are the business of tax-funded journalism. Opposition is the business of mandated politicians. And there is a difference between scepticism (the Government may be wrong) and cynicism (all governments are always wrong).

The BBC seems to have no idea what it needs to do now. Perhaps it should start by getting out more.

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