Auntie’s anti-conservatism

ALEX PUGH suggests some reasons why the BBC is so leftwing

I first worked in the BBC in 1981 in its Birmingham Pebble Mill studio. I well recall its large bar, where I sometimes drank with a middle-aged producer. One day, a Cheltenham MP named Charles Irving was in the news. This producer said to me, “He’s a hang ‘em and flog ‘em Tory like me”. Apparently Irving wasn’t (1), but that’s by the way. My point is I cannot imagine anyone in the BBC uttering such a view today.  I do wonder what this chap would make of the fact that since 2018, his old employer has its first Gender and Identity Correspondent.

Broadcasting is a strange world. It’s one where a man convicted of sadistic crimes against a male escort is welcomed back after jail (if he’s Boy George) – yet also one where leading names who say something the BBC doesn’t like hearing will not last long. For confirmation, see Pete Murray, Robin Page, Robert Kilroy-Silk, Sarah Kennedy, Carol Thatcher… And, I suppose, Jeremy Clarkson (2).

Are the broadcast media left wing – and if so, can we establish why ?  To keep things simple, I will focus on the BBC. 

Let us first define ‘left wing’. Time was when it meant socialist, with its policy of wealth redistribution, the abolition of class barriers  and even of capitalism itself. It’s fair to say such was what inspired the makers of BBC dramas like The Price of Coal, a 1977 two-parter for Play For Today. It was written by Barry Hines and Ken Loach, the duo behind Kes. Such work recalls the Italian realist school of film. It was of its time and helped explain why Play For Today was cited as proof in its day of the BBC’s leftist bias. Yet most of the Beeb’s prolific drama then was, if I recall, studio-based adaptations of famous novels. These tended not to be overtly political.

Left wing politics have since then had a big rebrand, in the mould defined by the late Stuart Hall of the Open University as “race, gender and sexuality” (3). Imported from the USA in the 1960s, this became the trinity of the British New Left. It was certainly the religion of New Labour and, thanks to their long spell in power, one that has been woven into the legal framework of modern life here, despite ten years of Conservative prime ministers. Policies such as multiculturalism lie at its core. The US notion of ‘political correctness’ derives from this broad ideology.

If that is how we’ll define ‘left wing’ today, we could look at the BBC’s output and decide whether this seems its prevailing mindset.  What’s more useful is to quote some individuals who have been the face of its leading service, national news.  Here are some interesting statements:

  • “The BBC is not neutral in multiculturalism: it believes in it and it promotes it” – or so a news executive there told Jeff Randall, a former Business Editor
  • “The BBC is not impartial or neutral.  It has a liberal bias not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias” – this was from Andrew Marr
  • “At the core of the BBC, in its very DNA, is a way of thinking that is firmly of the left”.  So said the late Peter Sissons. He added: “I am in no doubt that the majority of BBC staff vote for political parties of the Left”
  • “Of course there is political correctness at the BBC” – that’s the opinion of Jeremy Paxman
  • “The Guardian is their bible and political correctness their creed”, said Michael Buerk
  • John Humphries later wrote of the BBC’s “even greater fear of the politically correct brigade and the most fashionable pressure groups usually from the liberal Left, the spiritual home of most bosses and staff”
  • Most recently, ex newsreader Jan Leeming complained, “Why is the BBC so in thrall to the woke minority while ignoring the wishes of so many of its loyal regulars like me? [W]e are all being infantilised, treated as if we can’t cope with anything that anyone might find offensive…Treating the population like children by sanitising everything, suppressing debate, and ‘no-platforming’ is extremely damaging. ”

Such remarks from seven of the BBC’s most eminent journalists of recent years not only suggest a striking pattern: they also leave you in no doubt the BBC must indeed be left-wing, if they all say so! Surprisingly, in 2010 the Director General himself – Mark Thompson – wrote “In the BBC I joined 30 years ago [1979], there was, in much of current affairs…a massive bias to the left”.  However, he continued “Now it is a completely different generation… It is a broader church”. So, no worries there then.

A cynic might say this change had come pretty quickly, for in 2001 another BBC journalist – Robin Aitken – had written “If the Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’, the BBC was ‘institutionally Leftist’”.  Later, in 2007, he stated “being a Tory in the BBC was the loneliest job in Britain” and added “ ‘Neutral’ for BBC journalists is left of centre for everyone else”. In his 30 years at the BBC, Mr Aitken had seen it “transformed from the staid upholder of the status quo to a champion of progressive causes”.

His timeframe interests me, because it makes me think of how I remember Radio 4 when working there in the early 1980s. Certainly there were a lot of left-leaning people in their 20s and early 30s, but the producers I worked for mainly struck me as mildly Tory. I was a bit surprised when the presenter of our show said, approvingly, “there are many Territorial Army men at the BBC”. He also suggested I join the RNVR: “I can see you in a sub-lieutenant’s uniform”. This was 1982. Alan Protheroe, the BBC’s Director of News who clashed so bitterly with Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands coverage that year, was himself a TA colonel.

My memory of that era was of a BBC that was quite a broad church, in a national industry with many Conservative-voting TV employees. It was ITV’s World In Action that was then considered the hotbed of TV left-wingery, although News At Ten was fronted by Alastair Burnet, a Tory. I cannot imagine the criticisms of the BBC quoted above being made back in the 1980s. There was of course a system then to keep the dreaded lefties out of the BBC: security vetting. For my job as a Radio 4 researcher, my name was sent off to some vague Whitehall desk to see if alarm bells rang. In the late 1960s, people accepted for the BBC graduate training scheme sometimes had the job withdrawn after MI5 said “no”. 

I’ve talked so far about news programming. But when we remember ‘the golden age of telly’, we most likely recall the comedies.  It speaks volumes about today’s BBC that it still shows Dad’s Army, but that was just one of many comedy series. The Good Life, To The Manor Born, Are You Being Served? and co. were all safely apolitical.  Today, what passes for TV comedy is frequently left-wing – for nowhere has dumped its traditional conservatism more than British comedy. I cannot imagine a right wing comic getting very far these days, whether in festivals or on TV.

A current affairs TV presenter told me in 1990 that clever graduates of the right entered law, those of the left the media. The BBC was always accused of being left-wing, albeit by Tories rather than by its own presenters. It begs the question how the left-wing BBC so trenchantly described by Messrs. Buerk, Paxman, Sissons and co. came into being?

I think three things have happened since the 1980s. TV has become detached from its regional roots, driven in part by the rise of London-based later arrivals like Channel 4, Sky and Five. Forty years ago, both the BBC and ITV drew huge cultural input from outside London. Pebble Mill, for example, made radio and TV for local, regional and national audiences. It fused broadcasters closer to their audiences, and provincial life is more conservative. Modern leftism by contrast is metropolitan: an increasingly London-centric broadcasting sector came to reflect this.

Secondly, Britain itself became more left-wing from the 1980s onwards. Just look at the ever-expanded higher education system. Broadcasting mirrors that trend. The Tories have an 80 seat majority based on almost 14 million votes. Yet well over 16 million voted for Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Scots/Welsh nationalists. We live in a decreasingly conservative country, where even large corporations want to prove how right-on they are, and diversity is their new mantra.

Thirdly, wherever left-wingers or ‘progressives’ move into a field, be it universities, TV, or the civil service, they soon exclude anyone of differing views. Consequently, If someone were to attend a job interview in TV and express admiration for Margaret Thatcher or Enoch Powell, it’s hard to imagine he or she would be chosen.

In this new Britain, is it any wonder the BBC is left wing/liberal/PC – however you term it ? The new director-general, Tim Davie, stood as a Conservative councillor in London in 1993.  I doubt it will affect BBC editorial output, even if it does enable someone to say the organisation can’t possibly be left-wing if it is run by a Tory.

Editor’s Notes

  1. Sir Charles Graham Irving, 1923-1995, MP for Cheltenham. The Independent’s obituary certainly does not suggest ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em’ tendencies
  2. In 1983, the BBC cancelled veteran DJ Pete Murray’s programmes after he called for listeners to vote Conservative. Ecologist Robin Page’s BBC appearances (including six years presenting the popular One Man and His Dog) dried up after various ‘controversial’ comments. Robert Kilroy-Silk was sacked by the BBC for a 2004 Sunday Express article entitledWe Owe Arabs Nothing”. DJ Sarah Kennedy claims she was forced out of the BBC in 2010 (ostensibly for health reasons) for her views on race and Enoch Powell. In 2009, Carol Thatcher was ejected from the BBC’s One Show for referring to a black tennis player as a “golliwog”. Jeremy Clarkson was replaced on the Top Gear motoring programme in 2015 after a fracas with a caterer, but also for a habit of ‘offensive’ remarks
  3. Stuart McPhail Hall, 1932-2014, Jamaican-born academic and co-founder of the New Left Review