Tuesday 9 April 2013

The Iron Lady and the BBC (Part Two)

Many right-leaning critics of the BBC (myself included) expected the BBC to behave badly when Baroness Thatcher passed away. I've read so many predictions (mostly on blogs) in the last few years about this - all certain that the BBC's anti-Tory bias would come foaming across the airwaves from the very moment of her death - that the fact that this has not happened has come as a very pleasant surprise to me. 

Not just to me. If you read through this interesting thread at Biased BBC you'll discover a good number of other people (from a similar political standpoint) who have also been taken aback - and pleasantly surprised - by just how fair the BBC's coverage has been. 

Of course, not everyone agrees that it has been fair. 

There have been a few voices on the Right who are finding their stomachs turned by the BBC's anti-Thatcher coverage whilst the deluge of complaints about BBC pro-Thatcher sycophancy from the Left continues unabated on Twitter. 

Donning my BBC bias-tinted glasses again, I've been listening to today's coverage on Radio 4 to see if either side has a case, one day on. Has the tenor of the coverage changed? Has bias seeped back in?

This morning's Today, hosted by John Humphrys and James Naughtie, struck me as as remarkably balanced. 

In the first hour BBC reporter Tom Fielden reported from an estate in Basildon on the phenomenon of 'Basildon Man'. He talked to Cllr Malcolm Buckley (Conservative) - an admirer of Mrs Thatcher -, a few respectful and largely supportive vox pops and then to another admirer of the Iron Lady - Cllr Tony Ball (Conservative). The report did end, however, with a critical vox pop. I would describe that as tilting towards Mrs Thatcher. Then came a balanced discussion on the lady's economic record with Lord Griffiths, one of her former advisers, and Jonathan Portes of the NIESR. One was a nuanced admirer, the other a nuanced critic of the former prime minister.

In the second hour of Today the question "Did Thatcher advance the cause of women?" was discussed with the far-left journalist Bea Campbell (very hostile) and Margot James, Conservative MP (a staunch defender). There was sharp disagreement - but it was balanced disagreement. Less black-and-white was the later debate on Baroness Thatcher's effect on Britain's political culture between a nuanced Blairite, Geoff Mulgan (offering criticism and praise), and a nuanced Conservative pollster, Rick Nye (offering praise and criticism). This was soon followed by a report from Derbyshire by the BBC's Bob Walker. Its subject was the Miner's Strike. One bitter miner attacked Mrs T, admitting to "openly rejoicing" at her death. Another expressed admiration at much of her achievements but also some bitterness at the lack of support her government gave to those who refused to strike. The tilt there went in the opposite direction to the Basildon report, balancing it out. [Should voices expressing their gladness at the former prime minister's death not be broadcast? Such opinions are being expressed. A friend of mine - partner of a former miner - expressed them to me yesterday. It would be wrong for the BBC to censor them, however distasteful we may find them. Let us hear them and judge them]. As for the Bishop of Liverpool's Thought for the Day on the subject of the death of Lady Thatcher, well, it was as uncontroversial as can be. 

In the third hour there was a lively debate between Ken Clarke (giving kind words and a robust defence of her record) and Ken Livingstone (also given some kind words but also a strong critique of her record). This strikes me as right and proper - a fair and good-natured debate on the legacy of a prime minister about whom so many so strongly disagree. To those who object to hearing Ken Clarke or Ken Livingstone - and blame the BBC for putting them on air - I'd offer the words of Is's very own Sue: 
"Any fuss about yesterday’s coverage [of Baroness Thatcher by the BBC] smacks of what I’m always complaining about - people who hate Israel so much that they object to the slightest glimmer of Israel’s POV being aired."
This was followed by an interview with the left-wing film director Stephen Frears (who doesn't like Mrs Thatcher one bit). This was later to be balanced by an interview with the former Conservative chairman and admirer, Maurice Saatchi, and then another admirer, Dr Henry Kissinger (though James Naughtie got him to disagree with her over German reunification). There was also a discussion on Mrs T's relationship with Scotland between her friend Lord Forsyth and the historian Tom Devine (not an admirer, but not a harsh critic either). The programme ended with a discussion between a trio of commentators - the broadly-admiring Simon Jenkins and Max Hastings and the generally unsympathetic Elinor Goodman. Again, a fairly balanced debate to end a thoroughly balanced programme. 

What of The World at One? Again, balance everywhere. An interview with Conor Burns, Conservative MP  and friend of Lady Thatcher, was followed by an interview with former Labour MP Alan Milburn, who - despite criticisms - is broadly admiring of his one-time political opponent. A pair of pundits - Peter Oborne (a fan) & John Rentoul (not a fan) - then held a discussion. Finally, Haydn Gwynne, the actress who plays Mrs T in 'The Audience', described how last night's performance was received by the theatre audience. Thoroughly balanced, I think.

On PM, Eddie Mair talked to Elizabeth Buchanan,  a one-time press secretary to Margaret Thatcher, who described her very warm memories of her. Later there was a flavour of public opinion garnered from the BBC local radio  - some loathing, some loving the lady: 2 for, 2 against. Finally, Eddie talked to Damian Barr, author of 'Maggie and Me' (soon to be a BBC Book of the Week apparently), a man of strong but mixed views about her. His family cheered when they heard of her death. He felt sad. This programme was also thoroughly balanced, I think.

A clean bill of health for Radio 4 today? Not quite. Tonight's The World Tonight discussed Baroness Thatcher's relations with Europe with Malcolm Rifkind and the BBC's 'Mr Germany', Thomas Kielinger of Die Welt. Here there was bias - the kind of bias I associate with The World Tonight. Both Sir Malcolm and Herr Kielinger are strongly pro-European and, though not hostile (especially Sir Malcolm), both went on and on about her "shrillness" and expressed a similar outlook on her growing Euroscepticism. That's a different bias, of course, to the subject of this post. The World Tonight's apparent Europhile bias is something I am going to investigate in detail over the coming months. 

Despite The World Tonight's predictable blip of pro-EU bias, I really don't see how anyone can seriously take exception to BBC Radio 4's coverage of Lady Thatcher and her legacy today. To paraphrase Sue again, "I think criticisms of today’s coverage could only be described as quibbles." How long it will stay that way is, of course, an open question.

UPDATE: All of which hasn't prevented the Daily Mail from reporting plenty of criticism of the BBC's coverage - mostly garnered from Twitter and from comments on its own threads, all alleging that the corporation has landed us with "an absolute Left-wing disgrace". That this article chose to ignore all the Twitterers (by far the greater number, from what I can see) who are slamming the BBC from the other side pretty much tells you all you need to know about the paper's intentions - which, I suspect, are to play to the gallery and give their readers what they think their readers want to hear.

The Mail also includes a more considered article from Stephen Glover, where he describes how his initial pleasant surprise at the BBC's coverage wore off as the day went on as the Beeb's anti-Thatcher bias began coming through. Though there may be some truth in some of his points, I think he's quibbling. Seriously quibbling. If you want to believe that the BBC's coverage is biased against your point of view, you can always quibble your way into convincing yourself. Stephen Glover's article reads like such an attempt. It will play well with those who want to agree with him, despite the paucity of evidence he provides.

1 comment:

  1. Just read the DM article. I agree that most of the R4 and daytime coverage was reasonably balanced (though I think the Beeb was on its best behaviour, knowing it would be closely scrutinised). However, BBC World Service is always biased, and Steven Glover's comments tally with my own experience. Most of my adverse comments on "Biased BBC" tend to be about BBC WS.


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