Monday 8 April 2013

The Iron Lady and the BBC

Margaret Thatcher, 1925-2013

It's an odd thing to be so focused on BBC bias. I'm afraid I find myself watching too many big news stories through that filter. It's probably a distorting lens.

It's been that way today - a day that's seen the passing of an exceptional figure in world politics, Baroness Thatcher. She was an exceptional figure in my life too. I admired her greatly. And yet my focus this evening  has once again fixed on the BBC and its coverage - wearing that filter again, looking through that distorting lens again, ever alert for signs of bias rather than focusing on the event itself for its own sake. (I have toasted the lady's memory though).

From what I've seen and heard so far, it would be hard for anyone to say that the BBC's coverage has been biased against her. Their tone has been respectful and fair - at least as far as The World at One, PM and the BBC News at Six are concerned. I've seen the word 'sycophantic' banded about a lot on Twitter. I don't think that's at all fair on either Martha Kearney or Eddie Mair, whose gentle interviewing style today was surely appropriate. 

Has the BBC's coverage been fair? Some left-wingers on Twitter don't seem to think so. Quite a few of them were tweeting this afternoon, mocking the idea that the BBC is biased towards the Left on the strength of the BBC's early coverage of the death of Baroness Thatcher. Well, that's Twitter for you. 

I might have certain quibbles about, say, Huw Edwards's use of the word "strident" to describe Mrs Thatcher's views on Europe (on The World at One) and Bridget Kendall's use of "belligerent'" to describe her views on Europe (on BBC One's News at Six), plus my family (who hold a range of political views) did express doubts at the appropriateness of using a vox pop who expressed gladness at Baroness Thatcher's death on the News at Six - and a milder version of the same kind of comment from the North East was to follow later; but, all in all, taken in the round, I can't see much for anyone (of whatever political complexion) to complain about. The BBC has been on its best behaviour (with very rare exceptions on Twitter - see David Preiser and DB here). 

The World at One had interviews with several friends and admirers of Margaret Thatcher - Lord Bell, Baroness Jenkin of Kennington, Michael Howard, Lord Tebbitt, Charles Moore and Lord Armstrong. It also featured an interview with a respectful critic - Lord Hattersley, plus there was a report on her legacy featuring a range of views from Peter York, Billy Bragg (another critic, obviously) and Andrew Neil. 

PM also featured plenty of interviews with friends and admirers - Sir John Nott, Lord Powell, Francis Maude, Margaret James and Liam Fox. There was also an extract from an admiring interview with the late Milton Friedman. These were balanced by a long and hostile pre-recorded 'obituary' from Neil Kinnock. After this sour but, impartiality-wise (necessary note) we were given a sequence of good-natured personal recollections from former BBC political editor John Sergeant and the former Conservative vice chairman Lord Dobbs. The programme continued with a balanced, highly political discussion between the sour Clare Short (strongly against), Gillian Shepherd (strongly for) and Lord Owen (somewhere in between, refusing to take a "black or white view"), before we heard the Iron Lady in her own words. This balance strikes me as reasonable, given that an old lady has just died and that the BBC has a duty to deal with a major political figure in an impartial fashion.

From what I've read, some of the BBC's natural critics on the Right are finding themselves pleasantly surprised by the BBC's coverage so far. Whether that will last, we shall see. Is that pleasant surprise evidence that the sarcastic left-wingers on Twitter are right? Hardly - as you can see from the outline of tonight's edition of PM above. Moreover, the almost studious nature of the "love her or loathe her" reporting (both Nick Robinson and Huw Edwards have used that phrase today) on the two Radio 4 programmes and on the News at Six will have given both supporters and opponents of Margaret Thatcher some things to nod their heads at and some things to shake their heads at. BBC impartiality? It certainly seems so to me. So far.

What of tonight's The World Tonight? Well, those left-wing tweeters who were accusing the BBC of "sycophany" and pro-Tory bias earlier would have no grounds for complaint here. If The World at One - broadcast as the news of the former prime minister's death was breaking - was, understandably, gentle while PM (broadcast four hours later) was somewhat tougher and gave greater voice to criticism, then  The World Tonight (broadcast a further five hours on) was toughest and most critical of all. 

The critical voices were heard much more strongly in the introduction and the news bulletin and in Ritula Shah's questioning. Balance was everywhere, "sycophancy" nowhere. An interview with a supportive Lord Lawson was followed by an "unsupportive" report from  the BBC's Paul Moss (from Merthyr Tydfil), where various vox pops expressed their feelings of hostility towards her (one wishing she'd never been born), and a doctor attacked her for increasing mental health problems, suicides, alcoholism and drug abuse - though Paul also supplied a supportive voice from someone he introduced as a "Thatcherite" and a "banker". Next came a discussion on monetarism between Patrick Minford (a key figure in Thatcherism) and Will Hutton (a critic of Thatcherism). Being The World Tonight the programme, she talked to voices abroad - interviewing an admiring F.W. de Klerk of South Africa. (He called Mrs Thatcher an "ally"). This gave the programme a chance to discuss the controversy of her attitude to apartheid South Africa. Ritula then interviewed Colin Powell, recalling the Iron Lady's relationship with President Reagan in a series of anecdotes. The critical element shot back up with a Nick Higham report on the culture of the 1980s: consumerism, Loadsamoney, "greed is good", yuppies, an interview with Alexei Sayle (who attacked her "xenophobia", "small-minded"-ness, etc.),  the novelist Ian McEwan attacking her impact, "Ghost Town", "devastated" towns, Yosser Hughes, "her pomp". Then came an interview with Steve Nallon, who voiced Mrs Thatcher (in a none-too-friendly spirit) on Spitting Image. "Love her and loathe her...," said Ritula at the start of her summing-up. Hmm. Balance beginning to shade into bias again?

We'll have to see how Today covers this tomorrow. I will have my filters on, no doubt. 

1 comment:

  1. I think criticisms of yesterday’s coverage could only be described as quibbles. Any fuss about it 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.
    I predict the days ahead will reveal the bias, as they dwell on the negatives.
    I can feel one coming on as I type.


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