Sunday 7 December 2014

Hold the front pages!: The BBC's James Harding thinks the BBC is getting it about right

Sunday radio and TV programmes usually contain a newspaper review, so why shouldn't we?

Opening up this morning's Sunday Telegraph (on the computer) and there's a prominent piece by James Harding, the BBC's Director of News and Current Affairs. It's a response to Wiganpiergate. 

He argues that rows between governments and the BBC are nothing new and that the relationship between them should never be cozy (indeed). He insists that the BBC has been covering the economy in a balanced way and that the BBC wouldn't have been failing in its job this week if it didn't focus on the big spending cuts to come. The job of the BBC is to report, analyse and hold politicians to account, regardless of their party, he writes. 

He says, quite correctly, "In fact, it is not the BBC that pointed out that reductions in public spending proposed by the Chancellor on Wednesday amounted to a return to state spending on citizens last seen in the 1930s. That was the point made by the Office of Budget Responsibility..."

He then moves on to the casus belli of the present row - Norman Smith's remarks on Today:
And if some people thought his reference to George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier was a tad strong, his editorial judgment was exactly right: spending cuts to reduce the deficit will be a central argument of the election. It’s clear it will be an issue irrespective of whichever party wins.
The phrase "and if some people thought" is James Harding's way of not blaming Norman Smith whilst leaving just enough wiggle room for readers to think that he is half-conceding that, in fact, Norman Smith did go "a tad" too far. Of course, "some people" didn't just think his reference to Road to Wigan Pier was a "a tad strong"; they though it was out-and-out hyperbole and indicative of 'lefty bias'.

Plus, put like that - "spending cuts to reduce the deficit will be a central argument of the election. It’s clear it will be an issue irrespective of whichever party wins" - no sensible person could argue with James Harding. Except that that's not what people were attacking the BBC for here. They were attacking the BBC for pushing a biased agenda, whether that be an anti-Tory agenda or a more general anti-cuts agenda - and for grossly exaggerating (hopefully) the costs of cutting public spending back to 1930s levels. James Harding fails to answer that point - that Norman Smith's language, especially that use of "utterly terrifying", was an editorial judgement that leaped right over into being a (possibly scaremongering) political opinion - which, as things stand (ya know, BBC editorial guidelines 'n' all), he's not supposed to do. 

Mr Harding failed to meet the central thrust of the specific criticism here. He chose to sidestep it instead.

His closing paragraphs attempt to place the BBC right back at the heroic heart of British democratic broadcasting:
The BBC, like any news organisation, makes mistakes. No doubt, in the hurly burly of the election campaign in the coming months, we will make some. When we do, we will try to get to the bottom of them quickly and correct them. Politicians can and do complain – often very publicly – about how challenging interviews are conducted. This particularly happens around elections when the stakes are high. In the coming months, there’s likely to be a lot more of it from politicians of all parties. And the closeness and unpredictability of this election is likely to amplify that like never before. So, it’s more important than ever that the BBC is undeterred by such complaints and defends its independence from political pressure from wherever it comes.
The BBC’s job is to keep reporting and analysing the news, questioning politicians, investigating the issues, and pressing for the real story. The election campaign has begun. The BBC will, undeterred, do its job. A meek BBC wouldn’t be fulfilling its role for the public.
It certainly is right that the BBC should defend its independence from political pressure from wherever it comes. People outside of the BBC - and not just politicians - will, however, keep pointing out the BBC's mistakes, and their biases, and questioning and investigating them. 

The fact that the BBC pretty much always responds to such complaints with the line, "No, we disagree. We think we got it about right", is part of the problem with the BBC. James Harding's piece here is a lengthy version of exactly the same answer.


Turning to the Sunday Times and to Rod Liddle, the former Today editor has a few thoughts of his own about this very story. He ignores the fact that the 1930s thing [though not the Road to Wigan Pier reference or the loaded language] came, as Mr Harding says, from the OBR rather than from the BBC, but still - as ever - it's a fun read: 
Meanwhile, the BBC has been criticised for its “hyperbolic” and biased response to the chancellor of the exchequer’s autumn statement. But why? The BBC’s assistant political editor, Norman Smith, merely said that we were heading right back to the 1930s, facing spending cuts on a “colossal scale”, that the forecasts read like a “book of doom” and that we were back on the road to George Orwell’s Wigan Pier.
Where’s the bias in that, I ask you. And Norm was supported by Yoda himself — ie, Evan Davis — on Newsnight. It’s the Thirties again, he said. We will have to eat one another, out of hunger, and burn the children to keep warm. Fat children are particularly good as winter fuel — they burn for longer, if you can bear the sizzling. That’s what we shall be reduced to.
I have lost count of the number of times the BBC (or The Guardian, or The Independent) has told me that we’re heading back to the 1930s. A freeze in child benefit and housing benefit for two years, or the cut of a grant to some drop-in centre, and all of those conduits of impartial information will shriek at you that, as a consequence, we’re heading back to the 1930s posthaste. I must have heard it a thousand times since May 1979.
But if only we were heading back to the 1930s. The licence fee then was 10 bob. No Russell Howard, no Danny Cohen, no Evan Davis. I want to stand up for the BBC. But it becomes more difficult with every week that passes. 


  1. Homes with no electricity, no indoor running water and outside toilets. No NHS or social security, food shortages. And the BBC think their coverage is balanced. What a laugh !

  2. Oh, and I forgot, an impending world war !

  3. Well I defend the remarks. I don't think many people would have taken the remarks literally as meaning we would all soon be doffing cloth caps, going down the dog track and eating tripe.

    I took it to mean we were going to be experiencing continued cuts in real incomes, continued reduction in welfare benefits, increased economic insecurity, returning to insecure renting as the dominant form of housing...

    All of which is verifiably factual, in terms of what we have experienced since about 2004.

    Dan Read


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