The Guardian, The Independent and The Times are all losing money. Such papers are effectively being subsidised. So when The Times’s Ms Sieghart, the very embodiment of modern free-thinking women, holds forth on feminism, she does so courtesy of the topless girls in the still vastly profitable Sun.
Equally, when The Guardian’s Mr Kettle vents his spleen on the excesses of the free market he does so courtesy of the fat profits made by that fine example of the free market – the Guardian-owned Auto Trader.
And while The Guardian’s Scott Trust is a magnificent construct that allows some gloriously elevated journalism – and praise be to God for that, say I – let’s not beat about the bush: subsidised papers are, by definition, unable to survive in a free market. Their journalism and values – invariably liberal, metropolitan and politically correct, and I include the pinkish Times here – don’t connect with sufficient readers to be commercially viable.
Ah, say the bien pensants, but such papers are hugely concerned for the common good. But there is a rather unedifying contradiction here. For the Subsidariat, as I shall dub them, are actually rather disdainful of common man, contemptuous even, of the papers that make profits by appealing to and connecting with millions of ordinary men and women.
How often do you read in the Subsidariat, or hear on Newsnight, contemptuous references to the tabloid press as if it was some disembodied monster rather than the very embodiment of the views of the great majority of the British people?
Fair enough, you might say. The tabloid press – and it’s getting confusing here, because The Times and The Independent are, of course, tabloids now – is big enough to look after itself. Except I don’t think it is fair because such arguments ignore the ever- burgeoning growth of the most powerful media organisation in the world. I refer, of course, to the hugely subsidised BBC.
And it’s my contention in this lecture that the Subsidariat, dominated by the BBC monolith, is distorting Britain’s media market, crushing journalistic pluralism and imposing a mono culture that is inimical to healthy democratic debate.
Great civilising force Now before the liberal commentators reach for their vitriol – and, my goodness, how they demonise anyone who disagrees with them – let me say that I would die in a ditch defending the BBC as a great civilising force. I, for one, would pay the licence fee just for Radio 4.
But as George Orwell said: ‘To see what is in front of one’s nose requires constant struggle”. And what is in front of one’s nose is that the BBC, a behemoth that bestrides Britain is, as Cudlipp might have put it, too bloody big, too bloody pervasive and too bloody powerful.
Firstly, consider the sheer size of the corporation which is, despite its bleating about being underfunded, a conglomerate that employs 26,000 people, has a vast £3.2bn budget, and thinks nothing of paying £18m to a chat show host.
Then consider this: the BBC employs more journalists and their support staff – 3,500 – and spends more on them than do all the national daily newspapers put together.
Pervasiveness? Where there was once just a handful of channels, the BBC now has an awesome stranglehold on the airwaves reaching into every home every hour of the day. Like an amoeba, that reproduces itself by fission, the corporation just grows and grows. On TV there’s BBC1, BBC2, BBC3, BBC4, News 24 and BBC World. Then there’s Radios One, Two, Three, Four, Five Live, Five Live Sports Extra, 1Xtra, BBC 6Music, BBC7, BBC Asian Network and, of course, the BBC World Service.
On the web, bbc.co.uk has a staggering 53 per cent of the British online audience and the corporation has just earmarked a £350m war-chest to expand into social networking on the internet.
The BBC has 15 regional TV services across England plus 40 local radio stations and now – in a move that has huge implications for newspapers – is considering launching over 60 local TV news stations across the UK.
No wonder Britain’s hard-pressed provincial press complains it can’t compete against such firepower, our ailing commercial radio sector is furious that the market is rigged against it by subsidy, while our nascent internet firms rage they’re not competing on a level playing field.
No wonder ITV, admittedly aided and abetted by some pretty incompetent management, is reeling on the ropes, while ITN is a shadow of its glorious former self and – wrested from its traditional time slot – News at Ten has become News at When and barely manages an audience of two million compared to the 10 million in its glory days. But it’s not the BBC’s ubiquity, so much greater than Fleet Street’s, that is worrying but its power to impose – under the figleaf of impartiality – its own world view.
Now I don’t want to go over old ground. So let’s not dwell here on the fact that in the early days, manipulated by Campbell and Mandelson, the BBC was almost an official arm of New Labour. Just what was it doing holding special news events such as NHS Day which was nothing more than blatant Government propaganda. And if you don’t accept that, just ask yourself this question: would the BBC ever hold a Private Health Day?
Put to one side how preposterous it was that two Labour stooges became director general and chairman, that the outgoing John Birt walked out of the corporation straight into a post at Number 10 and that the ex-head of the BBC’s Political Unit helped write Labour’s Election Manifesto. Even if you like, ignore the fact that the BBC has, until recently, been institutionally anti-Tory.
BBC’s indecent zeal The sorry fact is that there is not a single Labour scandal – Ecclestone, Mittal, Mandelson and the Hindujas, Cheriegate, Tessa Jowell and Prescott and Anshutz – on which the BBC has shown the slightest journalistic alacrity and has not had to be dragged into covering late in the day by papers like the Mail.
Such pusillanimity is especially shameful when you compare this to the almost indecent zeal with which the BBC pursued Tory scandals. How telling that it virtually ignored the Deputy Prime Minister’s affair with his secretary – a blatant abuse of his office – yet could hardly contain itself over the news that John Major had had an affair with Edwina Currie.
I recently had lunch with the BBC’s director general and I don’t think it’s breaking a confidence to reveal that he told me that their research showed that the BBC was no longer perceived as being anti-Tory.
‘That’s because you’ve broken the buggers”, I said laughing. And it’s true. Today’s Tories are obsessed by the BBC. They saw what its attack dogs did to Hague, Duncan-Smith and Howard.
Cameron’s cuddly blend of eco-politics and work-life balance, his embrace of Polly Toynbee – a columnist who loathes everything Conservatism stands for but is a totemic figure to the BBC – his sidelining of Thatcherism and his banishing of all talk of lower taxes, lower immigration and Euroscepticism, are all part of the Tories’ blood sacrifice to the BBC God.
Now, I’m not really worried about this. The Conservatives can look after themselves. What really disturbs me is that the BBC is, in every corpuscle of its corporate body, against the values of conservatism, with a small ‘c”, which, I would argue, just happen to be the values held by millions of Britons.
Thus it exercises a kind of cultural Marxism in which it tries to undermine that conservative society by turning all its values on their heads.
Of course, there is the odd dissenting voice, but by and large, BBC journalism starts from the premise of left wing ideology: it is hostile to conservatism and the traditional right, Britain’s past and British values, America, Ulster Unionism, Euroscepticism, capitalism and big business, the countryside, Christianity, and family values.
Conversely it is sympathetic to Labour, European Federalism, the State and State spending, mass immigration, minority rights, multiculturalism, alternative lifestyles, abortion and progressiveness in the education and the justice systems.
Now you may sympathise with all or some of these views. I may even sympathise with some of them. But what on earth gives the BBC the right to assume they are the only values of any merit?
BBC journalism is presented through a left-wing prism that affects everything – the choice of stories, the way they are angled, the choice of interviewees and, most pertinently, the way those interviewees are treated.
Freedom of Information enquiries tell us, and we should be very unsurprised here, that the BBC Newsroom has more copies of The Guardian delivered than any other paper and that 90 per cent of the corporation’s job ads are placed with that paper. Thus are the values of a subsidised newspaper that sells 380,000 copies embraced by an organisation that reaches into virtually every home in Britain.
Like The Guardian’s, the BBC’s journalists, insulated from real competition, believe that only their world view constitutes moderate, sensible and decent opinion. Any dissenting views – particularly those held by popular papers – are therefore considered, by definition, to be extreme and morally beyond the pale.
Socially, the BBC is snobbish. It is disdainful, in particular, of the values of the decent lower middle classes as they strive to raise their families, respect the traditions of this country, obey the law and get by on their comparatively meagre incomes.
Patronisingly contemptuous But then, the BBC is consumed by the kind of political correctness that is actually patronisingly contemptuous of what it describes as ordinary people. Having started as an admirable philosophy of tolerance, that political correctness has become an intolerant creed enabling a self-appointed elite to impose its minority values on the great majority. Anything popular is dismissed as being populist which is sneering shorthand for being of the lowest possible taste.
The right to disagree was axiomatic to classical liberalism, but the BBC’s political correctness is, in fact, an ideology of rigid self-righteousness in which those who do not conform are ignored, silenced, or villified as sexist, racist, fascist, or judgmental. Thus, with this assault on reason, are whole areas of legitimate debate – in education, health, race relations and law and order – shut down.
‘Four legs good, two legs bad’chanted the sheep in Orwell’s Animal Farm – that study in totalitarianism – and what is in front of one’s nose is that the BBC, which glories in being open-minded, is, in fact, a closed thought system operating a kind of Orwellian Newspeak.
This, I would argue, is perverting political discourse and disenfranchising countless millions who don’t subscribe to the BBC’s world view. Told repeatedly that their opinions are not considered respectable or legitimate, these people are disconnecting – one of the reasons, I would suggest, for the current apathy over politics.
Backlash predicted How instructive to compare all this with what is happening in America. There, the liberal smugness of a terminally worthy, monopolistic press has, together with deregulation, triggered both the explosive growth of right-wing radio broadcasting that now dominates the airwaves and the extraordinary rise of Murdoch’s rightwing Fox News service.
In Britain, regulators would not currently allow such ‘opinionated’broadcasting – though, of course, there’s nothing more opinionated than the BBC’s journalism. But democracy needs a healthy tension between left and right and nature abhors a vacuum. If the BBC continues skewing the political debate, there will be a backlash and I predict that what has happened in America will eventually take place in Britain.
At their best, popular papers – that are far more sensitive than politicians and opinion polls to national moods – articulate the anxieties, apprehensions and aspirations of their readers. Genuinely democratic – I mean, you try persuading people to fork out 45p for a paper on a rainy day – they give voice to millions of ordinary people who don’t have a voice.
And, because they have this symbiotic, almost tactile responsiveness to their readers, such papers are often able to identify and highlight great truths – truths that are often uncomfortable to a ruling class that is increasingly dismissive of ordinary people’s views.
It might sound pious to say, but with a weakened second chamber and a still untested opposition, popular papers are sometimes the only counter-foil to arrogant – and increasingly corrupt – politicians, hugely powerful but unaccountable quangocrats, an out-of-touch judiciary and a ruling class that too often thinks it knows how to run people’s lives better than they do themselves.
Is the BBC’s civic journalism – too often credulously trusting, lacking scepticism, rarely proactive in the sense of breaking stories itself – up to dealing with a political class that too often set out to dissemble and to deceive?
The bitter irony, of course, is that when, for once, the BBC was proactive in its journalism and did stand up to the Labour Party by breaking a genuine story, the Corporation and its craven governors all but imploded under pressure from a rabid Campbell.
And what is interesting is that this contrasted with the ruthless support for the Iraq war that Rupert Murdoch imposed on his papers and their equally ruthless suppression of any criticism of the invasion whether it involved the Attorney General’s malfeasance, virtually ignored in The Times, or Dr Kelly, all but hung drawn and quartered by The Sun.
Indeed, I would suggest that the intimacy and power-brokering between these two papers and No 10 and the question whether Mr Blair would have got away with his falsehoods and misjudgements over Iraq – indeed, whether Britain would have gone to war at all – without the support of the Murdoch empire, is a brilliant doctoral thesis for some future media studies student.
Yes, Murdoch is the media genius of his age. His Wapping revolution led to a renaissance of the British press and the birth of papers that now routinely villify him, but the way he imposes his proprietorial views, and his manipulation of governments is worrying and what a terrible comment on the cowardice of senior British politicians that not one of them has spoken out against his 18 per cent holding in ITV.
Circulations are slipping. Traditional revenues are migrating. Distribution is becoming more problematic. But the greatest threat comes from an ever-more centralising, an ever-more controlling establishment that is becoming increasingly intolerant of any form of dissent.
If we want to avoid the day when headlines and bulletins all recite the same mantra ‘Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad’we should all of us, particularly those who care deeply about press freedom, be very, very vigilant.
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