John Lloyd responds to Dacre's attack

Paul Dacre is the last – or anyway, presently the only – British newspaper editor who stamps himself on his newspaper every morning. Other editors put their mark on papers, and shape them – Dacre beats the words out every night, producing a paper which is his voice, reflects his tastes and views, has his acuities and blind spots, in a way true of no other paper. Though much less flamboyant than any of these, he is in the Christiansen-Cudlipp-MacKenzie tradition – one whose paper’s columns, both reportage and comment, reflect his unique blend of libertarian-authoritarian Conservatism.
It is never predictable. A strong Atlanticist and opponent of terrorism, he opposed the Iraq invasion. Furious at the political correctness of anti-racism, he led the campaign for justice against the murderers of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence. And as the Mail, so the Cudlipp lecture which he gave last week – in its lambasting of the BBC – was acute and blinkered, on the ball and off course.
Dacre is right to point to the size of the BBC, and to its undeclared biases. Whether or not the omnipresence of the BBC in local, regional and national broadcasting has chilled out competition is at least a good subject for debate – when I went to a meeting of regional newspaper editors last year, the one occasion in which they showed anger was in reaction to a speaker from the BBC, who spoke of extending the BBC’s local TV reach. This, for them, was unfair competition in an already unforgiving world.
Less debatable because more obvious, is the institutional bias, which is in part leftist/liberal, in greater part resolutely anti-populist. The more robust concerns of a large part – perhaps the majority – of the population are at best passed through an anxious filter. Multiculturalism was for the BBC largely beyond question, and resistance to mass immigration was barely discussed, except in the context of racism. It can be fairly asked of the BBC if it is not a large contributor to the Victorian horror over the mention of race which is evinced whenever the subject comes up – as it did, in the past month, when Celebrity Big Brother gave a revealing and fascinating airing of the issue, albeit in a virtual way.
Further, Dacre’s vivid remark that ‘[David] Cameron’s cuddly blend of eco-politics and work-life balance, his sidelining of Thatcherism and his banishing of all talk of lower taxes, lower immigration and Euroscepticism are all part of the blood sacrifices to the BBC God’is at least partly right. When writing about Cameron for the FT, a number of his aides and allies said that a successful Tory leader had to trim his pitch to the assumptions and predilections of the BBC – in part, as one said, because ‘the person who works for the BBC is more representative of the UK today than he or she was 20 years ago”.
Indeed, the BBC is not impartial, or neutral. It’s a publicly funded urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It depends on the state’s approval for its funding. It has a liberal bias – not so much a party political bias: it’s much better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.
All of the above paragraph (after the ‘indeed”) was not written by me – the words were said by Andrew Marr, at a largely in-house seminar organised by the BBC on the theme of impartiality. And the fact that they were said to a BBC audience by a liberal-leftist journalist who became a BBC man is indicative of something which Dacre doesn’t reflect. The BBC – or parts of it – is aware of its bias, and seeking to at least challenge it. For while it can reflect the worst of a smug liberalism, it can act according to liberalism’s best self-critical instincts. In a speech given in Oxford last month, the director of BBC News, Peter Horrocks, admitted the over-narrow frames in which political news was contained in the BBC – and said it would broaden, to include such voices as the British National Party.
Dacre is very wide of the mark when he excoriates the corporation for being soft on the Government because it is Labour. There was something of that in Labour’s early days – more, probably, in John Major’s last days – but the real and potential scandals which afflict the Government are given extensive, sometimes excessive, coverage. He singles out the case of John Prescott’s affair as one ‘virtually ignored”. It wasn’t, but it was given less of a play than in the newspapers, on the reasonable grounds that the BBC hesitated to make a large story of a private, rather than a public indiscretion – or rather, it paused to sort out whether it had a public dimension (it still seems to me that there was very little of that to it).
And Dacre is wrong in spades when he says that the BBC’s one genuine anti-Government story – that on David Kelly, though he does not name it – was betrayed by craven governors. The story was badly sourced and crucially wrong – the governors belatedly realised that and sought to staunch the self-inflicted wound. The resignation under pressure of the chairman Gavyn Davies and the director general Greg Dyke – who were, he is right to say, disgracefully both major Labour supporters – was a kind of rough justice.
‘Britain,’he ends, ‘needs greater freedom, plurality and diversity in its media”, and that is right. It is probably always right – and to an extent, the great beast which is the BBC acts as a soft wet blanket. But anyone worth their salt would not be deterred by the corporation – and in any case, that diversity is now breaking out all over, through an internet on which voices, millions of them, are hardly inhibited by either political correctness or balance.
John Lloyd is director of journalism at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University

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