Left-wing bias? It's written through the BBC's very DNA, says Peter SissonsFor 20 years I was a front man at the BBC, anchoring news and current affairs programmes, so I reckon nobody is better placed than me to answer the question that nags at many of its viewers — is the BBC biased?
In my view, ‘bias’ is too blunt a word to describe the subtleties of the pervading culture. The better word is a ‘mindset’. At the core of the BBC, in its very DNA, is a way of thinking that is firmly of the Left.
By far the most popular and widely read newspapers at the BBC are The Guardian and The Independent. Producers refer to them routinely for the line to take on running stories, and for inspiration on which items to cover. In the later stages of my career, I lost count of the number of times I asked a producer for a brief on a story, only to be handed a copy of The Guardian and told ‘it’s all in there’.
If you want to read one of the few copies of the Daily Mail that find their way into the BBC newsroom, they are difficult to track down, and you would be advised not to make too much of a show of reading them. Wrap them in brown paper or a copy of The Guardian, would be my advice.
Veterans: Peter Sissons with Six O'Clock News' colleagues Moira Stuart (left) and Anna Ford soon after he joined the BBC
I am in no doubt that the majority of BBC staff vote for political parties of the Left. But it’s impossible to do anything but guess at the numbers whose beliefs are on the Right or even Centre-Right. This is because the one thing guaranteed to damage your career prospects at the BBC is letting it be known that you are at odds with the prevailing and deep-rooted BBC attitude towards Life, the Universe, and Everything.
At any given time there is a BBC line on everything of importance, a line usually adopted in the light of which way its senior echelons believe the political wind is blowing. This line is rarely spelled out explicitly, but percolates subtly throughout the organisation.
Whatever the United Nations is associated with is good — it is heresy to question any of its activities. The EU is also a good thing, but not quite as good as the UN. Soaking the rich is good, despite well-founded economic arguments that the more you tax, the less you get. And Government spending is a good thing, although most BBC people prefer to call it investment, in line with New Labour’s terminology.
All green and environmental groups are very good things. Al Gore is a saint. George Bush was a bad thing, and thick into the bargain. Obama was not just the Democratic Party’s candidate for the White House, he was the BBC’s. Blair was good, Brown bad, but the BBC has now lost interest in both.
Trade unions are mostly good things, especially when they are fighting BBC managers. Quangos are also mostly good, and the reports they produce are usually handled uncritically. The Royal Family is a bore. Islam must not be offended at any price, although Christians are fair game because they do nothing about it if they are offended.
The increasing tendency for the BBC to interview its own reporters on air exacerbates this mindset. Instead of concentrating on interviewing the leading players in a story or spreading the net wide for a range of views, these days the BBC frequently chooses to use the time getting the thoughts of its own correspondents. It is a format intended to help clarify the facts, but which often invites the expression of opinion. When that happens, instead of hearing both sides of a story, the audience at home gets what is, in effect, the BBC’s view presented as fact.
Queen Elizabeth II was not a favourite at the BBC
And, inside the organisation, you challenge that collective view at your peril. In today’s BBC only those whose antennae are fully attuned to the corporation’s cultural mindset — or keep quiet about their true feelings — are going to make progress.
Moreover, making progress these days doesn’t mean just achieving the influence and prestige of a senior job with the world’s greatest broadcaster, once considered reward enough. For those breaking through into the senior ranks, there’s now big, big money and a gold-plated pension to be had
Which is why, although there has been plenty of grumbling on the shop floor about the escalation of pay for top BBC managers in recent years, it’s muted. No one wants to wreck his or her chances of a well-paid place in the promised land. The newsroom has many talented journalists of middle rank, who know what’s wrong with the organisation, but who don’t rock the boat for fear of blowing their futures.
Not that talent alone is enough to get on at the BBC. The key to understanding its internal promotions system is that, for every person whose career is advanced on ability, two are promoted because it solves a problem for management.
If Human Resources — or Personnel, as it used to be known — advise that it’s time a woman or someone from an ethnic minority (or a combination of the two) was appointed to the job for which you, a white male, have applied, then that’s who gets it.
But whatever your talent, sex or ethnicity, there’s one sure-fire way at a BBC promotions board to ensure you don’t get the job, indeed to bring your career to a grinding halt. And that’s if, when asked which post-war politician you most admire, you reply: ‘Margaret Thatcher’.
What the BBC wants you, the public, to believe is that it has ‘independence’ woven into its fabric, running through its veins and concreted into its foundations.
The reality, I discovered, was that for the BBC, independence is not a banner it carries principally on behalf of the listener or viewer.
Rather, it is the name it gives to its ability to act at all times in its own best interests.
The BBC’s ability to position itself, to decide for itself on which side its bread is buttered, is what it calls its independence. It’s flexible, and acutely sensitive to which way the wind is blowing politically.
Complaints from viewers may invariably be met with the BBC’s stock response, ‘We don’t accept that, so get lost’. But complaints from ministers, though they may be rejected publicly, usually cause consternation — particularly if there is a licence fee settlement in the offing. And not just ministers, if a change of Government is thought likely.
Back in October 1995, the then leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair, made his big speech at the Labour Party Conference — but on the Six O’clock News, there was every chance it would be upstaged by the verdict in the sensational OJ Simpson trial in the U.S., which was expected at the same time. Even at the conference itself delegates crowded round TV sets for the news, and it wasn’t to see a rerun of Tony.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair was a BBC favourite according to Sissons
Alastair Campbell, Blair’s press secretary, was having none of it. He faxed the BBC and ITN ‘not to lose sight of the importance to the country of Mr Blair’s speech’. He wanted it to lead the news. ITN ignored his letter. The BBC made sure the Six O’clock News complied.
That spoke volumes. Such a letter from a spin doctor would have been binned on principle by the great editors of ITN who I worked for before joining the BBC. At the BBC, the instinct, faced with such a plea from a party of the Left standing on the brink of power, was to do as requested.
All Governments work hard on influencing the news agenda, but what I found uncomfortable during my years presenting the Nine O’clock and Ten O’clock News was how blatant those attempts to pressurise the BBC became, particularly at General Election time.
The party machines all had the internal BBC telephone numbers of the editors of the major news programmes, whom they would try to bully in person, both before and after the programmes went out.
I remember a night when the editor’s phone rang after the Nine O’Clock News. It was a direct call from No 10, questioning her judgment and complaining about our political coverage that night. This wasn’t a call to the director-general, or the head of news, but to a harassed and tired editor who had been on duty for 14 hours.
‘Tell him to get stuffed,’ I advised her. She rolled her eyes, knowing better than I the row that would be caused by that.
One of the things that always puzzled me at the BBC was the lack of inspirational leadership. There were exceptions.
My favourite editor when I chaired Question Time was notable for his total loyalty to me and the rest of his team. If things went wrong, he saw it as his job to take the bullet. That was not the BBC way — the old saying ‘Deputy heads must roll’ still raises a smile, but only because of the truth it contains.
Most of the managers I had over me had status and rank, on paper. In reality, they had little talent except the dark art of surviving at the BBC and alienating those who were answerable to them. I was always struck by how few senior people there were to look up to and to learn from.
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