With the news reported at the weekend that the former editor of the Daily Mail is in the frame as chairman of Ofcom, we thought it well worth revisiting the Cudlipp Lecture which he gave in 2007 in which he made a devastating attack on the BBC, accusing it of ‘a kind of cultural Marxism’, of ‘perverting political discourse’ that is harming political debate and failing to represent the views of millions of licence fee-payers. It is still relevant today. Here are some extracts, and you can read the entire speech here.
HOW often do you hear, on Newsnight, contemptuous references to the tabloid or popular 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 is big enough to look after itself. Except I don’t think it is fair, because this ignores the ever-burgeoning influence of the most powerful media organisation in the world: the hugely subsidised BBC. And it’s my contention that the BBC monolith is distorting Britain’s media market, crushing journalistic pluralism and imposing a monoculture that is inimical to healthy democratic debate.
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. Indeed I for one would pay the licence fee just for Radio 4. But the corporation is simply too big. For instance, it employs more journalists and their support staff – 3,500 – and spends more on them – £500million – than do all the national daily newspapers put together.
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 – adding ever more channels and even considering launching over 60 local TV news stations across the UK.
No wonder Britain’s hard-pressed provincial press complains it can’t compete, our ailing commercial radio sector is furious that the market is rigged against it, our nascent internet firms rage that 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.
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 worldview. Forget the fact that the BBC has, until recently, been institutionally anti-Tory. The sorry fact is that there is not a single Labour scandal – Ecclestone, Mittal, Mandelson and the Hindujas, Cheriegate, Tessa Jowell, and Prescott and Anschutz Prescott was guest of Dome casino bidder – on which the BBC has shown the slightest journalistic alacrity.
No, 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 happens 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?
Over Europe, for instance, the BBC has always treated anyone who doesn’t share its federalism – which just happens to be the great majority of the British population – as if they were demented xenophobes. In very telling words, the ex-cabinet secretary Lord Wilson blamed the BBC’s ‘institutional mindset’ over Europe on a ‘homogenous professional recruitment base’ and ‘a dislike for conservative ideas’.
Again, until recently, anyone who questioned, however gently, multiculturalism or mass immigration was treated like a piece of dirt – effectively enabling the BBC to all but close down debate on the biggest demographic change to this island in its history.
Worse, the Corporation censors the news. A distinguished journalist who had revealed that a rise in HIV figures was little to do with the indigenous population but was caused by recent African immigrants being diagnosed with the problem had his interview pulled at the last moment. He was replaced by a minister declaring that UK teenagers wearing condoms would stop the rise in HIV.
Above all, the BBC is statist. To its functionaries, insulated from the vulgar demands of the real world, there is no problem great or small – and this is one of the factors in Britain’s soaring victim culture – that cannot be blamed on a lack of state spending, and any politician daring to argue that taxes should be cut is accused of ‘lurching to the right’.
Thus 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. The BBC’s journalists, protected from real competition, believe that only their worldview 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.
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 vilified 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. The corporation, which glories in being open-minded, is, in fact, a closed thought system operating a kind of Orwellian Newspeak.
This is perverting political discourse and disenfranchising countless millions who don’t subscribe to the BBC’s worldview; one of the reasons, I would suggest, for the current apathy over politics.
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 right-wing Fox TV News service. 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.
Now, there’s been much talk recently of the need for more civic journalism in Britain, the very thing the BBC prides itself on. But let’s pose this question: what if a civic BBC finds itself dealing with an administration that does not behave in a civic way? An administration that manipulates news organisations and the news agenda, that packs ministry press offices with its supporters, that chooses good days to bury bad news, that favours news bodies that give it positive coverage and penalises those who don’t, that fabricates health and education figures, and concocts dodgy dossiers – an administration that, in Campbell and Mandelson, thought nothing of engaging in systematic falsehood.
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 of whether Mr Blair would have got away with his falsehoods and misjudgments 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, the BBC is, in many ways, a wonderful organisation. But the fact remains that it depends for its licence fee on the British population as a whole, yet only reflects the views of a tiny metropolitan minority. If it continues with this abuse of trust, then the British people will withdraw their consent and the corporation will fall into discredit, which would be a great pity.