The party organ of the state
Paul Demarty comments on the retirement of John Humphrys from BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Whatever virtues are supposedly part of political conservatism, we may safely say that gratitude is not among them.
In what was clearly a well-timed stunt, John Humphrys, one of the BBC’s more irascible newscasters and the voice of the Today programme on Radio 4 for many years, followed his retirement with the serialisation of his memoirs. That the latter were printed by the Daily Mail ought to give some idea of how warmly he feels towards the institution to which he owes what little notability he has. So the headlines have been dominated by his accusation that the broadcaster has a systematically liberal bias. Some additional controversy has attached to his rather caustic remarks about the gender pay gap, but the angry liberal feminists of Twitter can hardly get him ‘cancelled’, as the argot has it.
We learn little enough from these scandalous extracts beyond the fact that Humphrys is a Tory blowhard who shares all the little obsessions of his comrades in perpetual outrage. This is despite the fact that, as many liberals have pointed out, if the BBC has such an “institutional liberal bias”, it is amazing that Humphrys survived in it for over a half a century - leaving aside the obvious bias of the former young Conservative Nick Robinson and the high-Thatcherite Andrew Neil, to name only two. The liberal conspiracy at the heart of the BBC - the ‘noble liar’, according to the title of a recent book-length jeremiad about it from Lord Ashcroft’s vanity publishing operation - has hit on the devious tactic of hiring loads of Tories for its front-and-centre broadcasting jobs and paying them vast scads of cash to berate guests. (Humphrys was handed £600,000 as a retirement gift - you could buy a few gold watches with that, and that may not be a bad investment if his beloved Brexit goes the way it sometimes looks like going.) It is as if Sean Hannity and co were to start criticising Fox News for liberal bias, from the bully pulpit of their Fox News primetime shows.
The myth of the liberal BBC is a variant form of the wider myth of the liberal media. We mentioned Hannity and Fox News, and the United States is the other great instance of this idea in the Anglosphere at least. Though it has dominated US conservatism’s sense of grievance since the Reagan revolution of the early 1980s, which brought a greatly expanded role for far-right evangelicals in the Republican mainstream, the present state of total political crisis has brought to power a president who openly denounces staid traditional media outlets as a bunch of traitors and liars.
Humphrys’s harrumph comes, of course, at a similar - and, if anything, more acute - moment of crisis in the British establishment. Understanding it demands we turn our attention in turn to the BBC and to the present shape of the political right in Britain.
The BBC, for its part, has an additional vulnerability for its critics in the rightwing press, of whom the turncoat Humphrys is only the very latest. Castigating CNN, the New York Times and the like for ‘liberal bias’ is strictly a hobby horse for true believers. There is a clear business interest, however, for the British rightwing press to take up cudgels. Ten years ago, James Murdoch - then the favourite son of Rupert - delivered the MacTaggart lecture as a bracing attack on the BBC. The existence and endless expansion of a state media organisation was “chilling”; only private enterprise subject to the discipline of the free market could be trusted to defend liberty. The BBC enjoys unfair advantages - it can just spend its budget without raising income. (A particular bugbear is the fact that the BBC, unlike its competitors in the private media, is not reliant on advertising to drive revenue from its web operations, meaning its content is not disfigured by the dreary circuit of flickering display units, autoplaying movie trailers and chum boxes.)
There is also the small matter that it is an easy target. Paradoxically, its very eagerness to appear unbiased makes things worse, on this point; in response to criticism, it flails in one direction and the other and appears biased to everyone. No better illustration of this exists than the Brexit issue, in fact. Humphrys accuses the BBC of being managed by remainers, declaring rather implausibly: “I’m not sure the BBC as a whole ever quite had a real grasp of what was going on in Europe, or of what people in this country thought about it.” Brexiteers routinely complain that they are rubbished and castigated by biased interviewers. Meanwhile, remainers complain that so much airtime is given to the Brexit hardcore (there were whole months where one could be forgiven for thinking that Andrew Bridgen was sleeping in the Radio 4 store cupboard, so frequently were his unhinged hot takes required by Beeb editors), even if in the form of ‘hard’ interviews.
This in the end is a matter of the bureaucratic mode of editorial decision-making in the BBC’s news-gathering organisation. This is not the ‘heroic’ model of editorship exemplified by the trade’s heroes, such as Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, whereby astonishing and courageous successes in breaking important stories - often at great risk - may be indulged in order to gild the image of the organisation in the long-term as the quotidian lies of bourgeois ‘news’ pile up. The BBC, on the other hand, is run by a hypertrophic caste of overpaid managers, and inasmuch as they consider the reputation of their corporation, it is in the context of this week’s news cycle, which must somehow be managed, rather than its long-term institutional strength.
There is something a little late-Roman about the squabbling factions of BBC bureaucrats, and their habit of generous payouts to avoid embarrassment, like handing Aquitaine to the Visigoths to keep them off your back (not that it did them any good with Humphrys, any more than the western empire could bribe its way to long-term survival). The difference, of course, is that the ranks of imperial courtiers were periodically subject to bloody purges at times of crisis in the succession. In the BBC, losing out to a rival means having a new and meaningless job invented for you in upper-middle management. Worse things happen at sea, let us say.
The timid, bureaucratic BBC of our day descends from the different regime of old-school establishment types that governed it until the last 30 years or so. This changed - most remarkably under the reign of John Birt, who swept out many of the ‘old boys’ with the broom of management-consultancy jargon and ‘modernisation’ - in lockstep with the wider culture of the establishment, which too was ‘modernised’. Here we meet the other strand of our discussion, the political right.
The traditional-Tory ideology of patrician prudence and moderation in the great institutions of national life was fatally undermined by the Thatcher regime. Thatcher - not Boris Johnson, as you might imagine from recent hysteria - was the first Tory prime minister in post-war history to deliberately exclude her factional opponents from the cabinet. They were not to be trusted. The City big bang brought insurgent pressure to bear on the stuffier boardrooms, and the civil service was subordinated to government.
Thatcher’s government was overtly populist in rhetoric, but the paradoxical result of all this was that the legitimating ideology of the governing class shifted essentially from aristocracy to meritocracy, and so the sub-Maoist attack on the traditional party of the state served to introduce an even more staid, narcoleptic elite, whose decisions were ostensibly outsourced - from the passive trading of vast institutional investments to the spuriously metric-driven domestic politics of New Labour.
Part of this change, in fits and starts, was the adoption as official ideology of the anti-racist, anti-sexist bonafides originating in the left (albeit in their most timid and managerialist forms). This is the germ of truth in the ‘liberal BBC’ idea: the party of the state has become more ‘liberal’ in this precise respect, and the BBC (in spite of its pretensions to ‘independence’) is the party organ of the party of the state.
The Tory party itself is traditionally positioned as the formally ‘political’ wing of that party, but this is not the whole story. In order to actually govern in conditions of a wide franchise, the Tories must also organise and attract the votes of many in the popular classes. It thus must internalise a contradiction - the need to serve the interests of a minority class while appearing to back the popular classes against the elite. Cynical direction of popular outrage to other sections of the elite - the liberal media, say, or the Brussels bureaucracy - can serve this purpose.
The depth of the present political crisis proves that you can only do that for so long. The party of the state is in disarray. Where can that lead its party organ except into similar vulnerability and confusion?