This does not mean that I agree with Jim Gibney – an Irish republican writer – calling for the BBC to hire journalists to reflect the views of the electorate.
It may not be a view Gibney would have held a few years ago, but you can see why he’s on this one now. Reluctantly, I can see his point, though in the context of Northern Ireland, I can’t share his conclusions.
But it does raise a question I’ve wanted to ask for a long time. The way that bureaucrats are given free rein to stifle political discussion in the name of freedom of expression is an old chestnut here. But what about the façade of impartiality that we are forced to accept from the BBC’s flagship news programmes?
Does Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys’ supposed apolitical stance actually work in the public interest?
I would argue that it doesn’t for the following obvious reasons:
- Enforced impartiality makes a virtue of negativism. Actually being in favour of a particular line of policy naturally involves making choices. These are rarely universally respected, and it will forever be the yoke of public office. Taking a line on almost any controversial aspect of public life will always make you enemies. Interviewing a politician from an ‘impartial’ perspective always allows you to have the best of both worlds. You can put the critical points from both sides without formally endorsing them. You never lose an argument and never make enemies. Everybody wants to be like you.
- And if everyone wants to be like you, no-one wants to be like the poor sap on the sharp end of this. It’s like that ‘when did you stop beating your wife’ question. It always degrades politics. In this context, the fact that a reasonable percentage of the population still vote is proof of the low esteem that the public hold journalists in - despite the advantages that they hand themselves.
Evidence break: To illustrate this, I’m going to take a fairly random sample – the last interview with a politician that I heard on the Today programme a few days ago now (I’ve got to the point of avoiding it, but I overheard this 8.10am interview the other day while getting ready for work one day last week).
Humphrys is interviewing Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling. Darling is widely seen (by kremlinologists) as being part of Gordon Brown’s camp, and it is rumoured that he will be offered the Chancellorship when Brown finally takes office as PM.
15 mins and 20 seconds into this (realplayer required) clip, he starts in on Tony Blair’s apparent dishonesty in failing to serve a full term as Prime Minister. In 2005, Blair did say that he would serve a full term, though I distinctly recall him leaving himself plenty of wriggle-room about an orderly handover. Certainly, I doubt that anyone concluded from what he said at the time that he would definitely serve a full five years and leave Labour having a leadership election at the same time as the national poll.
So Blair has ‘grievously misled’ us all.
Now, fair dos here; Blair should have known better. He should have known that journalists will always prefer lazy kremlinology to the honest reporting of public policy issues, and that – in making any statement about his future – he was exposing himself to a ceaseless frenzy of speculation. Which he duly got - and he's acknowledged his mistake here.
But for the representative-in-chief of a press corps that has spent the last two years obsessing about exactly when Blair will go, the pretence that he was ‘misled’ is completely dishonest.
Had Blair said ‘I will stand down in May 2007’, he would have had two years being called a ‘lame duck’. What’s more, Humphrys seems to cling to the quaint view that politicians don’t need to manage information, and that untimely revelations don’t make it all-but-impossible for a government to govern. The fact is, he knows just how powerful he can be, and this interview is just a playful flexing of those muscles.
Of course, Darling challenges him, saying (paraphrasing) ‘if Blair today announced he was going to stay on for a full term, you’d be asking him why he wasn’t standing down and leaving his successor enough time.’ Tellingly, Humphrys denies this emphatically, and - he must know - dishonestly.
The coup de grâce is where Humphrys says (of Brown)
JH: “Has he asked you to be Chancellor? A yes or no will do.”What is the purpose of this question? Does Humphrys expect an announcement? Or a denial? Of course not. He knew that Darling would have to field the question, saying that the decision was with Brown. But Humphrys then replies
“Why did I think you’d say that.”
*******All the usual fare, you may say. And you'd be right. Politicans certainly don't deserve an easy time. They should be cross-examined. But - in this case - the end result is for the interviewer to paint his interlocutors as dishonest and himself as the ringmaster - the honest broker. And this is the rule here, rather than the exception.
In fact, he knows that government business is routinely been disrupted by media obsessions with Westminster gossip. It is never reported as such, of course, but if you ever speak to a civil servant who is responsible for any initiative, they will tell you just how impossible this kremlinology makes their work.
He also knows that there are some questions that even the most candid of (sane) politicians can't answer. It's like the classic demagogue at the old Roman circus. Looking around at the crowd, deciding whether to offer the thumbs up or not. These people are spectacularly powerful, without ever having to demonstrate that they add anything to public life.
So what would things look like if these ringmasters had to declare their hand, and politicians could actually have a conversation with them? Taking the earlier part of the Alistair Darling interview (above) where he is challenged about closing local Post Offices. It could go something like this:
Q: Why are you closing these Post Offices down?If Humphrys had to reply to that question, rather than being able to offer the (Policeman-like) get-out, "I'll ask the questions if you don't mind", it would be an interview that I'd like to hear.
A: Because they're losing tons of money and people go elsewhere for the services that they used to offer. What would you do instead?
I doubt if any of the ringmasters would enjoy the long careers that they get at the moment.
It would fulfil the BBC's 'mission to explain' better than they currently do as it would show people that decisions aren't simple binaries, and that trade-offs matter. It would also satisfyingly damage most pressure groups, because they thrive on the spectacle of politicians being ridiculed.
A decent conversation would even reduce the stranglehold that political parties have over public life. So, I move that inteviewers should have to say what they would do on a matter of policy if they are asked by an inteviewee.
To allow this, the BBC needs to drop it's untenable claim to impartiality.
*** sorry that this post was so long. I'm trying to be concise - honest. I'm no good at it. ***
Apropos of this, David Halpern was on the wireless this morning explaining the background to the whole Grammar School debate. He had real information to impart about the background to the policy discussion. They gave him about 30 seconds before they cut him off.