Taking on the BBC. Don't think the New York Times is a bastion of leftishness, do you? But the point about the BBC is well taken. Anyone who grew up just after World War II can remember the aura of almost sacred importance that once attached itself to the BBC. And anyone who lived in Nazi occupied Europe or whose parents did so, or in communist Eastern Europe, has a healthy respect for the old BBC. They blew it folks. What a shame!
March 16, 2007Great capital city. Shame about the awful BBC
By Gerard Baker
For someone who has not lived in the city for more than a decade, the occasional trip to London is a reminder of how richly it deserves its new reputation as the world's capital.
As my colleague James Harding wrote in times2 this week, there's a vibrancy about London these days that easily eclipses New York or Paris or Tokyo. To many residents, perhaps, life in London may be a struggle against rising crime and a crowded Tube and overpriced housing, but from an international perspective, it is truly the world's preeminent urban locale.
In fact, in anything other than the most literal, geographic expression of the term, London is really no longer an English city at all. Its great economic dynamo, the City, powers corporations from Shanghai to Seattle. Its labour force, drawn to it by the opportunities of its free markets, is much more polyglot and multinational than any other urban concentration in the world.
But there's salt to this strawberry. London's political culture has been uprooted from its English heritage. It is run - if you can call it that - by a sort of postmodern communist Mayor, whose political voice - minus the annoying nasal whine - would sound right at home in Paris, Bologna or San Francisco. It hosts a metropolitan elite that loftily gazes three ways: outward, at the supposed superiority of anything not British; inward, at its own ineffable genius; and down its elegantly pampered nose, at the provincial trivialities that consume the dreary lives of the rest of the population.
But worst of all; much more, much more baleful than any of these irritations, is the political, cultural and intellectual hegemony exercised by the ultimate self-serving metropolitan monopoly, the BBC. Much worse because, unlike mayors and snobs, its domination of the rest of the country is so complete and so permanent.
On a recent trip back to Britain, I happened to hear on the BBC an interview with Helen Mirren, shortly before her Oscars triumph. Amid the usual probing sort of questioning that is the currency of celebrity journalism ("How do you manage to look so young? Is there anyone since Shakespeare who has come close to matching your talent?") one particular gem caught my attention.
Dame Helen was asked how difficult it had been to play such an "unsympathetic character" as the Queen, the eponymous heroine of her recent film. She replied, quite tartly, that she didn't find the Queen unsympathetic at all and launched into her now familiar riff about how she thought Elizabeth II really, surprisingly, quite agreeable.
It was a little incident, a small crystal in the battering hailstorm of drivel that pours daily through the airwaves. And yet to my mind it signified something so large. It had nothing to do with politics or Iraq or America. It was so telling in its revelation of prejudices and presumptions precisely because it was on such a slight matter as the sensibilities of an actress.
It betrayed an absolutely rock-solid assumption that the Queen is fundamentally unsympathetic, and that anyone who might still harbour some respect for the monarch - or indeed for that matter, the military or the Church, or the countryside or the joint stock company or any of the great English bequests to the world - must be some reactionary old buffer out in the sticks who has not had the benefit of the London media's cultural enlightenment.
More than that, the question - all fawning and fraternal and friendly - contained within it an assumption that, of course, every thoughtful person shares the same view.
You really do have to leave the country to appreciate fully how pernicious the BBC's grasp of the nation's cultural and political soul has become. The groupthink and assumptions implicit in almost everything broadcast by BBC News, and even less explicitly by much else of the corporation's output, lie like a suffocating blanket over the national consciousness.
This is the mindset that sees the effortless superiority, at every turn, of benign collectivism over selfish individualism, exploited worker over unscrupulous capitalist, enlightened European over brutish American, thoughtful atheist over dumb believer, persecuted Arab over callous Israeli; and that believes the West is the perpetrator of just about every ill that has ever befallen the world - from colonialism to global warming.
I'm often told, when I take on like this, that I'm ignoring the quality of BBC output. But I spent almost a decade in the employ of the BBC and I can say, without demeaning my gifted colleagues at The Times, that it has probably one of the highest concentrations of talent of any institution in the world. But that, of course, is the problem. It perpetuates its power by attracting and retaining an educated elite that is distinguished by its unstinting devotion to collectivist values. I've no doubt it does what it does very well. It is what it does I object to.
A necessary word here about our sponsor. Anything critical of the BBC written by an employee of Rupert Murdoch is instantly dismissed. It's not an unreasonable instinct. Outside Murdochland it is solemnly assumed that each morning the drones of News Corporation are given their marching orders on how to interpret every event so that it conforms precisely to the commercial and political instincts of the proprietor.
In the real world, not only does the Murdoch media have only a fraction of the reach of the BBC, but a casual glance at its output demonstrates it is far less monolithic in its outlook than is the BBC.
Fortunately, in the US this week, I was struck by an article on the oped pages of The New York Times, the very citadel of leftish political correctness. Written by an apparently completely sane professor at a prestigious US university and entitled "Biased Broadcasting Corporation", it assailed the BBC's Middle Eastern services for their consistently antiWestern tone and content.
When the editorial pages of The New York Times accuse the BBC of anti-Western bias it is worth taking notice. It is a little like Osama bin Laden accusing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of being a bit harsh on the Jews. It suggests that in other, even pretty unlikely, parts of the world, people are waking up to the menace to our values represented by the BBC. The British sadly, seem curiously content to remain in thrall to it.
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