Last week Boris Johnson wrote an opinion piece for the Daily Telegraph in which he explicitly called for the appointment of a free-market, pro-business Tory to succeed the outgoing BBC Director-General Mark Thompson. This new Director-General, Johnson said, must change the BBC, which he condemned as ‘statist, corporatist, defeatist, anti-business, Europhile and, above all, overwhelmingly biased to the Left.’
These are bold assertions coming from a man who has previously declared that he doesn’t own a television and that though he ‘consume[s] vast quantities of news’, hardly ever listens to or watches any BBC news or current affairs programmes. Clearly Boris Johnson doesn’t know what he’s talking about and I suspect that the claims made in his article are based more on received wisdom than considered opinion.
Johnson alleges that the BBC is ‘anti-business’. In reality over the course of the last decade the BBC has devoted considerable resources to its coverage of the business world. Its output in this area has expanded significantly and, as anyone who actually watches or listens to BBC programmes will know, it is dominated by its business editor Robert Peston, who declares in his book Who Runs Britain that ‘greed is good’ and who (like his predecessor) was recruited from the Telegraph. Indeed, whilst the BBC has no labour or industrial correspondent, the post of business editor was created in 2000 explicitly to produce more business friendly programming. Furthermore, though the BBC’s coverage of business has increased markedly in recent years, its generally pro-business stance is nothing new. Whilst conducting my own research on the BBC during the 1970s, I have found no evidence to support the notion that the BBC is or was ‘anti-business’. On the contrary senior BBC journalists, even before Thatcher, were keen to involve businessmen in programmes and treated them with an instinctive respect and reverence. The claim that the BBC is ‘anti-business’ then would appear to be baseless.
What though of Johnson’s more general claim that the BBC is ‘overwhelmingly biased to the Left’? This question, I think, is more interesting. There is a strange contradiction in British public life; namely that though there is a large body of scholarship suggesting that the BBC is overwhelmingly orientated towards elite perspectives, Britain’s right-wing commentariat nevertheless insist that it is guilty of a ‘left-wing’ bias.
Part of the explanation for this apparent contradiction, I think, lies in the right’s conception of ‘left wing’. Of course the nature and scope of the ‘political spectrum’ is a highly subjective matter and it is not necessary for our present purposes to assert whether one interpretation or another is correct. Certainly Boris Johnson’s perception of what does or does not constitute ‘left-wing’ is unlikely to accord with that of someone who considers themselves on the left. Perhaps more significant though is the fact that Boris Johnson is himself a powerful member of a political, media elite whose own legitimacy depends on a certain conception of the political spectrum. Indeed the representation of the political spectrum, and public political opinion more generally, is itself a profoundly political act.
As I have argued previously at NLP, ‘our entire public sphere is entangled with and embedded in networks of concentrated class power. The net effect of this is that certain ideas and perspectives threatening to these same interests tend to be marginalised or obscured’. In the case of political opinion, and therefore conceptions of left and right, this means that opinions which are threatening to elite power tends to be marginalised, whilst attitudes and opinions that present no great threat tend to be accentuated. It is this underlying tendency, I would suggest, that lies behind the neoliberal emphasis on ‘social’ or ‘cultural’ rather than ‘economic’ issues and the prominence of ‘identity politics’ and ‘culture wars’ so characteristic of politics in the United States.
How does all this relate to Boris Johnson’s attack on the BBC? Well, his characterisation of the BBC as ‘left-wing’ could only make sense in a political culture where conceptions of left and right have been stripped of any notion of power and equality and in which even the corporate-friendly politics of New Labour are seen as ‘left-wing’.
Indeed Boris Johnson gave a more detailed description of the supposed political orientation of the BBC in 2005 which seems to confirm this. He suggested that BBC journalists ‘are all located on a political spectrum running from Ken Clarke, via Menzies Campbell, towards Robin Cook and Clare Short’ (and his use of the word ‘towards’ rather suggests that the BBC never quite reaches the radical political ground occupied by Cook and Short).
When the BBC's right-wing critics accuse it of left-wing bias, they do not generally mean that it challenges power (whether political, economic or military) or that it champions greater equality. Rather what they mean is that within what we might term ‘establishment’ opinion – that is the range of opinion held by elites – the BBC tends to fall to the liberal end. This is set out clearly enough by a former BBC journalist Robin Aitken who wrote a book detailing the BBC’s supposed left-wing bias called Can we trust the BBC? Aitken complains that:
To succeed at the BBC it is necessary to sign up to – or, at the very least, not publicly dissent from – a range of attitudes and opinions. Collectively the tribe’s values might be termed ‘liberal’ – but liberal in this context doesn’t mean tolerant, merely the opposite of ‘conservative’. So for instance, there is strong emphasis on ‘non-discriminatory’ attitudes; ‘sexism’ and ‘homophobia’ are deadly sins. ‘Judgemental’ attitudes are disapproved of; within BBC circles it would, for instance, be frowned upon to disapprove of unmarried mothers. [Inverted commas in original]
What is imagined by the BBC’s right-wing critics, it would seem, is a privileged urban intellectual whose politics are secularist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, broadly humanitarian, permissive on issues of sexuality and suspicious of traditional institutions like the church, monarchy or the aristocracy. However, no matter how laudable these attitudes may be, returning to the critical question of social power, the fact remains that liberal politics of this type presents no great threat to elites. Indeed the liberal belief in the basic legitimacy of the market (if not its excesses) means that it poses no fundamental challenge to the interests of big business or other beneficiaries of class society. Neither is this brand of liberalism particularly inclined towards criticising a militaristic foreign policy, provided it is presented in a humanitarianism guise.
A powerful illustration of the BBC’s true place in Britain’s power structure came towards the end of last year with the publishing of a pamphlet by the Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies called ‘Guilty Men’. Co-authored by Peter Oborne (to my mind Britain’s most thoughtful and sincere conservative commentator), the pamphlet attacked the BBC for its treatment of right-wing euro sceptics, arguing that it had systematically undermined their case and thus threatened Britain’s prosperity and political independence. Unlike most of the BBC’s right-wing critics, the authors actually produced some evidence to back up their claims. Summarising their findings in the Spectator, they wrote:
The case for the euro was represented by twice as many figures, interviews and soundbites as the case against. BBC broadcasters tended to present the pro-euro position itself as centre ground, thus defining even moderately Eurosceptic voices as extreme, meaning that they were defeated even before they had entered the debate.
What does their evidence tell us about the BBC’s ideological orientation? Europe is one area where Britain’s elites are split, but the majority of corporate executives have tended to be in favour of greater European integration. Indeed, the original campaign for entry to the EEC was bankrolled by the corporate sector and was opposed by the Labour left (and by Tory nationalists). What is particularly revealing about ‘Guilty Men’ is the other national institutions attacked for their pro-euro bias. The BBC’s ideological bedfellows were none other than the Financial Times and the Confederation of British Industry, the mind and body of the capitalist class!
Seen in the context of power then, Boris Johnson’s claims about the BBC seem almost absurd. Which raises the question: if the BBC is indeed so closely aligned with Britain’s power elites, then why do conservatives continue to attack it so vehemently? The simple answer is that conservatism is not solely driven by a desire to defend capitalism and capitalists, but is committed to a broader defence of hierarchy and domination. As Corey Robin has argued, conservatism is
not simply about the distribution of wealth and resources (although it certainly is the defence of that). It’s really the defence of fairly personal forms of domination… It’s premised on a genuine hostility – not a psychological but a political and ideological hostility – to the exercise of power by subordinate classes.
As Richard Seymour has suggested, behind his affected upper class buffoonery Boris Johnson is basically a hard right Thatcherite; and Thatcherism, though best known for its ‘economic’ elements, was always a much broader political movement incorporating a range of reactionary impulses. Though its greatest achievement was the overturning of the post-war consensus, it was also driven by a profound hostility to the egalitarian politics of the sixties and seventies, which challenged patriarchy, racism and imperialism as much as capitalist exploitation.
For all its many failures to challenge state and corporate power, and for all its recent concessions to the reactionary right, the BBC remains a largely liberal organisation – having institutionalised the liberal aspects of the social struggles of the sixties and seventies. Furthermore, its commitment to journalistic accuracy largely prevents it from propagating the distortions and falsehoods so typical of the right-wing press. Though it has been significantly remoulded by neoliberalism it remains a popular, publicly funded organisation notionally committed to public service. For hardcore conservatives like Boris Johnson then, it is a relic of the social democratic state, a survivor of Thatcher’s counterrevolution and a piece of unfinished business.
Tom Mills is a freelance investigative researcher based in London, a PhD candidate at the University of Bath and a co-editor of the New Left project.
 cited in Danny Dorling, Injustice: why social inequality persists (Bristol: Policy Press, 2010) pp.209-10.
 Robin Aitken, Can we trust the BBC? (London: Continium, 2007) pp.60-1.