Can We Trust the BBC?

Issue section: 

Robin Aitken, Continuum, £9.99

If you have just spent several minutes shouting at the television - perhaps this time over the racist filth being broadcast care of the BBC's White Season - it's difficult to comprehend how anyone could possibly claim it is biased against the right. Yet this is the basis of Robin Aitken's book, Can We Trust the BBC?

Aitken, who spent 25 years as a BBC journalist, has gathered evidence to claim that the broadcaster's news and current affairs departments are run and staffed predominantly by liberal lefties. The result, he says, is an output biased in favour of Europe, immigration, abortion and public spending, and - wait for it - is anti-American, anti-Israel and pro-Republican in Northern Ireland.

It is, of course, clear that Aitken inhabits a completely different planet to the one that the readers of this magazine - and way beyond - live on. But his book about this giant, unique institution - funded by us to the tune of £3 billion annually, and employing more than 6,000 journalists - throws up important issues.

One example is the link between the government and the BBC - one that has been central ever since the broadcaster's establishment in the 1920s. To prove his own case, Aitken lists a string of Blairite journalists who moved from the BBC into politics during the 1990s. But he does not seem to see how this, and New Labour's own almost manic need to control the news agenda, has made the BBC more a servant of the government than ever before.

Aitken's view on the Hutton report is predictable - BBC chiefs foolishly accepted a fight with Blair's media manager, Alastair Campbell, when the latter knew he could win. Aitken says it was a pyrrhic victory, but it is clear that we continue to suffer the dire consequences on BBC output since.

But the most important issue is the BBC's claim to be impartial. Aitken believes this is achievable but continually compromised by the institution's overall "left" ethos. But in a class-divided society, striking a balance between the myriad of conflicting arguments that events produce is impossible. The claim to impartiality and objectivity is always nonsense. The more controversial the issue, the greater the nonsense.

As Harold Evans, the former editor of the Sunday Times, once pointed out, "Facts may be sacred - but which facts? The media are not a neutral looking glass: we select what we mirror."

And, of course, the BBC's so-called balance is continually limited by its predominant focus on mainstream politics. Since there is now very little, if any, political difference on all the major issues between the three main parties, so there is very little controversy around which to strike a balance. Meanwhile, those who have entirely different views are completely marginalised.

The classic example is the BBC's coverage of the invasion of Iraq, and particularly its lack of coverage of anti-war protesters - a constituency that poll after poll shows contains the majority of the BBC's viewers and listeners.

At least Aitken says there is nothing wrong with broadcasting that is partial, as long as people know the nature of what is being offered and have a choice. And here's the rub.

What Aitken admires is the US media, where barons such as Rupert Murdoch compete for audiences and advertising with "liberal" networks such as NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN. That this would ultimately mean the dismantlement of the BBC seems to be of no consequence.

The BBC presents the left with a quandary. It is more than ever a mouthpiece for the government, yet the alternative is a media more than ever controlled by media barons whose politics are even more venal.

The best conclusion is the one that Media Workers Against the War has come to: that the left - not the Blairite "left" that so infuriates Aitken, but the real left - must fight for space to air its arguments within the mainstream media, and that very much includes the BBC.