August 18, 2007

ON THE ONE HAND... (via Jim Siegel):

Confessions of a BBC liberal The BBC has finally come clean about its bias, says a former editor, who wrote Yes, Minister (Antony Jay, 8/12/07, Times of London)

The growing general agreement that the culture of the BBC (and not just the BBC) is the culture of the chattering classes provokes a question that has puzzled me for 40 years. The question itself is simple – much simpler than the answer: what is behind the opinions and attitudes of this social group?

They are that minority often characterised (or caricatured) by sandals and macrobiotic diets, but in a less extreme form are found in The Guardian, Channel 4, the Church of England, academia, showbusiness and BBC news and current affairs. They constitute our metropolitan liberal media consensus, although the word “liberal” would have Adam Smith rotating in his grave. Let’s call it “media liberalism”.

It is of particular interest to me because for nine years, between 1955 and 1964, I was part of this media liberal consensus. For six of those nine years I was working on Tonight, a nightly BBC current affairs television programme. My stint coincided almost exactly with Harold Macmil-lan’s premiership and I do not think that my former colleagues would quibble if I said we were not exactly diehard supporters.

But we were not just anti-Macmil-lan; we were antiindustry, anti-capital-ism, antiadvertising, antiselling, antiprofit, antipatriotism, antimonarchy, antiempire, antipolice, antiarmed forces, antibomb, antiauthority. Almost anything that made the world a freer, safer and more prosperous place – you name it, we were anti it.

Although I was a card-carrying media liberal for the best part of nine years, there was nothing in my past to predispose me towards membership. I spent my early years in a country where every citizen had to carry identification papers. All the newspapers were censored, as were all letters abroad; general elections had been abolished: it was a one-party state. Yes, that was Britain – Britain from 1939 to 1945.

I was nine when the war started, and 15 when it ended, and accepted these restrictions unquestioningly. I was astounded when identity cards were abolished. And the social system was at least as authoritarian as the political system. It was shocking for an unmarried couple to sleep together and a disgrace to have a baby out of wedlock. A homosexual act incurred a jail sentence. Procuring an abortion was a criminal offence. Violent young criminals were birched, older ones were flogged and murderers were hanged.

So how did we get from there to here? Unless we understand that, we shall never get inside the media liberal mind. And the starting point is the realisation that there have always been two principal ways of misunderstanding a society: by looking down on it from above and by looking up at it from below. In other words, by identifying with institutions or by identifying with individuals.

To look down on society from above, from the point of view of the ruling groups, the institutions, is to see the dangers of the organism splitting apart – the individual components shooting off in different directions until everything dissolves into anarchy.

To look up at society from below, from the point of view of the lowest group, the governed, is to see the dangers of the organism growing ever more rigid and oppressive until it fossilises into a monolithic tyranny.

Those who see society in this way are preoccupied with the need for liberty, equality, self-expression, representation, freedom of speech and action and worship, and the rights of the individual. The reason for the popularity of these misunderstandings is that both views are correct as far as they go and both sets of dangers are real, but there is no “right” point of view.

The most you can ever say is that sometimes society is in danger from too much authority and uniformity and sometimes from too much freedom and variety.

In retrospect it seems pretty clear that the 1940s and 1950s were years of excessive authority and uniformity. It was certainly clear to me and my media liberal colleagues in the BBC. It was not that we in the BBC openly and publicly criticised the government on air; the BBC’s commitment to impartiality was more strictly enforced in those days.'d like to be able to congratulate him on achieving some insight. On the other, the notion that post-War Britain was a significantly authoritarian place is so loony you have to say he's still in pretty deep denial.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 18, 2007 6:14 AM

Having lived close to the same time frame as the author, I would say his observations and conclusions are precisely on track with my own perceptions. I felt catharsis as I read it, thinking NPR for BBC, as I was a follower and supporter for both, until their metamorphosis became evident years ago. Thanks for posting it.

Posted by: Genecis at August 18, 2007 10:53 AM

He accepts as natural the wartime restrictions on political and economic activity imposed for the duration, but rejects the social restrictions that the same society evolved and codified over centuries. A perfect example of modern Leftist "thought".

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at August 18, 2007 11:37 AM