A version of this article was first published at Christianity Blog
WHEN top BBC journalist Robin Aitken put together a dossier of what he felt were glaring examples of biased broadcasts and sent it to the Director General of the BBC, he knew his career was on the line. What he had not expected – as a BBC executive and flagship Today Programme reporter – was to be ignored completely. They could hardly accuse one of their finest journalists of a lack of accuracy. So instead of analyzing the message, they pensioned off the messenger – or, as Robin puts it, ‘just told me to f*** off, which I did’.
‘The BBC came along and offered me this handsome pension offer. I was 50. It was a pension which meant enough to get by on for the rest of my life. So I took it and wrote the book.’
That first book Can we Trust the BBC? made Robin Aitken, now 65, a modern martyr for truth among a certain type of intellectual. But he is hardly a household name. A soft-spoken Roman Catholic who is not given to waving his arms around fashionably on TV (though he does have a deadly new documentary coming out on sexual abuse within the police force) he has the well-modulated tones of the seasoned broadcaster who is also out of step with his world. He considers my questions slowly where we’re seated at the hallowed Royal Society of Arts café near Charing Cross in London.
‘Assuming Tony Hall [the Director General] doesn’t pick up the gauntlet, the next step will be Ofcom [the communications regulator],’ he says.
That’s because the Beeb has a charter committing it to ‘impartiality’. His second book, The Noble Liar: How and Why the BBC Distorts the News to Promote a Liberal Agenda is a catalogue of failure to deliver on that score. Indeed, things are now so bad, according to Aitken, that the BBC has become not just a cheerleader for foreign – principally EU – interests, but it has ‘systematically destroyed the foundational beliefs and practices which informed the lives of previous generations.’
Just out in November, this is a blistering attack on political correctness, already into its second print run. Aitken might just have provoked the reaction he’s been seeking – after 15 years in the freelance career wilderness.
For he’s not alone in sensing something has gone seriously wrong and that the BBC is largely to blame.
The Frances Cairncross Review – a Sustainable Future for Journalism published in mid-February, makes pointed reference to the latest Ofcom draft annual plan, raising the issue of BBC audience trust. Ofcom, she says, is to ‘publish a review of how the BBC is adapting to the changing news and current affairs environment to ensure it remains a trusted destination for audiences.’
Trusted? Aitken is too polite to snort, but does not mince his words: ‘The BBC along with its media and establishment allies, has become the vehicle for the propagation of a series of lies in pursuit of a political agenda.’
That agenda, Aitken believes, is to destroy social conservatism; what he describes as those views ‘shared by tens of millions of us.’ And what are they? ‘. . .a traditional moral code that emphasises virtues like patriotism, self-restraint and decency.’
His latest book, published by edgy, eclectic political publisher Biteback, who also published Bernie Sanders and Alastair Campbell, is an exhilarating or excruciating – depending on your point of view – 282-page rage against the elite’s re-writing of the traditional moral code: political correctness in other words. The BBC is ‘obsessed with identity politics’, he writes, campaigns on behalf of ‘self-declared victimized minorities’ and is the ‘chief prosecutor against Britain’. It ‘serves a narrow internationalist elite with squeamish reluctance to voice any criticisms that might be thought to offend foreign sensibilities.’ What’s more, Auntie is an apostate who instead of championing her religion, promotes progressive causes, refusing to air debates on pornography, censorship, abortion, or you name it.
These are robust accusations you would expect to see reported – somewhere. Yet you probably have not heard a peep, unless you read obscure blogs like this one, or the Catholic Herald. And that’s surely because much of what he says about the meritocratic élite that run publishing and the media now is true enough: they are today’s Establishment. They run the culture and are able collectively to muscle their critics out of the debate, as they muscled Aitken himself out, perhaps often without even knowing they’re doing it. Aitken’s blunt and even shocking accusations merit attention, yet such is the monopoly of the state-sponsored broadcaster that the book has gone viral – only under the radar of a public square that ‘ordinary people’ – whom Aitken does not feel it necessary to identify, so obvious is it to most of us who we we – are not licenced to address.
But he is clear enough who these ordinary people are when you ask him: he cites his experience setting up the Oxford Food Bank in 2014, for which he was awarded an MBE.
‘I know it sounds slightly cavalier, but I think what I am saying is I am drawing the distinction between the media class and the rest of humanity,’ Aitken says. ‘One of the great joys of stopping journalism and doing something in my local community is that as a journalist I came to feel that simply being a constant observer was not enough. There was a lack of involvement and agency. It was an education in all sorts of ways. I had lived in Oxford for 30 years. It was the volunteers, the hugely varied spread of humanity that struck me … what was interesting was the higher proportion of church people than you would expect in a random sample: living proof of the fact that do-gooders – so-called – I don’t like the phrase – were very often motivated by personal religious belief – and not just Christians but Muslims, Jews, Sikhs. But none of them would you meet as a professional journalist.’
He talks of ‘deformation professionalism’ – ‘that thing which typifies you; an obsession with opinion and political ideas’ – but ‘that’s not how the rest of humanity thinks.’
He became ‘de-programmed’ by the humdrum activities of the food bank, like carrying around sacks of potatoes. It was an antidote to the rarefied atmosphere of the Today Programme, and perhaps an attempt to save his sanity.
A poignant article written for the Daily Mail in 2007 after his redundancy and to promote his first book, describes his life at the Beeb as ‘an ethnic minority’. He was told he was ‘mad’ for believing EU negotiations were a matter of democracy, not just economics. And where Greg Dyke (Director General from 2000 to 2004) was overheard describing him to his PA as ‘a f*****r.’
It is Brexit and patriotism that commands some of Aitken’s most withering ire, for here the bias is most manifest. He cites several examples: its ‘bloodless neutrality’ on the negotiations as if broadcast from some distant planet inhabited by journalists who do not share the same interests or emotions as the audience, and that led to a famous spat on Newsnight between Andrea Leadsom and an affronted Emily Maitlis on loyalty to the country. And an infamous memo sent out during the Falklands War about avoiding any sense of partiality when talking about the conflict: ‘NOT OUR TROOPS: we should try to avoid using “our”when we mean British. We are not Britain. We are the BBC’, it commanded.
What worries this modern prophet, and whether you agree with Aitken’s politics or not you cannot ignore this, is that ‘we are in danger of being led blindfold into a way of thinking we have not freely chosen, but have merely absorbed’. And with a budget of nearly five billion pounds, it has no equal in national life, and touches so many directly and intimately, whether in our bathrooms or in our bedrooms or living rooms at all times of day or night. Not to mention the damage it does to our interests overseas.
Aitken is unafraid and dismisses the notion that he is courageous. He has a wide circle of ‘mostly non-believing friends’ who think as he does. And the mild man amiably sitting with me before going on to a hospital visit, is clearly no crank. Tenacious yes. Obsessive no. For by the standard of the BBC’s own motto, what he is saying is true: Over the old entrance to the BBC, in Latin, is written these words:
‘This Temple of the Arts and Muses is dedicated to Almighty God by the first Governors of Broadcasting House in the year 1931, Sir John Reith being Director-General. It is their prayer that good seed sown may bring forth a good harvest, that all things hostile to peace or purity may be banished from this house, and that the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness.’
The Beeb’s charter cites ‘Impartiality [as being] at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences. We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected. . . .’
Yet even Martin Bell, the BBC’s former much feted Foreign Correspondent, believes the BBC’s impartiality has become neutrality: ‘a snare and a delusion’ he writes in his book The Death of News, ‘that makes no judgements, and stands aside at an equal distance between good and evil.’ He goes even further than Aitken: ‘News as we have hitherto known it has died and been laid to rest.’
The ‘noble lie’ of the title, is taken from Plato’s Republic and refers to an untruth knowingly propagated by an elite to promote and maintain social harmony or advance an agenda. Aiken seems to be saying that this lie served for a while to address minority inequities, and to aid multicultural settlement, but no more. Unrest is now everywhere apparent. It is hard to exaggerate how serious this is. And it is indicative that we have already largely forgotten the Jimmy Savile scandal where the maverick TV and radio presenter carried on with sexual predations on a vast scale in an atmosphere so permissive that no child, male or female of any age, who came within his orbit was safe – on BBC premises and over many years. He was knighted by the Queen and died before the scandal erupted.
Is Aitken prepared for the backlash?
‘Absolutely! I am pugnacious!’ he says. ‘I have no reason to be ashamed or reticent about the views I hold. It is self-evidently true that what I write in the book, if it is of any importance, it is this: the ills that afflict us as a society cannot be laid at the door of the church or our Christian heritage. They are the fruit of 50 years of liberal revolution that has overturned our traditional morality.’ And the BBC is the cheerleader.
The cultural revolutionaries of the 1960s and 70s are now the Establishment and unlikely to heed Aitken. There is a big difference between the old Establishment that could be undermined by media scrutiny and the new Establishment which is the media. Who can debunk it?
‘The battle has to be fought at the individual level … to re-affirm the values and rightness of Christian morality,’ he says. What sort of campaign does he envisage? ‘One thing we could do is explore the BBC as publicly committed to values which say that it’s even-handed and impartial, fair and open-minded.’
So far Aitken’s letter to Lord Tony Hall has had no reply. ‘Proving bias is the devil’s own job,’ he sighs.
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