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A week in the life of Today that has made me despair of BBC bias, writes STEPHEN GLOVER 

Labour peer Melvyn Bragg let fly at the Government this week for what he regards as its unjust persecution of the BBC. He told Radio Times that ministers are failing to protect a precious national institution.

The veteran broadcaster claimed the BBC ‘has earned our respect and repaid our support, in war and peace, over many years. It has built itself in our image. Surely now that it is so clearly up against it, we cannot let it down’.

Lord Bragg happens to be a hero of mine because he presents one of the best programmes on Radio 4, or indeed anywhere. In Our Time brings together small groups of specialists in science, history and literature to talk in depth about a vast array of fascinating subjects.

If the Beeb consisted of similar delights, I would die in a ditch to defend it. Sadly it doesn’t. In extolling the Corporation as a unique national asset, Lord Bragg overlooks the fact much of its output — from Strictly Come Dancing to EastEnders — could as easily be found on commercial television.

Nor does he consider that millions of people, myself included, believe the BBC’s news coverage is sometimes biased towards the Left. Nowhere is this tendency more apparent than on Radio 4’s Today programme. 

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme is hosted by Nick Robinson (right) and Mishal Husain (left)

Today, which goes out every morning for three hours Monday to Friday, and for two hours on Saturday, is Auntie’s most important news and current affairs show on radio or television. It attracts around seven million listeners every week, more even than The Archers. What the town crier was to our medieval ancestors, Today is to our modern nation.

Only, it is not always even-handed. In the early days of this administration, ministers avoided appearing on Today because they feared being monstered if they did. But it is too influential a platform to ignore. So they now dutifully troop along — and are not infrequently monstered all the same.

Don’t get me wrong: all governments must be held to account, and since many politicians are sly or slippery, the process must necessarily be robust. The problem is that Today often seems to be driven by a political agenda which is at odds with the BBC’s remit as a neutral public service broadcaster.

This week, as the NHS battles with Omicron, and the Government’s critics call for tougher measures, I have listened to Today with more than the usual care and attention. What a depressing — and sometimes infuriating — experience it has been!

Not just on Covid, but with several other key stories as well, Today has displayed breathtaking bias. Again and again, one side of an argument — the progressive or Leftist or anti-Government side — is presented without the other point of view.

Don’t just take my word for it. Here is a week in the life of the BBC’s flagship news programme.

NHS IN CRITICAL CONDITION

That the NHS is under pressure can hardly be disputed. Yet if you had been absent from our shores for the past few years, and suddenly returned to listen to Today this week, you would assume we were on the verge of a national catastrophe.

There has been an hourly stream of directors of public health, other doctors and union representatives, all of whom describe conditions in their hospitals in lurid terms. Those prophesying disaster, and overtly or tacitly demanding tougher anti-Covid measures, are parti pris.

On Wednesday, a GP from Oldham who is also a Labour councillor was interviewed by Nick Robinson (of whom much more later) after 17 hospitals in the Greater Manchester area put some non-urgent operations on hold. Led on by Mr Robinson, he proposed stricter measures.

In many hours of listening I didn’t hear a single person being given the opportunity to put the crisis in perspective and provide a more nuanced interpretation. The truth is that occupancy of hospital beds has been as high, or higher, on at least two occasions during winter in the recent pre-Covid past.

For example, according to official figures, in the week ending December 26, the occupancy of general and acute hospital beds in England was slightly lower than it was in the week to December 26, 2019, before the pandemic began.

Is it possible that the much trumpeted NHS crisis is not as unprecedentedly dreadful — at least, not yet — as the BBC’s most important current affairs programme would have us believe?

FAVOURITISM FOR HARD-LINE EXPERTS

On Tuesday, the programme unveiled its favourite Covid expert, Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, aka ‘Professor Lockdown’. He is renowned for his pessimistic, not to say apocalyptic, forecasts.

Although during the first lockdown he was disgraced after he was caught inviting his mistress to his home and thereby flouting rules he had himself promoted — and despite some scientists calling into question his methodology — Professor Lockdown remains Today’s go-to expert.

On Tuesday, the programme unveiled its favourite Covid expert, Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, aka ¿Professor Lockdown'

On Tuesday, the programme unveiled its favourite Covid expert, Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, aka ‘Professor Lockdown’

Before Tuesday, when he was actually less gloomy than normal, he had appeared on the show on December 12. That was only four weeks after his previous outing.

During 2021, he was probably invited onto Today more than any other non-government scientist, though the BBC says it can’t (or won’t?) supply a number. To the best of my knowledge, he has never been vigorously interrogated on the programme about his most dire predictions not being fulfilled.

At least eight Covid independent experts were interviewed on Today last month. Of these only one, Professor Carl Heneghan of Oxford University, could be described as a moderate pragmatist who has argued against further restrictions. On December 20 he told Nick Robinson that the country is in danger of talking itself into annual lockdowns, and that the Government should trust people to amend their behaviour. Not a point of view you hear often on Today.

DISTASTE FOR BORIS JOHNSON

Although I am often critical of Boris Johnson, I believe he is handling the current phase of the pandemic sensibly. He understands the terrible damage a further lockdown would inflict on the economy, and on society as a whole.

Nick Robinson — he is Today’s most aggressive interviewer, and often interrupts people when they are halfway, or less, through an answer — is evidently no admirer of the Prime Minister, who was his contemporary at Oxford. On Wednesday, just after 6.30am, Mr Robinson reported something that was true — and added an opinion of his own: ‘ ‘‘We can ride this Covid wave out without the need for further restrictions on our lives’’, Boris Johnson insisted last night. It is quite a gamble.’

The second sentence is his own view, and it is not his business as a supposedly impartial Today presenter to state it.

Nick Robinson ¿ he is Today¿s most aggressive interviewer, and often interrupts people when they are halfway, or less, through an answer ¿ is evidently no admirer of the Prime Minister, who was his contemporary at Oxford

Nick Robinson — he is Today’s most aggressive interviewer, and often interrupts people when they are halfway, or less, through an answer — is evidently no admirer of the Prime Minister, who was his contemporary at Oxford

Later, on the same programme, Mr Robinson observed that ‘the Prime Minister was forced to acknowledge yesterday that the NHS is under huge pressure’. Why forced? The implication was that Mr Johnson has been obliged by events to change his mind. There is no evidence that this is the case.

Mr Robinson probably betrayed his true feelings about the PM last October when he instructed him to ‘stop talking’ during an interview. It was Boris’s first appearance on Today for two years. I doubt he’ll be hurrying back.

Interestingly, Mr Robinson’s colleague, the chilly Mishal Husain, also told Mr Johnson to ‘stop talking’ during an interview in 2017 when he was Foreign Secretary. At least she summoned enough good manners to insert ‘please’ before ‘stop’.

Yesterday morning’s coverage of the latest development in the so-called Wallpapergate scandal (broken by the Mail almost a year ago) was on the whole balanced. Mr Johnson clearly behaved foolishly over the redecoration of the Downing Street flat.

However, throughout this week Today has been unwilling to work up any interest in the controversy about the knighthood awarded to former Labour prime minister Tony Blair, who told lies about the Iraq War which far surpass in seriousness Mr Johnson’s more trivial evasions and falsehoods.

LACK OF BALANCE ON HUNTING

Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Today is edited by guest editors. On the Monday, this role was filled by Jane Goodall, an animal rights activist and primatologist.

Not once in three hours was anyone allowed to express the faintest pro-hunting or pro-shooting view, though there was a great deal of anti-hunting material. Ms Goodall invited on Lord Goldsmith, the environment minister opposed to hunting, who declared that her work had influenced his life.

Tim Bonner, head of the Countryside Alliance, later complained that ‘Today seems to have torn up the BBC editorial guidelines on balance’.

TOPPLING OF THE COLSTON STATUE

On Wednesday a jury in Bristol acquitted four people responsible for toppling a statue of the 17th-century slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston in June 2020.

The following morning, Today interviewed the distinguished black historian David Olusoga. He declared that the acquittal, which he enthusiastically supported, was a ‘historic landmark’.

On Wednesday a jury in Bristol acquitted four people responsible for toppling a statue of the 17th-century slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston in June 2020

On Wednesday a jury in Bristol acquitted four people responsible for toppling a statue of the 17th-century slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston in June 2020

During a sympathetic interview by Nick Robinson, Professor Olusoga stated that the jury’s decision hadn’t created ‘a legal precedent’. That is highly debatable, yet he wasn’t challenged. Nor did Mr Robinson care to mention that Mr Olusoga gave evidence for the defence during the trial.

Colston was obviously responsible for many wicked acts. But no one was given an opportunity by the Today programme — Mr Olusoga being the sole interviewee — to say that it is wrong to go around toppling statues of long dead people, whatever some may think of them.

Yet another example of Today ignoring one side of an argument because it doesn’t approve of it.

FARMING VIEWS UNCHALLENGED

On Thursday, the Government announced vast new farming subsidies which prioritise ‘re-wilding’. Environment Secretary George Eustice was pleasantly interviewed.

So was Craig Bennett of the Wildlife Trust, formerly a big wheel at Friends of the Earth, who wondered whether ‘this will be the real transformation we were promised’.

Tony Juniper, ex-Friends of the Earth and now chair of Natural England, spoke in favour of the scheme, in which he has been instrumental. An environmentalist farmer from Cumbria called James Robinson was largely favourable.

Not a single critical farmer was interviewed, though there are very many who believe that the Government’s plans ignore their interests as food producers.

On Tuesday, the BBC’s Climate Editor, Justin Rowlatt, discussed river pollution with Feargal Sharkey, former punk singer and lifelong fly fisherman, who asserted that ‘the biggest polluter in this country is agriculture’.

All this is more evidence of coverage that is neither balanced nor fair.

THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS… 

So that is a week in the life of the Today programme. I expect one could find weeks with more egregious examples, and weeks with fewer. But surely no reasonable person could deny bias exists, sometimes overt, sometimes subtle.

Why? It is not as though the chairman of the BBC, Richard Sharp, or its director-general, Tim Davie, are issuing instructions to the Today programme to lean to the Left, and chip away at the Conservative Government. They may well both wish it were otherwise.

No, Today is what it is because most of its presenters (though I am not sure about Justin Webb and Amol Rajan) are mildly Left-wing, and I strongly suspect that the great majority of its editors and researchers are.

Nick Robinson (pictured) probably betrayed his true feelings about the PM last October when he instructed him to ¿stop talking¿ during an interview

Nick Robinson (pictured) probably betrayed his true feelings about the PM last October when he instructed him to ‘stop talking’ during an interview

They peer out at the world from their metropolitan bubble in Broadcasting House in Central London, basking in similar liberal-Left views. Boris Johnson is always bad, and anything that can be done to undermine him is good. Brexit was appalling.

Ignoring the other side of the argument held by millions of Britons may often be unconscious. Of course more of the countryside should be given to re-wilding. Who cares about farmers and food producers? The stuff can always be imported.

If the BBC were privately-owned rather than a supposedly impartial public service broadcaster, there could be absolutely no objection. It’s fine for David Olusoga to sound off about the Colston case, as he did in the Guardian yesterday, but he shouldn’t be permitted to do so unchallenged on the BBC’s main current affairs programme.

Two days ago, the Corporation announced the appointment of Deborah Turness as its new head of news. Today will be part of her empire. Could she force it to be more even-handed even if she wanted to? I doubt it. Its habits are too ingrained.

That is why Melvyn Bragg is mistaken, and the Government is at least partly right. If Today is politically and culturally representative of the BBC, as I believe it is, it hasn’t ‘built itself in our image’. Many millions of us have been forgotten.     


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