Why a register of interests may bring journalists to book

Ill-advisedly, in the wake of the Wirral South by-election debacle, Charles Lewington, the Tories’ communications director, accused the BBC of having a pro-Labour mind-set. He didn’t go so far as the Sunday Telegraph’s headline on his article - ’the BBC is working for a Labour victory’ - but the message was clear.

Ill-advisedly, in the wake of the Wirral South by-election debacle,

Charles Lewington, the Tories’ communications director, accused the BBC

of having a pro-Labour mind-set. He didn’t go so far as the Sunday

Telegraph’s headline on his article - ’the BBC is working for a Labour

victory’ - but the message was clear.



It is true that Mr Lewington conceded that ’Conservatives do not blame

the BBC entirely for the party’s temporary unpopularity’. Otherwise, we

might reasonably have assumed he had misplaced his marbles. The Tories

have only themselves to blame for losing Wirral South ignominiously as

distinct from just losing it.



But Mr Lewington still thinks that the BBC is slavering for a Labour

Government. Even if it is, this does not necessarily mean that it is

biased as an institution towards Tony Blair’s New Labour which,

incidentally, owes far more to Margaret Thatcher than Karl Marx.

Journalists are easily bored. After 18 Tory years, they are screaming

for another brand of cock-ups and conspiracies. Never under-estimate the

media’s - and especially the BBC’s - enthusiasm for putting the boot

into government - any government.



This is why every Government I worked for - Labour or Tory - believed

that the BBC was an agent of the devil Opposition, out to test it to

destruction.



So is Mr Lewington just exhibiting the familiar symptoms of British

politicians in the dog house? Well, not entirely. The BBC has done some

daft things of late as Peter Preston, former Guardian editor-in-chief,

pointed out in the Observer.



He noted that Ben Bradshaw, presenter and reporter for The World This

Weekend and now prospective Labour candidate for Exeter, had been

’parked on full pay with nothing to do but work Exeter’s doorsteps’

until the Tories complained. Then the BBC found him a ’new, obscure

planning post’, which is what it should have done in the first place. It

has also re-hired, if not for an influential news post, Joy Johnson who

left after a year as Labour’s director of communications in somewhat

unhappy circumstances.



Such an appointment just feeds political paranoia.



This raises the hoary question as to whether, in Mr Preston’s words,

’journalists should even join political parties, let alone turn

activist’.



He thinks they shouldn’t do either, which is a turn up for the book

since the Guardian positively encouraged both when together we worked

for it in the 1960s. I would prefer journalists to be openly prejudiced

than ’sleepers’ . But what about Lady Barbara Castle’s old idea of

journalists being required to declare their interests and affiliations

in a journalists’ Who’s Who? One thing is certain: we won’t get away

much longer with demanding accountability for everyone apart from

ourselves.



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