october 8, 2009
The Westminster Conspiracy
Former BBC Director General, Greg Dyke, On The Media-Political Opposition To Radical Change
Last month, Greg Dyke, who was the BBC's director general from 2000-2004, described the BBC as part of a "conspiracy" preventing the "radical changes" needed to UK democracy. Speaking at the Liberal Democrat party's conference, Dyke said:
"The evidence that our democracy is failing is overwhelming and yet those with the biggest interest in sustaining the current system - the Westminster village, the media and particularly the political parties, including this one - are the groups most in denial about what is really happening to our democracy." (Brian Wheeler, 'Dyke in BBC "conspiracy" claim,' BBC website, September 20, 2009; http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/uk_news/politics/8265628.stm)
Dyke argued there had never been a greater separation between the "political class" and the public:
"I tried and failed to get the problem properly discussed when I was at the BBC and I was stopped, interestingly, by a combination of the politicos on the board of governors, one of whom [Baroness Sarah Hogg] was married to the man who claimed for cleaning his moat, the cabinet interestingly - the Labour cabinet - who decided to have a meeting, only about what we were trying to discuss, and the political journalists at the BBC.
"Why? Because, collectively, they are all part of the problem. They are part of one Westminster conspiracy. They don't want anything to change. It's not in their interests."
Dyke said the MPs' expenses scandal had been "British democracy's Berlin Wall moment" but the opportunity to change the system was fading. He added:
"It's time to be radical. Our current model was designed for the 18th Century. It doesn't fit 21st Century Britain."
Dyke was also candid about political interference with the BBC. He discussed an internal review of the BBC's political coverage carried out at the beginning of the decade, to which all political parties were asked to contribute. He said: "there was a lot of pressure from the government of the day not to change anything... A lot of the governors were what I call semi-politicians and they liked the present system and.... maybe they were right - it's not the job of the BBC to change the political system and to start questioning the political system. I happen to not agree with that but, you know, we didn't get anywhere."
If these comments were extraordinary, the media response to them was predictable - close to zero coverage in the national UK press. Dyke's speech was covered in three sentences in the Belfast Telegraph on September 21. A longer piece appeared in the Herald (Glasgow) on the same day. In response to our prompting, the website Journalism.co.uk covered the story on September 22. They then contacted Roy Greenslade, who covered the story on his Guardian website blog a day later - the sole national mainstream mention. Greenslade wrote of the story:
"... the national press appears to have ignored it, or missed it altogether. Yet the claim should have generated widespread interest. If true, it requires more probing. If false, it should severely dent Dyke's credibility". (Greenslade, 'Dyke's BBC conspiracy theory,' Greenslade Blog, September 23, 2009;
On September 28, one week after the speech was reported by the BBC, Media Guardian published an article by Maggie Brown titled: 'When trust breaks down: The BBC Trust is under siege from politicians of all parties, rival broadcasters, corporation staff and the viewing public. But is it fulfilling its remit - and, if not, what is the alternative?' Greg Dyke was mentioned, but there was no reference to his whistleblowing comments.
Dyke's comments were important, providing a rare moment of honesty from such a senior insider. They were of clear public interest and doubtless chimed with the concerns of many people outraged by the scandal of MPs' expenses. As discussed, the story was broken on the BBC's own website - a high-profile source familiar to mainstream journalists. So what could explain the lack of interest from all mainstream national newspapers?
The answer is found in the story itself: the national media are indeed part of an elite system which is not interested in discussing, much less effecting, radical political change. Dissident outsiders attempting to challenge the status quo are dismissed as marginal figures. But even high-profile insiders - celebrity managers, journalists, writers, dramatists and diplomats - are ignored.
On September 23, we wrote to the BBC's Brian Wheeler, the journalist who broke the story.
Hope you're well. I was impressed and amazed by your story, 'Dyke in BBC "conspiracy" claim.'
I would have thought it was important news of great interest to the public that a former BBC director general had described the BBC as part of a "conspiracy" preventing the "radical changes" needed to UK democracy. Isn't it extraordinary that not a single UK national newspaper has reported your story? What do you make of it?
Wheeler replied the same day:
Thanks for your comments. I'm afraid I have no idea why the story wasn't picked up by the nationals, although I think Media Guardian may have done something on it. It's sometimes hard to predict which stories will get followed up.
Wheeler was of course reluctant to speculate (and to reply to our second email) because BBC journalists are not allowed to express their personal opinions - or so we are to believe.
Last month, Milton Coleman, senior editor at The Washington Post, sent a memo to staff on the issue of use of "individual accounts on online social networks, when used for reporting and for personal use". The memo warned staff to "remember that Washington Post journalists are always Washington Post journalists". It added:
"All Washington Post journalists relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens... Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything-including photographs or video-that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility. This same caution should be used when joining, following or friending any person or organization online." (http://paidcontent.org/article/419-wapos-social-media-guidelines-paint-staff-into-virtual-corner/)
These rules echo BBC editorial guidelines. In 2005, we asked the BBC's World Affairs correspondent, Paul Reynolds, if he thought George Bush hoped to create a genuine democracy in Iraq. Reynolds replied:
"I cannot get into a direct argument about his policies myself! Sorry." (Email to Media Lens, September 5, 2005)
Reynolds explained to one of our readers:
"You are asking for my opinion about the war in Iraq yet BBC correspondents are not allowed to have opinions!" (Forwarded to Media Lens, October 22, 2005)
As these comments suggest, media guidelines require that journalists relinquish, not just "personal privileges", but also moral responsibility. Journalists are not free to declare their "bias" even in abhorring mass murder, war crimes and climate chaos, if doing so "could be used to tarnish" their employers' "journalistic credibility". The problem is that the people with the power to do the tarnishing are overwhelmingly of the right - big business and political centres of power dominated by big business.
In reality, the demand for 'balance' means that journalists can say pretty much what they like in favouring powerful interests, but they will be severely castigated for losing 'balance' when they criticise the wrong people. Thus we find that it is not 'biased' to suggest that Britain and America are committed to spreading democracy around the world, but it +is+ 'biased' to suggest that they are responsible for crimes in the Third World. In short, the demand for 'balance' is a weapon of thought control - it is a way of policing and enforcing bias in media performance.
As Greg Dyke made clear, the truth hidden behind the sham of 'balance' is that political journalism works hard to protect an elite system of which it is very much a part.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to the BBC's director general, Mark Thompson. Ask him to respond to Greg Dyke's claim that the BBC is part of a "Westminster conspiracy" to obstruct radical change to the political system:
Please send a copy of your emails to us