If the BBC is politically neutral, how does it explain Andrew Neil? | Owen Jones

He symbolises the rightwing domination of our media. Yet a politics presenter as aligned to the left would not be tolerated

Imagine this. The BBC appoints a prominent radical leftist, a lifelong Bennite, the chairman of the publisher of a prominent leftwing publication no less, as its flagship political presenter and interviewer. This person has made speeches in homage of Karl Marx calling for the establishment of full-blooded socialism in Britain, including a massive increase in public ownership, hiking taxes on the rich to fund a huge public investment programme, and reversing anti-union laws. They appear on our “impartial” Auntie Beeb wearing a tie emblazoned with the logo of a hardline leftist thinktank. Their BBC editor is a former Labour staffer who moves to become Jeremy Corbyn’s communications chief. They use their Twitter feed – where they have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers thanks to a platform handed to them by the BBC – to promote radical leftist causes.

This would never happen. It is unthinkable, in fact. If the BBC establishment somehow entered this parallel universe, the British press would be on the brink of insurrection. And yet, the strange case of Andrew Neil, the ultra-Thatcherite former Sunday Times editor who is the BBC’s flagship political presenter, is an instructive example about how our media works.

Neil is a formidable political interviewer in many ways: forensic, unrelenting, quick-witted, sardonic. But consider the background of this former Conservative party researcher. When Jeremy Corbyn had the audacity to meet with leftwing Jewish group Jewdas, Neil smeared them as “nutters”; last year, he made a speech denouncing antisemitism on the left. To be clear, leftwing antisemitism exists and must be vanquished. But Neil has no moral authority on this issue. As editor of the Sunday Times in 1992, he hired Britain’s foremost Holocaust denier, Nazi apologist David Irving, to work on the Goebbels diaries. To hire a sympathiser of Hitler and denier of the worst atrocity in history to do respectable work for a national newspaper – to offer a reputational lifeline to a man who should have been treated as a pariah – was a disgrace for which he has never apologised. As the Wiener Library, the oldest institution devoted to the study of the Holocaust, said at the time: “David Irving denies the gas chambers. Anyone who deals with him is tainted with that.”

Not long after becoming a high-profile BBC presenter, Neil made a speech in homage to rightwing radical Friedrich Hayek, in which he called for a “radical programme to liberalise the British economy; a radical reduction in tax and public spending as a share of the economy” as well as a flat tax “and the injection of choice and competition into the public sector on a scale not yet contemplated”. During last year’s general election, he presented the Daily Politics wearing a tie emblazoned with the logo of the hardcore neoliberal Adam Smith Institute. His editor was Robbie Gibb, a former adviser to Michael Portillo – another longstanding colleague of Neil on This Week. Last year Gibb became Theresa May’s head of communications.

Neil’s Twitter account – which has hundreds of thousands of followers thanks to his BBC gig – is routinely used to promote rightwing causes. He uses this platform to denounce the scientific consensus on climate change, reviling what he calls “the climate mafia” and claiming that deviation from the consensus meant “the witch-finders want to burn you”. It is not the first time he has deviated from scientific consensus. When he was Sunday Times editor, his newspaper ran a series of articles arguing that HIV did not cause Aids. It was a theme picked up by the Spectator 15 years later. Let’s be clear: this contemptible myth risked people’s lives. His Twitter feed, too, reveals a relentless sympathy for Brexit and denunciation of its critics. A valid political perspective, but not coming from the BBC’s main politics presenter on the biggest issue facing Britain. Again unsurprising, given that he once called “for a reorientation of British foreign policy away from Europe towards Asia and Latin America”and “unilateral free trade, regardless of the policy in Brussels”.

His firebrand rightwing politics aside, Neil skins politicians alive across the political spectrum, comes the inevitable retort. There is no question that Neil is exceptionally bright and well-read with an acute eye for detail: it is a grave error to turn up unprepared with him in the chair, as I discovered in one of my earliest TV appearances. And yes, he did recently take down a Tory minister for the absurd smears against Corbyn over a crank ex-Czechoslovak spy: that he was applauded for doing his job here shows how low the left’s expectations are. But as a general rule, while Neil will fillet politicians on both left and right on the basis of competence, he reserves his ideological assaults for the left, ridiculing Corbyn over Russia – which one would expect on US TV networks, where impartiality rules do not apply.

Last month, when Green MP Caroline Lucas tabled an Urgent Question on bullying and harassment in Parliament, Neil excoriated her for not talking about rape in Telford instead. When Lucas responded that the Telford case was “absolutely appalling” and that she backed an urgent public inquiry into the matter, but that didn’t mean MPs shouldn’t get their own House in order, Neil denounced her for making a comparison between “what some middle class women had suffered” and the Telford scandal – one he alone had made. The consequence was an online pile-on. Imagine if a prominent leftwing BBC journalist existed and launched such a baseless out-of-nowhere attack on a rightwing politician?

Why does this all matter? Critiquing any prominent journalist normally results in a defensive backlash: it is regarded as the ultimate sin within media ranks. But the issue here is about a system. The media are one of the most essential pillars of any democracy, and must be critiqued as such. The usual BBC defence is that the corporation is attacked from both sides, and therefore must be neutral. This is a logical fallacy. For one, it does not take into account which side is more assertive or dominant. Our press overwhelmingly supports the Tories and is intolerant of even mild deviations from rightwing orthodoxy. The BBC itself is dominated by social and economic liberalism, which is why it provokes ire from left and right: but that isn’t neutrality, either. Its daily news priorities are set and framed by the front pages of Conservative-supporting newspapers.

Neil himself would be the most intimidating and effective rightwing polemicist in Britain if he was freed from the BBC. But the fact that somebody as stridently leftwing as he is rightwing would never be appointed to such a position is indicative of how our media operate. Many on the left fear that any critique of Auntie will play into the hands of a right wing that would privatise and gut the BBC if it could. This deference means that BBC political output remains framed by rightwing assumptions. The Media Reform Coalition has suggested a series of proposals, such as freeing the BBC from all government interference and a BBC board elected by licence-payers and BBC staff. At the very least, as the case of Neil underlines, the left – which, after all, represents millions of Britons – must stop accepting its continued media marginalisation as just one of those things. It isn’t – and it must change.


Owen Jones

The GuardianTramp

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