25 OCTOBER 1986, Page 5



The BBC's decision to apologise for its Panorama programme, 'Maggie's Militant Tendency', and to drop its defence of the programme in a libel action in the High Court was leaked over the weekend. The leakers were worried that the decision to give in, which was made by the Board of Governors, marked a new readiness to interfere with executive decisions. They also claimed to see the evil hand of the Government behind the capitulation. As tends to happen on these occasions, most of the press seemed to accept this version of events, just as, a fortnight before, the newspapers accepted the view that Mr Maimaduke Hussey, the new Chairman of the BBC, was Mrs Thatcher's hitman. The evidence for this view of Mr Hussey was first that Mrs Thatcher had appointed him (undeniably true) and second that his wife was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen and that he was therefore bound to be a right-wing Tory (whereas any student of modern British society knows that the lady-in-waiting class is notable for its poli- tical Wetness and dislike of the Prime Minister). The evidence for government intervention to stop Panorama's defence is equally thin.

It must not be forgotten that the prog- ramme itself was extremely bad. Despite being called 'Maggie's Militant Tendency', it never established, although it repeatedly claimed, that there was any extreme right- Wing organisation which was able to exer- cise control over Conservative MPs. All that it was able to show was that there were several minor extremist groups which occa- sionally managed to persuade one or two MPs to attend their dreary meetings. At most, it showed that Mr Harvey Proctor, the MP for Basildon, was an extremely nasty piece of work. This is true, but was already well known. Mr Proctor did not take his action against the BBC to court. Whatever one thinks of the other MPs concerned, the accusations made against them simply did not stand up, and even if they had stood up, they would not have proved anything very much. Panorama is, or was, a national institution. 'Maggie's Militant Tendency' was unworthy of it and Should never have been shown. When the writs arrived, it must have become clear that the programme betrayed not so much an anti-govemment bias but, as one of the victors, Mr Gerald Howarth, has said, a 'lack of professional standards'. It was not worth defending. There is no significance in the precise timing of the Governors' decision to give in — they simply wanted to stop the loss of money and the .pointless embarrassment. Nor was 'Maggie's man' Mr Hussey in charge. Lord Barnett was in the chair. As a Labour man and a Jew, he was unlikely to have been soft on genuine neo-fascism and racial hatred.

It is hard to see how this case raises vital issues of principle. According to Tuesday's Guardian, we must now ask, `How is the BBC governed?' Does the Director- General run the thing, or . do the Chairman and Deputy call the tune day by day?'. But why is a single intervention calling the tune 'day by day', and why was the Director-General so complacent about his corporation's standards that he allowed himself to describe the evidence for this programme as 'rock solid'? What the case does raise is the ability of BBC journalists to do their job in a way that can command respect. Because it depends On govern- ment for its money, the BBC seems to feel that it has to assert its independence by being rude to the Government. This is no more truly independent than the schoolboy who throws pebbles at the headmaster. It would be much harder for Mr Norman Tebbit to make his frequently exaggerated accusations of bias if the quality of BBC reporting was such that it stood up to close examination. In the past two or three years, for example, its treatment of news has not become more consciously leftwing, but distinctly more 'tabloid', distorting and tendentious. In its attempt to 'cover the waterfront' -- to be popular and high- brow, grave and gay, iconoclastic and authoritative — the BBC is simply attemp- ting the impossible. Without Reithian rigour, it loses identity and purpose. Do you trust the BBC? Do you look up to it? It is not only right-wing members of the Conservative Party who answer 'No'.

This lack of trust is why disputes involv- ing the BBC are now so bitter. Govern- ment ministers, always inclined to feel beleaguered, resent being interviewed by ignoramuses and, mocked by Brian Red- head, all by an organisation with a unique- ly privileged financial position. When he makes his attacks on the BBC, Mr Tebbit reflects this indignation, but his attacks are far from uncalculated. He knows that Tory supporters are incensed by the BBC, knows that many other voters are unhappy with it, knows, above all, that sustained criticism at this stage will make it much harder for the BBC to give the Conserva- tives a rough ride at the next General Election. He is conscious that he is assail- ing an institution which no longer com- inands widespread loyalty. He is pushing, or rather, kicking, at an open door.

Although it is probably true that Mr Alasdair Milne, the Director-General, has now lost the necessary respect and should resign, a change of men at the top of the BBC is not enough. The simple point is that the present set-up is unsustainable. The variety of technical possibilities in modern broadcasting and the emergence of a less deferential society mean that no national broadcasting service .can any lon- ger expect to command the entire field. If the BBC is to continue to exist, it must abandon its over-extended empire and set itself up as a smaller guarantor Of quality and impartiality. Sensible ways to do this were proposed in the Peacock-Report; but the Government has decided to, ignore them and contented itself Wall abuse. Mr Hussey should work for these reforms, whether or not Mrs Thatcher wants them.