When we oldies were young, the BBC abounded in interesting discussion- programmes in which party politics was never mentioned.
There was, instead, the sense that the radio – later the telly – were like intelligent dinner tables or tutorials. There was still a Reithian sense that the public broadcaster could provide, in accessible form, what the Athenians had sought in Plato’s Academy.
There was the Brains Trust, in which figures such as C.E.M. Joad or Bertrand Russell attempted to answer questions sent in by the listeners.
In its glory days, 12 million people – around 29% of the population – tuned in on Saturday afternoons to hear Isaiah Berlin, Kenneth Clark and Harold Nicolson give their intelligent, rounded views.
Sometimes, the BBC received letters of complaint about the programme’s supposed political bias. But when the speakers were surveyed, it was discovered that 25% were left-wing, 28% were right-wing and the rest could not meaningfully be labelled.
I suspect that this proportion is true, to this day, of the population at large. Certainly, we do not belong to political parties much.
This is for the very good reason that – in England, at least – the political parties do not really represent our opinions.
This is a very good thing. In Northern Ireland, where the parties DO represent “grassroots” opinion, they find themselves in an ungovernable deadlock of mutual hatred. They can not even bring themselves to sit down together at Stormont.
Party membership has hugely declined in the last fifty years, along with membership of churches and trades unions. We do not want to be classified.
Yet, with each passing year, the BBC tries to pretend we DO all divide along party lines.
The news programmes give a quite ridiculous amount of time and space to the ins and outs of party politics, and to the possible contents of these parties’ manifestos. Why should we care?
Those of us who choose to vote at the next election (this will not include me – I have not voted for years) will do so because they want to vote AGAINST another party.
Few lefties actually like Keir Starmer, but he will attract the votes of those who, with very good reason, have come to hate the Tories. And those who vote Tory will do so, not because they like the Conservative Party – an odious organisation, all of whose actual members are nerds, Rotary Club bores or lonely young men who think it smart to wear hired dinner jackets at ‘black tie dinners’ – something most of us have either never done, or not done for years.
Consider a programme such as Any Questions. Again, when we oldies were young, lucid, clever people such as Marghanita Laski or Malcolm Muggeridge would regularly appear and give their well-modulated views.
Now the programme has become entirely political, and party political at that. Chris Mason, a weaselly little fellow in specs who has recently become BBC political correspondent in succession to Laura Kuenssberg, took to introducing speakers on the programme with party labels.
‘Diane Abbott – for Labour,’ he might say. ‘Bernard Jenkin – for the Conservatives.’ Why not simply ask their views as individuals?
It is absurd to suppose that the Westminster parties, a few hundred nobodies whose chief interest in life is holding on to their seats, and who trim and concoct their ‘manifestos’ with this aim in mind, should have drawn up a programme for life that we all want to follow. Old John Mortimer used to ask why should socialists not support fox-hunting – as Friedrich Engels had done?
The quality of Any Questions is now deplorable, and the torture of listening to it – which I only do in the car when my dear wife wants to tune in – is augmented by the sad old crocks who ring in on Saturday afternoons to bore for Surrey or Cheshire in response to the party politicals.
The BBC has absolutely failed in its duty to allow a proper debate about public issues. No political party would dare to go to the polls saying a word against the NHS, for example.
Both main parties, egged on by the Lib Dems, think we should be sending billions of taxpayers’ money to aid the mutual slaughter in Ukraine. It would be more or less impossible to find a voice on the radio questioning this course of action, which, to many of us, seems a criminal wickedness. Those who consider abortion to be the inadmissible taking of a human life could not, I suspect, find anywhere on Radio Four who would allow them five minutes of airtime – because no political party would dare include a pro-life clause in its manifesto.
If I were Director-General of the BBC, I would ban the mention of party politics at all, except perhaps at election time. Otherwise, I’d make the news editors and the producers of discussion shows remember the ideals of Lord Reith and to read Lord Macaulay:
‘Then none was for a party; Then all were for the state; Then the rich man helped the poor, And the poor man loved the great; Then lands were fairly portioned, Then spoils were fairly sold; The Romans were like brothers In the brave days of old.’