STEPHEN GLOVER: All pretence has gone. With this ‘debate’, the BBC’s bias was hopelessly exposed
After the fiasco of the BBC’s leadership debate on Tuesday evening, it was still just about possible to think that what happened was more cock-up than conspiracy.
One could believe, admittedly with a certain amount of effort, that the shambles was due to poor planning, and that there had been no intention to make the five Conservative candidates look stupid, shifty and disagreeable.
But in the aftermath of the programme it has become irrefutable that it was rigged against the Tories. The question is to what degree this was deliberate.
Sitting the MPs on high stools for the debate only served to make them look foolish
It has emerged that, among the eight pre-selected people who asked questions via video link, there was a former Labour Party worker and council candidate, while another was a pro-Corbyn misogynist with apparent anti-Semite beliefs.
A third participant was a 15-year-old climate change activist of dogmatic views whose social media record implies sympathies for the Scottish National Party.
None of them appeared to be current Tory voters, which is strange if you think about it. For the electorate in the forthcoming leadership contest, once the numbers have been winnowed down to two today, will entirely consist of Conservative Party members.
In a sane world the BBC would have included some people who are part of this 160,000-strong group, and have not yet made up their minds whom to support.
But that would have introduced a spirit of fairness into the proceedings, and might have encouraged an illuminating debate among the candidates. This is not something the BBC wanted to happen.
My suspicions were aroused as soon as I saw the set. The five Tories had been placed on high stools with their legs dangling beneath them. If you want to make someone look like a prat, there is no surer way than to make him or her perch several feet above the ground.
Emily Maitlis has an annoying trait of interrupting interviewees, and she put it into full effect during the debate
Then there was the format, which lacked any sense of structure, and seemed intended to cause maximum confusion. In the best televised debates, politicians are given equal time to speak, and set out their views. Not here.
The upshot is that two or three of them would sometimes speak over one another, or interrupt. They came over as an argumentative rabble rather than as statesmen capable of running the country. Was such an impression deliberate?
When it came to interrupting, and not allowing people to have their say, there was no more expert practitioner than the so-called moderator, Emily Maitlis.
As the lead presenter on BBC2’s Newsnight, she has developed the habit of not allowing interviewees to finish a sentence. It’s an annoying trait. In this case it opened the gate to mayhem. Ms Maitlis had evidently decided to make life difficult for the front runner Boris Johnson, who does not always think quickly on his feet, and is not very fluent when flustered. She interfered with several of his answers.
One incident sticks in my mind. He was striving to explain how it might be possible to oversee the Northern Irish border through the use of technology when Emily Maitlis accused him of comparing it to London’s Congestion Charge. ‘That’s how seriously you took it,’ she volunteered dismissively.
In truth, all Boris had tried to do previously was to point out that if it is possible unobtrusively to keep track of vehicles coming into the capital, it might be feasible to do the same on the Irish border.
Is Ms Maitlis a secret Corbynista? I very much doubt it. Indeed, in 2007 she was appointed contributing editor of the centre-Right Spectator magazine, only two years after Boris Johnson had vacated its editorial chair.
She simply comes from the school of broadcast journalism (founded by Jeremy Paxman) which believes in handling leading politicians as though they are recidivist members of the criminal classes.
Whether she would have treated five would-be Labour leaders with such contempt is another question. I suspect not — because she might think such anti-Left partisanship would displease her BBC bosses.
Boris Johnson was given a particularly harsh grilling during the debate
Those bosses must be blamed for the anarchic format of the programme, which seems to have been orchestrated to present these leading Tories in the most unfavourable light.
And they must certainly also be blamed for including two questioners whose only interest in the Tory Party would appear to be a wish to wipe it from the face of the earth.
Aman Thakar is a Labour activist of very recent vintage. His question (‘When will you do the right thing and call a general election?’) came straight out of the Jeremy Corbyn playbook.
Even more egregious was an Iman called Abdullah Patel, who, in an attempt to skewer Boris for his remarks that Muslim women wearing burkas resemble ‘letterboxes’, piously intoned that ‘words have consequences’.
So they do. It turns out that a man who looked as though butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth is a virulent Corbynista who has written tweets which suggest women rape victims may be partly to blame, and that the state of Israel should be relocated to the United States.
How on earth did this happen? Doesn’t Auntie do any due diligence before she dredges up such people? Apparently not. And the reason, I submit, is that Tory bigwigs are considered easy game.
I return to a point I have often made, and which seems so self-evident that I am astonished BBC mandarins continue to deny it. The Corporation has an in-built, almost unthinking bias to the Left.
To be fair, a few BBC luminaries have come clean. Mark Thompson, a former director-general, spoke in 2010 of the Beeb’s ‘massive Left-wing bias’, though he was referring to a previous era. And the presenter Andrew Marr admitted in 2006 that it has a ‘cultural liberal bias’.
But in general the absurd pretence is maintained, largely to justify a licence fee paid by people of both Left and Right, that the BBC is impeccably even-handed in political matters.
Anyone who listens to Radio 4’s so-called comedy programmes, in which Conservatives and Conservatism are routinely lampooned, will know this is a demonstrably false assertion.
Look at what happened when the Left-wing comedian Jo Brand recently suggested — by way of a joke, mind — that it would be better to throw battery acid rather than milkshakes at Right-wing politicians.
After a half-apology, she remains on our state broadcaster’s airwaves. Would a Right-wing comedian (not that many of those are encouraged by the BBC) be so easily forgiven? I doubt it.
Or consider the BBC One series Years And Years, just ended. Emma Thompson played a Right-wing populist politician (echoes of Boris Johnson?) fuelling divisions in a dystopian Britain.
Some of us think Jeremy Corbyn is more likely to play such a role, but I don’t suppose a script with a divisive Marxist populist leader would find much favour at the Corporation.
To return to the BBC debacle, I don’t fret too much for the five Tories made to look so stupid and inadequate. They’ll brush themselves down and get over it, though sensible politicians should think twice before taking part in such a debate in future.
What most concerns me is that, because of the deliberately contrived aggressiveness of the programme, hardly any light was thrown on the candidates. The chief victim of the BBC’s calculated ineptitude was democracy.
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