So is the BBC 'anti-politics'?
My friend Steve Richards has written a characteristically challenging and thought provoking attack on the BBC’s coverage of the cash for honours investigation in his column in the Independent (you can read it here). Before I tell you where I think he’s wrong and where he has a point let me say that I know that his worries are shared by others who, like Steve, I respect.
Richards calls the BBC’s coverage of Tony Blair’s interview with the police last Thursday "one-sided". There was, he says, "little attempt to explain, place the event in context or question what the police were up to". The BBC, he goes on, "breathlessly" described the events "without qualification …as one of his [Blair’s] darkest days" while not questioning whether the police were "behaving with appropriate propriety" or setting out the context of the "build-up to the last election, when the main parties were battling it out for funds".
Predictable or not, inevitable or not – and not so long ago it appeared to be neither - the police’s first ever interview of a serving prime minister was a major news story. The context that had to be set out on that day was the fact that Mr Blair had not been cautioned, was not being treated as a suspect and that he, and indeed everyone else involved, may never face charges.
It was not – in the limited time available that day – vital to discuss whether or not the police have been briefing the media or the history of the fund-raising difficulties faced by all parties at the last election. You may recall that there was no shortage of news that day – the government’s decision to close post offices, build new runways and give prisoners the vote, not to mention the inquest into Diana’s death. One result of Downing Street’s decision to invite the police in on this day – and, yes, it was their choice – was to limit the space for that added context!
Now, having said that, I think Steve’s arguments should make us pause for thought. We do need to find opportunities to set out how all parties have had problems with fund-raising; how all hate the choices forced upon them and how this is a desperate problem faced by every major democracy. Hayden Phillips’ report into the future of party funding will give us the chance to do that in the New Year.
It is also right to reflect on the challenges posed to political journalists by an ongoing police investigation. Every development it throws up, every new interview or piece of evidence which emerges can be presented as if the net is closing in on the guilty when no-one may turn out to have been guilty of anything. Since most of those being investigated have been advised by lawyers to stay silent we sometimes have only the bare facts of those developments to report together with the occasional – though significant – briefings given by Yates of the Yard to Members of Parliament.
It is not right, however, to suggest – as Steve Richards does - that this story is being driven primarily by police "spin". Let us recall where it began. It started when politicians - the Lords Appointments Commission - refused to approve Tony Blair’s nominees for peerages and it took off when another politician - Labour’s treasurer Jack Dromey – blew the whistle on the use of loans to bypass his party’s own legislation on the funding of elections. Clearly, though, stories about who’s going to be interviewed next about what are more likely to have come from someone on the prosecution rather than the defence’s side.
As it happens, the story the BBC broke last week about Sir Christopher Evans keeping a note that Lord Levy had talked to him about a "K or a big P" emerged not from some secret police briefing but because several witnesses (politicians I might add) had those words presented to them by the police. Good old fashioned journalism meant that my colleague Reeta Chakrabati heard about this and we reported it.
Steve Richards ends his column with his most worrying and, I believe, inaccurate charge. The BBC, he writes, "has inadvertently become anti-politics" in our desire, he suggests, to make waves. "Senior politicians," he writes, "are accused with casual complacency of being corrupt. No wonder the fanatics in the BNP and elsewhere rub their hands with glee." This simply won’t do.
A senior police officer in charge of an investigation which is unprecedented in British political history has stated publicly that his inquiry team has "significant and valuable material" and hints that charges may follow. At the same time, it is now virtually impossible to find a senior politician who will defend, in private or in public, the way loans were raised in the run-up to the last election. On all sides politicians agree that the system of party funding must change. A Commons Select Committee warned this week against the "further erosion of public confidence due to the increasing appearance of money buying power and influence". The BBC is not being “anti politics” when it reports those facts.
PS. Today we can reflect that whether you agree with Richards or me, this inquiry is unlikely to produce anything remotely like the revelations about the life former Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey lived. The Moriarty Tribunal has just revealed that his yacht, personal island, race horses, mansion and lavish lifestyle were funded by bribes from businessmen!
PPS (1233 GMT) I shouldn't have singled out Steve Richards. I overlooked this critical column by another friend, John Rentoul (yes, really, they both are friends who once worked alongside me at the BBC).