"Webb & Marr are... The Untouchables": BBC journalists must be impartial unless they're famous and right-wing

The BBC Director-General made a huge deal of coming down on journalists who aren't 'independent' but writing for The Daily Mail or The Times still seems to be fine...

Imagine for a moment that one of BBC News’ top political interviewers wrote an opinion piece that ran in The Morning Star. How long would you imagine that individual would remain in their role? And how quickly would they be shredded into small bloody pieces by a coordinated bundle from The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and the massed ranks of the frothing talking heads on talkRadio, LBC and beyond?

In his first public speech in September, the incoming BBC Director-General, Tim Davie, made a big noise about enforcing and reinforcing BBC impartiality. He said:

“If you want to be an opinionated columnist or a partisan campaigner on social media then that is a valid choice, but you should not be working at the BBC.”

He claimed the new focus was “not simply about left or right” but “whether people feel we see the world from their point of view.” It was an interesting framing and might explain why he seems comfortable with Today programme presenter Justin Webb regularly contributing op-ed columns to right-leaning publications — UnHerd and The Times — and Andrew Marr, arguably now the BBC’s most high-profile interviewer, taking bylines in The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.

It is not simply that Webb produces columns for UnHerd and The Times but that their content is explicitly political and disparaging of anyone to the left of Franco. A more balanced approach would not be welcome on those pages, particularly at The Times where Webb’s column today shares a spread with the latest contribution from Anders Brevik’s favourite columnist, Melanie Phillips.

The headline on Webb’s Times piece could not seriously be described as ‘non-partisan’ ("California is a warning to Biden’s woke party”) but I suspect he would use the usual journalist’s get-out clause (“I don’t write the headlines!”). Dig into the copy though and it’s clear that the headline is an accurate description of what follows it. After laughably framing that most centrist of centrists, Joe Biden, as a ‘radical’, Webb writes:

That is the real California agenda. Yes to Biden but yes, too, to property rights. To playing by the rules. And to being tough on crime. California is not rejecting the Democrats — Ronald Reagan’s state is some way from reverting to the politics of the Gipper. But if the nation follows the golden state as it has so often in the past, it’s a warning to the Democrats that voters are moving back to the centre and the party can’t afford to ignore it.

What in the American political environment, where money and speech are legally the same thing, does “playing by the rules” mean? And how exactly does a journalist whose bread and butter has long been covering the United States, decide that four out of 53 congressional districts in California turning red represents a huge threat to the Biden project?

To make his assessment of California’s politics, Webb lunges back to Ronald Reagan’s win in the 1966 Californian gubernatorial race. The comparison is so wayward you might expect to find Webb stuck in a ditch. In the 1960s, California was a Republican-leaning state and Reagan took all but 3 of 58 counties. In 2018, the current governor of California, Gavin Newsom, won by the largest margin since Earl Warren’s reelection campaign in 1950.

Now, if I were Tim Davie… well, I’d hate myself, but also I might argue that Webb is writing about the United States and that doesn’t have any bearing on impartiality here on prison island Britain. But it does because his analysis of the left and right in America reveals a lot about how he thinks about the political spectrum here:

In truth, many Californians are falling out of love with California. Their agenda — the true California agenda, not Mr Newsom’s — is a move back to the centre-ground. A sense that things have gone too far in America’s left and need to be corrected. Defend rather than defund the police. Keep people in jail who (they think) ought to be there.

Some have fallen out of love so badly with ultra-liberal California that they have chosen to flee. Still dreamers but dreaming now about (of all places) Texas. Companies are going and they say they are making the move for the good of their employees. One of the reasons Austin, Texas, is one of the fastest-growing US cities is the influx of big-brand headquarters from California: Oracle, one of Silicon Valley’s oldest companies, is the latest to come. Hewlett Packard is moving in down the road in Houston.

Worth noting: Texas has no state income tax. A further thought, though: is this about more than tax and spend?

Look at how desperate he is to frame the movement of the rich and corporations as about ‘culture war concerns’ — he goes on to burble about cancel culture — and not about tax avoidance, which he has to acknowledge before dismissing it.

Davie is entirely comfortable with these insights from Webb, coupled with pieces like today’s UnHerd piece (headline — “The Left is paralysed by disgust” — combined with this lede: “If you hate your country, you cannot change it.”), because they fit within a right-wing worldview. When Davie said in that first speech that impartiality is “also about whether people feel we see the world from their point of view”, the point of view he meant was that of a red-faced man ranting at the end of the bar of a flat-roofed pub.

Webb starts his UnHerd column with the kind of racist anecdote that would have them roaring down at the Spitfire & Shithead:

Decades ago, in a village in Burma, my companion told me of a fear she’d had in the night. “What if they all want to do that?” she asked.

“That” was move to Britain. We had been talking to a waiter who had learned good English and through some connection with previous tourists knew about the outside world in what we might call granular detail. He was particularly impressed with banks that gave out money via holes in the wall. He wanted to escape the repression and poverty of his country and get to London. We gently put him off the idea, which seemed too far-fetched to be realistic.

“It rains a lot,” we told him. “And it’s cold.”

“Wait till we all know about how you live,” he replied. “We could always wear coats. The problem is that you won’t want us to stay.”

“Nonsense,” we said.

“Come anytime,” we smiled, knowing that he would not, could not.

Remember that anecdote, offered up without prompting, the next time you hear Webb on the radio probing a politician about people’s “reasonable concerns” about immigration.

In The Mail on Sunday this week, Andrew Marr filed a piece that stretched over a double-page spread and which cannot use the excuse that he was writing about ‘some other place’. Marr who, since Andrew Neill departed the corporation, is now the BBC’s most high-profile interviewer, wrote — at once Pooterish and naive — about the potential for 2021 to be a far better year and of what “2020 has taught us”.

Marr strains for a kind of impartiality but it turns out to be more like bothsidesism:

“Too many hardcore pro-Europeans, with their immediate political options closed off, foam with contempt for Brexit voters; while too many hardcore Brexiteers can’t accept their victory, flailing around with semi-paranoid fantasies about the next metropolitan betrayal.”

And the lessons he has learned from 2020 are the lessons of the comfortable, cosseted elite, the kind of person who can find them seriously entreating those who have been fucked over time and time again to just get along. Behold the warm bath mutterings of a man with a well-paid and protected position:

We found a new respect not just for NHS workers but for refuse collectors, shelf-stackers in supermarkets and delivery drivers who kept a locked-down country clean and fed. As in any great challenge, below the grim headlines, 2020 also showed humans at their best, most ingenious and most dogged.

In lockdown, many of us also found out new things about ourselves. We became competent bakers, meticulous gardeners, better carers to our older relatives. Some of us, it has to be admitted, drank too much. But others taught themselves languages, learned to play the piano or read novels that had gathered dust for decades on bookshelves.

Some of us scrabbled around to survive. Some of us saw little or no help from the government. Some of us saw how the ‘respect’ given to retail staff, health workers, teachers, cleaners, and others was a brief as a Thursday night clapping session — pay rises and improved conditions dissipating quicker than a cloud of Covid.

Yes, Marr’s article was much milder and occupies the middle ground in a way that Webb’s outside work does not, but where he’s making these observations and who’s paying him for them matters. Day in, day out, The Mail, Mail on Sunday and MailOnline are engaged in a multi-front war on the BBC, desperate to destroy it in its current form. Marr knows that but he still takes the Mail on Sunday’s money and attention, boosting his profile and shifting some copies of his latest book.

When Davie warned ‘stars’ about external interests and the requirement for them to show due impartiality, it’s clear what he meant: Don’t go around being left-wing as it gets us all sorts of flak from the tabloids and talk radio stations. Kicking the left for UnHerd or offering mealy-mouthed musings for the Mail is fine because that’s the worldview that Davie defends.