From 1985-1990 I was director of the Media Monitoring Unit which monitored television current affairs programmes for political bias. The background was simple: in the Eighties there was a strongly held belief, in some circles, that broadcasters were heavily biased against the then Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher.
Senior figures within the BBC, it was said, considered the Labour party to be so weak that it fell to the BBC to offer genuine opposition to the Tories. As it happens Channel 4 programmes were worse but their audiences were generally very small. The BBC, on the other hand, which is funded by the license payer, has a far greater responsibility to maintain political impartiality.
Anyway, I was recruited by Dr Julian Lewis (now Conservative MP for New Forest East) and Lord Chalfont (a former Labour minister) and for five years I recorded and watched thousands of hours of programmes, many of them very dull indeed, and 'rated' them for political bias.
It was wholly unscientific but we used our common sense and got heaps of publicity. I shall never forget the day we launched our first report, in 1986. All over London Evening Standard billboards proclaimed the "news" that, 'Yes! The BBC is biased'.
Not everyone agreed. Our work attracted derision from the left and those we were monitoring. "How dare they!" was the gist of it, but it was often a lot more abusive than that.
I personally took a lot of flak in the pages of Broadcast magazine (the industry journal), the Guardian (of course!) and elsewhere. Broadcasters, I discovered very quickly, don't take kindly to criticism of their work.
On one occasion I was invited by Granada to address a conference in Manchester. The opposing speaker was the producer of the flagship ITV programme World In Action (one of the worst offenders, in our view). He did his best to belittle me in front of 200 broadcasters and his presentation even featured a short video that he had made with the sole purpose of putting me firmly in my place.
I was extremely flattered.
(Bizarrely, a young, very attractive World In Action researcher then stood up, had a right go at me for daring to criticise one of her programmes, and promptly burst into tears! I didn't know whether to laugh or ... )
Anyway, I mention this because last night my old friend Julian Lewis drew my attention to an "exclusive interview" with BBC director-general Mark Thompson in the current issue of the New Statesman. And lo and behold ...
The BBC director-general Mark Thompson has said that "impartiality" is "going up and up the agenda" at the corporation in what he described as a "post-Hutton change" in a reference to the report into the death of the weapons scientist Dr David Kelly. But Thompson added that the BBC has in past decades had a "massive bias to the left", "struggled with impartiality" and was "mystified" by Thatcherism.
So there we have it. The BBC finally admits what some of us knew all along. In the words of Julian Lewis, "We are vindicated, belatedly!"
My work is done. I can rest in peace.
Full interview HERE.
See also: Pedigree of a TV watchdog (Daily Telegraph, 1986)
According to Thompson, "We were biased, but now we're like the New Statesman". But surely the New Statesman is on the left? Doh!