Anthony Jay has a highly perceptive essay on liberal media bias – particularly the BBC – at the UK Telegraph which is more than worth reading, not just for its specific content, but for it’s unusual analysis of the role of media in our modern society. Just a taste to encourage you to read the whole thing:

But the evolution of cities, of commuter and dormitory suburbs, has deprived millions of people of tribal living. There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child, but fewer and fewer of us are now brought up in villages, even urban villages. The enormous popularity of television soap operas is because they provide detribalised viewers with vicarious membership of a fictional, surrogate tribe.

Jay worked for the BBC in the fifties and the single most interesting statement he makes about the political culture among its employees is that it has not changed.

For a time it puzzled me that after 50 years of tumultuous change the media liberal attitudes could remain almost identical to those I shared in the 1950s. Then it gradually dawned on me: my BBC media liberalism was not a political philosophy, even less a political programme. It was an ideology based not on observation and deduction but on faith and doctrine. We were rather weak on facts and figures, on causes and consequences, and shied away from arguments about practicalities. If defeated on one point we just retreated to another; we did not change our beliefs.

Ideologies are closed systems that masquerade as thought. We all fall into them at times wishing things were as we hoped rather than the way they are. As a visual thinker I tend to ‘see’ things like ideologies as pictures before I can use words to describe them.

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I certainly shared the American version of what Mr. Jay describes growing up in a liberal household in the fifties. I remember smiling broadly in self recognition when Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew characterized the NY Times reading, Ivy League educated class of which I was a member as “the eastern intellectual establishment.” We bore a remarkable resemblance to our British cousins who worked for the BBC. Jay again:

We belonged instead to a dispersed ”metropolitan-media-arts-graduate” tribe. We met over coffee, lunch, drinks and dinner to reinforce our views on the evils of apartheid, nuclear deterrence, capital punishment, the British Empire, big business, advertising, public relations, the Royal Family, the defence budget… it’s a wonder we ever got home. We so rarely encountered any coherent opposing arguments that we took our group-think as the views of all right-thinking people.

Like Mr. Jay what has most astonished me is the closed, egg like, resistance to the outside pressure of dissonant facts of this liberal consensus. We all defend our beliefs and assumptions – it is only human, but I believe a major cause of the persistence of the liberal consensus is having a belief system based on a thinker who’s assertions have been amply contradicted by events without quite knowing it. Jay says it this way: “We were not Marxists but accepted a lot of Marxist social analysis.” I think liberals in America did the same, but because Marxism was taboo thanks to McCarthy, we were even less aware that our beliefs owed a great deal to Marx. Personally I always remember with great fondness my mother saying ‘all businessmen are corupt.’ But much more recently we see Michael Moore holding up Cuba as a shining example of socialized medicine with a straight face or the endless variety of Che memorabilia on offer to the young and fashionable bourgeoisie.

There is much to defend in the accomplishments of the liberal consensus since WWII and there are even Marxists who have remarkably open minds. Norm Geras of Normblog comes to mind. Jay himself makes a good historical case for the liberal consensus in British terms.

If I had to mount a defence of our media liberalism, I would say that in the first place the BBC was still in the shadow of John Reith. Political impartiality was much more strictly enforced than today. In the second place we had seen all too clearly the dangers of oppressive and unchallenged authority in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. In the third place, there were areas of British life – the legal status of women, homosexuality, divorce, penal policy – in which most people agreed that liberal reform was necessary. In the fourth place, large areas of British life – the law, industry, banking, the Civil Service, the Armed Forces, the Cabinet – were dominated by an upper class élite who were holding the country back. For all these reasons I would defend, not our ideas and attitudes, but at least their consequences. I believe – well, at least hope – that we did not do too much damage.

I do not think the same is true today. The four mitigating factors above have faded into insignificance, but the media liberal ideology is stronger than ever. Today, we see our old heresy becoming the new orthodoxy: media liberalism has now been adopted by the leaders of all three political parties, by the police, the courts and the Churches. It is enshrined in law – in the human rights act, in much health and safety legislation, in equal opportunities, in employment protections, in race relations and in a whole stream of edicts from Brussels.

And that’s the rub. Yesterday’s progressiveism becomes today’s orthodoxy. The way forward is not clear – that is why Both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have had such a hard time identifying a truly new direction. Even though I started in much the same place as Anthony Jay and many other people of the generations who have come of age since WWII, my struggle to keep an open mind looks something like this to me on the inside:

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Standing on a precarious spit of sand watching one’s system of thought tossed about on the sea of events.


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