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.
The second factor which shaped our media liberal attitudes was a sense of exclusion. We saw ourselves as part of the intellectual élite, full of ideas about how the country should be run, and yet with no involvement in the process or power to do anything about it. Being naïve in the way institutions actually work, yet having good arts degrees from reputable universities, we were convinced that Britain’s problems were the result of the stupidity of the people in charge. We ignored the tedious practicalities of getting institutions to adopt and implement ideas.
This ignorance of the realities of government and management enabled us to occupy the moral high ground. We saw ourselves as clever people in a stupid world, upright people in a corrupt world, compassionate people in a brutal world, libertarian people in an authoritarian world. We were not Marxists but accepted a lot of Marxist social analysis. Some people called us arrogant; looking back, I am afraid I cannot dispute the epithet.
We also had an almost complete ignorance of market economics. That ignorance is still there. Say ”Tesco” to a media liberal and the patellar reflex says, “Exploiting African farmers and driving out small shopkeepers”. The achievement of providing the range of goods, the competitive prices, the food quality, the speed of service and the ease of parking that attract millions of shoppers every day does not show up on the media liberal radar.
The third factor arises from the nature of mass media. The Tonight programme had a nightly audience of about eight million. It was much easier to keep their attention by telling them they were being deceived or exploited by big institutions than by saying what a good job the government and the banks and the oil companies were doing.
Our knowledge of public events and political arguments come direct from the media rather than from a face-to-face group. We still have some local, territorial group memberships, but their importance is now much diminished and their influence weakened.
These four factors have significantly accelerated, and indeed intensified, the spread of media liberalism since I ceased to be a BBC employee 40 years ago. It still champions the individual against the institution. The BBC’s 2007 impartiality report reflects widespread support for the idea that there is “some sort of BBC liberal consensus”. Its commissioning editor for documentaries, Richard Klein, has said: “By and large, people who work in the BBC think the same, and it’s not the way the audience thinks.” The former BBC political editor Andrew Marr says: “There is an innate liberal bias within the BBC”.
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. We were, of course, believers in democracy. The trouble was that our understanding of it was structurally simplistic and politically naïve. It did not go much further than one-adult-one-vote.
We ignored the whole truth, namely that modern Western civilisation stands on four pillars, and elected governments is only one of them. Equally important is the rule of law. The other two are economic: the right to own private property and the right to buy and sell your property, goods, services and labour. (Freedom of speech, worship, and association derive from them; with an elected government and the rule of law a nation can choose how much it wants of each). We never got this far with our analysis. The two economic freedoms led straight to the heresy of free enterprise capitalism - and yet without them any meaningful freedom is impossible.
But analysis was irrelevant to us. Ultimately, it was not a question of whether a policy worked but whether it was right or wrong when judged by our media liberal moral standards. There was no argument about whether, say, capital punishment worked. If retentionists came up with statistics showing that abolition increased the number of murders we simply rejected them.
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.
It is not so much that their ideas and arguments are harebrained and impracticable: some of their causes are in fact admirable. The trouble - you might even say the tragedy - is that their implementation by governments eager for media approval has progressively damaged our institutions. Media liberal pressure has prompted a stream of laws, regulations and directives to champion the criminal against the police, the child against the school, the patient against the hospital, the employee against the company, the soldier against the army, the borrower against the bank, the convict against the prison - there is a new case in the papers almost every day, and each victory is a small erosion of the efficiency and effectiveness of the institution.