David Gauke: Oomph and optimism don’t always vanquish the doomsters and gloomsters

22 Nov

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Being in Government is fabulous. You get to decide what to do and then can implement those decisions, making (what you hope) is a positive difference to large numbers of people. It is what politics should be all about.

This power is not, of course, unqualified. I was fortunate to have nine years as a Minister but, throughout that period, the Governments in which I served faced significant Parliamentary constraints (in turn, a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats, a small majority and finally a minority Government) as well as a precarious fiscal situation, especially in the early years. We were not always able to do what we wanted.

You could have been forgiven in thinking that all this was in the past. Boris Johnson won a very comfortable majority in 2019, and he has always been clear that “austerity” was behind us. This was a “Take Back Control” Government that was going to deliver on the people’s priorities. Enough of the stalemates and gridlocks, the dither and delay. Now it was time to get things done.

What the last three weeks has shown, however, is that the limits on the powers of government have not gone away. All of a sudden, there are six instances when the constraints have become very visible.

First, the Government’s current travails began with the woeful handling of the Paterson affair, about which I wrote on this site a fortnight ago. The Parliamentary manoeuvre which it attempted – establishing a new cross-party committee – required other parties to participate.

Sensibly (and entirely predictably), the other parties refused to participate, leaving the Government with a problem. In addition, the whole proposal was so obviously objectionable that there was a sizeable Parliamentary revolt from the Conservative backbenchers, with the Government’s majority reduced to just under 20. These two Parliamentary factors meant that the Government had to abandon its approach.

Fiscal considerations have played a role in the second third cases which emerged last week. The Government’s plans for rail and, in particular, the abandonment of the eastern leg of HS2 and the scaling back of Northern Powerhouse Rail has provoked much opposition.

As Tim Pitt, a former Treasury Special Adviser, has pointed out, capital spending for the forthcoming years is remarkably high by historic standards, but the Government still has to make choices. Ministers have reached the conclusion that there are better ways of spending this money than delivering on their promises on these two projects.

This might be a reasonable assessment (I questioned the business case for the eastern leg of HS2 when I was Chief Secretary to the Treasury), but the problem is that these promises had been made and reiterated by the Prime Minister.

The row over social care is also tricky. Even after the announcement of an increase in National Insurance Contributions (which will become the Health and Social Care Levy), there are still choices to be made, and the Government has chosen to take a tougher approach to the means test than expected.

Personally, I think the Government has got its priorities wrong on social care (I believe that we should ask more from those with large estates who face social care costs), but any government has to make choices. Again, the problem is that the new approach falls below expectations.

In both cases, the Government cannot prioritise everything (even if it has a tendency to promise everything). Tough choices have to be made.

Of growing political salience is our fourth example: migrants crossing the Channel in small boats. This is the sort of thing that was supposed to stop with Brexit, apparently (for reasons that have never been clear), and it leaves the Government unusually vulnerable to an attack from the Right.

What could be more damaging to it is the sense of powerlessness. It is not obvious that the Government knows what to do about the problem, hence we have a different story each day as to what could be done (including processing asylum applications in Albania, which came as a surprise to the Albanians).

No Government could find an easy solution to this issue. Some might try building a close and co-operative relationship with the French; this Government tries haranguing them instead. It is not clear that this is working.

Whilst we are discussing diplomacy, the ongoing negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol demonstrate that this Government does not always get what it wants (even in the oven-ready deal that it put at the heart of its general election campaign and which it has ever since tried to rewrite), and this constitutes the fifth case.

By the looks of it, the Government is backing away from triggering Article 16, which is just as well. This would have resulted in a trade war which would have disproportionately damaged the UK economy and left us isolated from the EU and US. After a lot of huffing and puffing, the Government looks as if the role of the European Court of Justice is not quite so central, after all.

The sixth and final example is the non-appointment of Paul Dacre as chair of Ofcom. Having clearly encouraged him to apply, refused to accept his rejection by the interview panel but changed the remit of the role to increase the chance of him being viewed as appointable, the Government went to great lengths to get their man.

Dacre, however, has declared that he has had enough and withdrawn his application, complaining about how someone “from the private sector who, God forbid, has convictions” was never going to be accepted by the civil service “Blob”.

As it happens, the original interview panel was predominantly made up of people from the private sector. and it would be entirely reasonable if they concluded that Dacre’s strong “convictions” sat uneasily with chairing a regulator that holds the ring on broadcasters’ bias. An independent public appointments regime is a necessary check and balance and, ultimately, the system worked as it should have done.

Bring these cases together and a pattern emerges. The Government wanted to protect Owen Paterson, build the eastern leg of HS2 and the cross-Pennine rail line, ensure no one has to sell their house to pay for social care, stop migrants arriving here in small boats, remove the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland, and appoint Paul Dacre as Chair of Ofcom. For one reason or another, it is not able to do any of those things.

Does this reveal that the Government is close to collapse? No, it does not. Governments do not always get their way and, as I have written elsewhere, I think the great likelihood is that Boris Johnson will lead the Conservatives into the next election (and, as it happens, I think he will probably win it).

To some extent, this is all just reality reasserting itself. Being in Government is fabulous, but it is also hard. It involves trade-offs and prioritisation and compromise. Not every problem is solvable; not every call can be answered. You do not always get your way.

The problem for the Prime Minister is that much of his considerable voter appeal has been to dismiss the pettifogging concerns of the doomsters and gloomsters. Complexity is for wimps. So-called problems are merely trivialities that can be overcome with a bit of oomph and optimism.

This certainly raises expectations. As these six recent examples demonstrate, however, it does not reflect the realities of governing. Eventually, reality – whether political, economic or diplomatic – prevails.

Ryan Bourne: GB News will offer viewers a new choice – within the rules. Which is precisely why the left fears it.

25 May

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

There’s a fundamental conflation error in much coverage of the soon-to-air GB News. From the Guardian’s Marina Hyde to the campaign group “Stop Funding Hate,” many on the left think that because Andrew Neil, the project’s founder, and Angelos Frangopoulous, its Chief Executive Officer, are vocal about incumbent broadcasters’ inadequacies, GB News is somehow “anti-impartiality.”

The thesis goes like this: “Andrew Neil says he wants GB News to counter an “increasingly woke and out of touch” news media, which is “too metropolitan, too southern and too middle-class.” That sounds like he wants a very partial right-wing channel pushing culture war politics, and acting as a political mouthpiece for the Conservatives. Have you seen what’s happened with Fox News in America?”

Now given GB News hasn’t aired yet, and repeatedly says it is committed to the UK’s impartiality rules, which the US doesn’t have, speculating like this seems a bit unhinged. For the record, as a libertarian, I really do object to the Ofcom rules on free speech grounds, especially given the rampant discretion in interpreting them. But my views aren’t the point here: the new channel’s critics are confusing different concepts – “impartiality”  rules and the inevitability of human “bias.”

Ofcom’s rules insist on “due accuracy” and “due impartiality.” Broadcasters have a responsibility to use facts accurately and to explore different viewpoints on a show, or across episodes of the show, on news matters for news shows or issues of political controversy generally. Presenters can express opinions, especially where viewers expect them, but other viewpoints should be represented, even if only through presenters challenging guests from various perspectives.

“Due impartiality,” then, is about making efforts to hear different sides of a story, without a strict requirement for equal airtime or a duty to cover all views. It’s what Andrew Neil himself is a master at as a political interviewer.

Yet as Channel 4 News shows us every day, you can meet due impartiality rules while still being “biased” in the loosest sense of the word. To be unbiased means not having any personal prejudice and predilection. Yet relative biases are inevitable: journalists ultimately must make subjective editorial decisions on what to cover, who to interview, and how to present arguments. All these are shaped by the prior views of journalists.

Past and present BBC employees, including Andrew Marr, Peter Sissons, and Roger Mosey, admit, for example, that given the background and demographics of BBC staff, the organisation is biased towards a left-liberal worldview compared with the UK population.  Nobody can watch or listen to BBC shows without concluding they are hostile to free enterprise, anti-Brexit, anti-Israel, and usually anti-questioning of the policy response to climate change. Yet the BBC can exhibit these relative biases without falling foul of Ofcom regulations.

A left-liberal BBC worldview can create “biases by omission,” where certain viewpoints are just not entertained as serious. Hardly ever does a BBC watcher see a libertarian objection to a government function. For years before the referendum too, except for  Nigel Farage, you would rarely hear someone who explicitly wanted Britain to leave the EU, despite at least a third of the population backing that policy.

We see “bias by selection” too. How many more major TV items do we see on inequality or climate change, over the importance of economic growth? Or appearances by left-leaning Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman rather than, say, Eugene Fama? The evaluative judgments of journalists considering what’s important or appropriate guests reflect their own prejudices.

Then, of course, there’s “bias by presentation.” The way guests are treated can tilt the deck. This might come through interruptions, or via “health warnings” that make viewers question a guest’s credibility. Other times it can come from the presentation of  a statistic: remember the BBC’s Norman Smith describing spending cuts as taking us “back to the 1930s”?

Now some biases, no doubt, are in the eyes of a beholder. There are Corbynistas who think that the corporation is biased against the left, after all. SNP types often see it as a unionist propaganda unit, and many republicans think it overly dotes on the Royal Family (which is tougher to argue after this week).

So my point here is not to suggest then that the BBC is uniquely biased against conservatives or that some totally unbiased media organisation is even attainable in reality. It’s to simply point out that believing the public is ill-represented by the current news media’s cultural biases, and so building an institution to ameliorate them, is just not synonymous with trampling on due impartiality rules.

In fact, it’s perfectly within the Ofcom rules to build a news channel that will run different stories or perspectives – and Neil wants to run “good news” stories and shift away from assuming every problem has a government solution. You are allowed to hire, as  GB News has, card-carrying conservatives, ex-Labour MPs or people from outside of London with very different assumptions in thinking about what news is important. And, yes, you are free to have colourful presenters with attitude to liven up discussions, provided you still showcase various perspectives.

Why, then, are some on the left so afraid of this pluralism? Maybe they don’t accept biases exist on other news channels (Channel 4 News, really?), and so think any stated attempt to counter them is retrogressive. Perhaps they simply fear a politically strengthened  conservatism. For others, no doubt, there is a concern that the Government’s mooted appointment of Paul Dacre to Ofcom is a precursor to watering down impartiality rules as well.

But given that no such policy has been signalled, and we have not yet seen GB News in action, we must judge them at their word. Neil himself thinks, rightly, that a “British Fox” riding roughshod over Ofcom rules just wouldn’t be successful. “Overwhelmingly, Brits value impartiality and accuracy and, during recent years, in fact, the proportion of Brits thinking the BBC and ITV provide an impartial service has fallen.” GB News is keen to harness that particular audience, yes. But having spoken to numerous staffers, they are determined to avoid political bias, and to be robust in providing respectful disagreement more broadly too.

That’s the key point here: Ofcom’s rules that say “news, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality” still leaves huge scope to decide what to cover, who to interview, and how to present the stories. Those regulations require hosting various perspectives and doing so accurately. But we still live in a world with enough liberty for a new channel to attempt to reach an audience and hire journalists with different priors and interests to employees of the BBC or the Guardian.  And, you know what? That’s a good thing.

Daniel Hannan: Clever, inquisitive and, crucially, independent, Charles Moore would be the perfect BBC chairman

30 Sep

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Charles Moore is everything a BBC chairman should be: clever, inquisitive, independent, humane, well-read, polite, patriotic, broad-minded and generous to his critics. During the golden age of newspapers – roughly the years between the new technology brought in following the Wapping dispute in the late 1980s and the rise of online journalism in the early 2000s – he led the editorial field. His only rival, though their styles were very different, was The Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre, now being mooted as the next head of Ofcom.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have worked for both men. I don’t know Dacre well, but even slight acquaintance is enough to reveal the secret of his success, namely an unparalleled ability to speak to and for ordinary people. At a time when other newspapers were going online or throwing themselves on the generosity of patrons, Dacre’s Mail remained both popular and profitable. A newsman to his fingertips, he filled the editor’s chair with his restless energy and curiosity. With almost all media struggling to make money, he is exactly the regulator we need: fair-minded, diligent and committed in his bones to freedom of speech.

I know Moore rather better, having spent seven years working for him at The Daily Telegraph. He was, as any Telegraph writer of that era will attest, a wonderful boss. Patiently and intelligently, he improved every section of the paper, from the sports pages to the weekly children’s pull-out section. He always stood by his people – he once went to war against the Prince of Wales’s office because it had treated a Telegraph photographer badly – yet he was impervious to flattery. The newspaper he edited reflected his voracious interests. He cared a great deal about accuracy, and hired several Labour-leaning lobby correspondents – perhaps on the principle that a Leftist reporter on a Rightist paper would always strive to be objective.

The BBC stands to gain enormously from his involvement. As he did at each of his newspapers, he will take a benign interest in every aspect of programming, from comedy to cookery. He will ensure that the Corporation gets a sympathetic hearing in Downing Street. He will steer it through a landscape changed utterly by the rise of YouTube and Netflix. He will revive that sense of integrity and high-mindedness that we might loosely call Reithian.

This, naturally, is not the view of most Beeb staff. Have I Got News For You, the quiz show which arguably set Boris on the path to Number 10, Tweeted that if Moore became chairman, the BBC wouldn’t last another five years. One staffer described his mooted appointment as “the Corporation’s Stalingrad.”

In part, this is simply a howl of anguish from a Leftist establishment used to getting its way. It is striking how many BBC figures cite Moore’s Euroscepticism and Toryism as ipso facto disqualifications – even though the country voted for Brexit and then elected a Conservative Government. Implicit in the criticism is the notion that someone on the Right can’t be disinterested – or, more precisely, that the soft Left positions we associate with the Beeb are statements of objective fact. The ordinary viewer might think the BBC has certain prejudices – feminism good, austerity bad; immigration good, Israel bad; EU good, Trump bad – but to its editors, these are not prejudices but truths.

Moore’s critics display the close-mindedness that they falsely suspect in him. In fact, you won’t find a less partisan man. Moore started out as a Liberal back in the pre-SDP days when that party was still broadly liberal. His liberalism rested, and rests still, on a readiness to question assumptions, to think things through from first principles, to spot what others have missed. Successive Conservative leaders came to fear his pen more than that of any Labour-supporting editor.

His BBC critics, naturally, won’t be convinced by anything I write. A readiness to dismiss views from outside their tribe is part of their problem. But, if he gets the job, they will come to appreciate him.

For the BBC, as it is currently run, is obsolete. The problem is not that it is biased or expensive or out-of-touch. The problem rather, is that it is not feasible to fund a state broadcaster through taxes in an age of streaming. Yes, the BBC’s partiality has weakened it by alienating conservatives. But even if everyone agreed that it was run by the best, wisest and most neutral public servants, it would still not survive in its current form.

Some senior figures within the BBC recognise that change is coming, and want to take ownership of that change. The corporation, after all, has huge advantages. No broadcaster has a stronger global brand. BBC programmes are watched on every continent. Much of what it does would be commercially viable under any dispensation.

People are creatures of habit. Thirty years after privatisation, BT was still by far the largest supplier of landlines, with nearly 40 per cent of the market. Without the licence fee, plenty of viewers will still want to watch Strictly and Planet Earth and Eastenders. The BBC could more than hold its own as a subscription channel. Yes, some parts might be less viable than others – I never understood, for example, why the BBC felt the need to get into local radio, an area amply served by private suppliers. But there is every reason to believe that a more commercial BBC could become more popular as well as more efficient.

The way to ensure that that doesn’t happen, of course, is to resist all reform, to be dragged kicking and screaming into each new change.

A wise BBC will turn technological change to its advantage, aiming to emerge as a more successful and original content-generator while recovering its former place in our national esteem. No one would help it achieve that goal better than Charles Moore.

Dacre, Moore, Neil. Is triple change coming for the BBC?

27 Sep

Each weekday, this site publishes a list of public appointments vacancy highlights, in order to encourage conservatives to apply.  This may just be worth mentioning in the context of the Sunday Times‘ claim today that Paul Dacre, the former Daily Mail Editor, and Charles Moore, the former Daily Telegraph Editor, are tipped to be the next Chairman of Ofcom and the BBC respectively.

We got the list up and running in the wake of the Taxpayers’ Alliance reporting, during the early years of the Coalition, that “in the last year, five times more Labour people were appointed to public bodies than Tories”.

Its findings were followed on ConservativeHome by an occasional back-and-forth between Matthew Elliott, then of the Alliance, and the Cabinet Office, where Francis Maude was in place.  Elliott would write about the latest figures, suggesting that there was still an imbalance.  The Cabinet Office would fight back, arguing that Elliott’s statistics didn’t show the whole picture: for example, many appointments were made on a local and not a national basis.

A number of points became clear over time.  First, the Coalition gradually began to encourage its supporters to apply for posts, and some were appointed: William Shawcross at the Charities Commission, Peter Bazalgette at the Arts Council, David Prior to the Quality Care Commission.

Second, it became clear, as a Policy Exchange report said, that part of the reason there were fewer Conservatives on public bodies is that fewer of them applied in the first place, compared to Labour supporters.  This remains an issue: a further one is the relative inability of those who apply to negotiate diversity requirements – or, rather, the nature of those requirements in the first place.

Third, the reporting criteria has changed.  Candidates for posts now don’t have to declare if they belong to a political party – merely if they’ve been politically active during the past five years.  That’s extremely convenient from a civil service controversy-smothering point of view.

Our sense is that holding office for the last ten years has altered the balance a bit and that the Conservative presence in Downing Street, despite the discontinuity of having three different Tory Prime Ministers in office over five years, is alert to the issues, some of which are beyond its remit.  For example, it’s CCHQ’s job, not Number Ten’s, to take on the party political work of getting conservatives to apply for posts, and training them for interviews.

At any rate, if Boris Johnson wants Dacre at Ofcom and Moore at the BBC, it’s a sign that he himself understands the importance of appointments.  On the one hand, we think the Sunday Times is correct, about Moore at any rate.  On the other, it would be a mistake to think that Dacre would actually run Ofcom day-to-day if appointed, since it has a Chief Executive, Melanie Dawes, a former civil servant.

Moore would be a similar position at the BBC, where Tim Davie has recently taken over as Director-General.  Furthermore, neither appointment is in the gift of the Prime Minister or of anyone else: there are appointments processes.

Nonetheless, change at the Corporation is coming.  In a sense, it’s already arrived, because the BBC has lost Andrew Neil, its most formidable political interviewer and another former Fleet Street editor, to GB News, a new TV venture – and thus a challenger to the Corporation.

The appointment of either Dacre or Moore would horrify the BBC powers-that-be, but the former has said that he “would die in a ditch defending the BBC as a great civilising force”, while Moore thoroughly grasps the Corporation’s original Reithian mission – to “inform, educate and entertain” (in that order).

As for the Corporation itself, we repeat what we’ve written before: what’s required is fewer BBC TV stations, a reduced number of radio services, a scaled-back website, more spent on the World Service, a bigger presence for the Corporation outside London. In other words, less money plus the right reform – change that would leave a solid core of public service broadcasting with the BBC at its heart.