'PEDIGREE OF A TV WATCHDOG'
Daily Telegraph – 20 November 1986
TV has again been accused of political bias by a monitoring group. But how impartial are the monitors? Maurice Weaver reports
It was one of those uneasy Press conferences when the embargo was broken and the beans spilled. The Media Monitoring Unit, set up to provide a broadcasting watchdog for the political Right, had hoped to launch its first report with a bang yesterday but the contents had dribbled out instead.
Julian Lewis, its founder, said afterwards that he was glad he went ahead anyway. There weren't many papers represented – most had already carried the story. But BBC and independent television executives turned up in some force, hoping to observe in anonymity, lost in the throng, but standing out like beacons. "It shows we have hit the mark all right," he said.
The senior BBC man made for the exit before the conference ended. Peter Kenyatta, assistant head of current affairs, said in the corridor that he was there "informally, just out of interest". "Panorama", criticised in the report for a 24.3 percent Left-wing political bias, is one of his. But he was there to listen, not to comment.
Dr Mallory Wober, deputy head of the IBA's research department, explained that he was there "on my own initiative but with full approval". The IBA gets some stick in the report for ineffectual control.
The watchdog himself, Simon Clark, the unit's director, sat at the top table fielding questions with a confidence and articulation impressive for his slender years (he is 27) and positively amazing for one who has just emerged from a year in a darkened room glued to his television set.
Since the project began in 1985 he reckons he has watched, recorded, dissected and assessed 300 current affairs programmes, mostly "quite horrendous, really boring". A bachelor, he did it at his Hammersmith home, where he lives with a word-processor on which he personally typed up the 313-page, telephone directory-sized document which was the subject of the pre-empted launch.
That the result is a systematic slating of the broadcasting duopoly for exercising "a licence to be biased" had clearly surprised none of those sharing the top table at the Oxford and Cambridge Club. Lord Chalfont, who chaired the event, said he had reservations about some of Clark's findings but the overall conclusions matched his own convictions.
The Media Monitoring Unit was conceived and created last year by a small group of self-described Right-of-centre political activists. The driving force is Julian Lewis, 35, former Conservative parliamentary candidate for Swansea West, who holds a doctorate in strategic studies from Oxford.
He runs a political pressure group called Policy Research Associates which pops up now and again in debates on such matters as council corruption, trade union law and CND. Lord Chalfont is a patron as is Norris McWhirter, who founded the Freedom Association, and Edward Leigh, MP (Con., Gainsborough and Horncastle).
The increasing activity of the PRA and the decision to form the monitoring unit is indicative of a more aggressive approach in Right-of-centre circles to getting across its message.
Lewis says there has been growing concern that, whereas newspaper subscribers can choose their reading, the TV-viewing millions are limited to only four stations and two controlling bodies whose adequacy is questioned. To get the unit off the ground he approached Sir Peter Tennant, 75, a senior City businessman and adviser to the CBI. Tennant in turn drew together a nucleus of sympathisers, mostly from the City, who put up the £25,000-or-so to hire a director, buy a video recorder and publish the report.
Simon Clark, a freelance journalist, was head-hunted largely, it seems, on the basis of his past work as editor of a student magazine called Campus, a sort of undergrads' Private Eye. Clark insists that he is not a political chap and, speaking frankly, harbours "a deep distrust of politicians".
Lord Chalfont says he hopes the unit's report will provide those who are unhappy with the political content of the BBC and ITV with ammunition.
"This is a serious attempt to try to remove the anecdotal, impressionistic picture of TV. But it is not an academic document. It is apiece of journalism in which the facts are set down by a trained reporter."
He concedes that trying to categorise programmes as pro-Left or pro-Right can be difficult.
"There are grey areas. The Alliance is somewhere in there. But take it that Labour is Left, Conservative is Right."
Lewis says that even accepting that BBC-bashing is now a national sport, he hopes Alasdair Milne, the BBC's director-general, and John Whitney, his opposite number at the IBA, will take note. Now he is hoping to raise funds to keep the unit in business and already there are plans for political surveys of other programmes – perhaps television's drama output, the schools' service, individual one-off programmes looked at in depth:
"That should have a deterrent effect on the programme makers... no, you had better not say deterrent. Say cautionary instead. They'll get the meaning."