Monday, August 13, 2007


'Yes Minister' Author Pleads Guilty to Crime he Didn't Commit

Anything written by an author of Yes Minister is likely to be interesting or revealing and Anthony Jay's piece in yesterday's Sunday Times was both. Seizing on a recent BBC admission of its 'liberal bias', Jay, who worked for the corporation 1955-64, fascinatingly elaborates from his own experience.

But we were not just anti-Macmillan; we were anti-industry, anti-capitalism, anti-advertising, anti-selling, anti-profit, anti-patriotism, anti-monarchy, anti-empire, anti-police, anti-armed forces, anti-bomb, anti-authority. Almost anything that made the world a freer, safer and more prosperous place – you name it, we were anti it.

This mindset has a resonance for like yours truly and many of my peer group. Jay's analysis of how it was formed starts with the simple but revealing insight that: 'the two principal ways of misunderstanding society: by looking down on it from above or looking up at it from below.'

To look down on society from above, from the point of view of the ruling groups, the institutions, is to see the dangers of the organism splitting apart – the individual components shooting off in different directions until everything dissolves into anarchy. To look up at society from below, from the point of view of the lowest group, the governed, is to see the dangers of the organism growing ever more rigid and oppressive until it fossilises into a monolithic tyranny.

Both offer true perspectives but neither is wholly correct. The former is the traditional viewpoint of the ruling elite, the bosses, worried about how their positions can be justified and maintained; the latter is the outlook of the lower orders, the worker, man in the street. Bosses, conservatively, like things to remain as they are; workers, more radically, want more rewards, status, freedom.

Jay observes that the media liberal hostility to institutions was not necessarily shared by the public at large: 57% in a recent poll said 'broadcasters often failed to reflect the views of people like me'. There is much in Jay's piece to commend and to interest, but it seems to me he is being either a little too hard on himself, or has swung excessively close to the 'top down' point of view.

The ruling elite's perspective is valid of course, but don't they have rather a lot of cards in their hand compared to the rest of us: money, authority, control of the instruments of the state? Surely the 'bottom up' viewpoint needed to be articulated? Especially, one is impelled to note, on today, the 188th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre. Without the consequent synthesis of the two perspectives, the changes in our society to make it freer, fairer and less like the gloomy, oppressive fifties, would never have taken place.

Interesting post.

Except something doesn't add up: Jay thinks that the world is a freer, safer and more prosperous place thanks to Macmillan, patriotism, the monarchy, the British empire, and authority. Not quite.
It's ironic that the BBC has "come out" about this alleged liberal bias at the same time that its headline news coverage is increasingly populist and sometimes right-wing (in the traditional conservative sense, ie tight on immigration and law and order but with a large helping of noblesse oblige in the economic sphere).

Last year I went to a lecture by the head of BBC news, in which he defended emotive news coverage. But for "emotive" read "sensationalist", which in turn implies "populist".

Most of the BBC's programming is still "liberal", but BBC news no longer fits the stereotype.
Re your first comment, that's exactly what I thought. Mind you, I suppose I'm part of the same 'liberal consensus' in many respects- and none the worse for that, say I.
Don't tell Iain Dale. he'll print another story about BBC bias against the Tories.
I wrote about Yes Minister a while ago. Not surprised you're a fan, anyone interested in public life can't fail to be. Many are amazed at how it has remained so topical - think about it, Hacker grapples with ID cards, Trident renewal, funding of the arts as against funding of sport, bribes to and from Arabian countries with whom Britain is trying to make a buck, ‘jobs for the boys’, appointments to the EU, honours doled out in return for favours, wastage in the NHS, banning of smoking, and on it goes.

The reason is that when writing the scripts the first thing they did was go back to the newspapers of the 1950s and look for things that were still current for them (the 1980s). And it was the same old things that nearly 50 years on are still current today – all the things I mentioned in the previous paragraph and many more besides.

I have the feeling that for as long as there is a Britain Yes Minister will be topical. One might give up in frustration and conclude that the great debates of British public life will never be resolved. Or one could take comfort in the fact that we will always have our pet whinges to quarrel over.
Pol Ump
Yes Minister is the best sit-com ever made- but I am prejudiced being a political anorak.
I'm minded to agree. A post I did about it a while ago was one of the most popular I've done this year, so seems many are of a similar view.

What I wrote about was quite scary actually - that the EU is going to adopt Hacker's solution and subsidise the French wine makers not to produce anything in the first place, instead of producing something the EU has to buy and then pay someone else to destroy.

The fact that Hacker's solution is less ridiculous than the present situation is, frankly, terrifying.

P Ump
Fair point Political Ump, but my post was not on the EU, it was on liberal values in the BBC.
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