“Never fight a battle on terrain of the enemy’s choosing”, advises Sun Tzu in the Art of War. In which case I definitely shouldn’t be on the BBC Any Questions panel tonight in Wrexham, North Wales.
Perhaps this audience will be different. Perhaps – as Douglas Murray was once astonished to find when he went to Leamington Spa – it will be full of achingly sound right-wingers who cheer to the rafters any call for smaller government, lower taxes, and less pussyfooting around with Islamist extremism. But I doubt it. Conservatives, libertarians, classical liberals and freedom-lovers generally have better things to do on a Friday evening than sit in a church hall listening to a panel of MPs and hacks bang on about politics. That’s much more of a left-liberal-ecoloon obsession.
And this isn’t just an Any Questions problem but a BBC problem generally. Every time I’m asked to appear on a BBC programme be it Radio 4’s Today or Woman’s Hour or Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show, or a documentary like that Horizon stitch-up, or BBC2’s The Daily Politics, I always ask myself the same question: “What is the bloody point?”
It’s not for the money, certainly. BBC fees are very modest and are poor compensation for the time and stress and disruption. (They no longer give you First Class train tickets for Any Questions: sad because it’s the only occasion in my life I ever got to travel First Class)
Nor is it for the thrill of being on radio and TV. (Been there, done that: I don’t even bother these days to ring up all my relatives to tell them I’m on).
Nor even, I don’t think, is it for “the Brand.” Not in my case. Not unless “the Brand” I’m trying to promote is “James Delingpole: the right wing **** you just lurve to hate!!!!”, but what would be the use in that? My target audience is the type of person who might seriously want to buy my books, not the sort who wouldn’t read anything I’d written even if you forced them at gunpoint.
So why do I do it? Simple. Because the left-wing broadcast media – and I include the similarly left-wing, similarly publicly funded Channel 4 – is pretty much the only broadcast media we have in this country. Sure we have Sky, but Sky is way, way to the left of its US equivalent Fox News. Then we have ITV, which doesn’t really do politics. And Channel 5 which isn’t very watched.
So, basically, if you want to be on TV and get a political view across, your choices are to appear either on a channel which is grotesquely, hideously, institutionally left (BBC, Channel 4) or really quite surprisingly left given that it’s owned by the same people who own Fox (Sky). In other words, Hobson’s Choice.
This leaves you with only two options: do these programmes when you’re asked to appear on them; or don’t do them. I still haven’t made up my mind what the sensible course is.
To some, like Richard North, you should say “No” on the Sun Tzu principle outlined above.
To others, like Douglas Murray – who doesn’t half enjoy a ruck – you should say “Yes” on the principle that for evil to prevail all that is necessary is that good men do nothing.
I see sense in both these arguments, but reflecting on my experiences of the last few months, I’m beginning to think that North’s cynicism is better founded than Murray’s optimism.
This isn’t to say you can’t go on the BBC and occasionally score points.
On Today, the other morning, I was able to mount a deliciously satisfying assault on BBC1’s achingly right-on new director of programmes and his silly plan to replace all middle class comedy with echt, grimey working-class comedy.
On the Daily Politics, I was able to get Green MP Caroline Lucas to admit (proudly, she claimed) on camera that she was a watermelon (green on the outside, red on the inside) and to expose the fascistic bent of her party’s manifesto.
But these were essentially lucky breaks in a hostile environment. I only got away with the Today attack because the working class comic who’d been recruited to disagree with me violently ended up taking my side and agreeing BBC comedy was way too PC and that the BBC’s only comedy commissioning criterion should be “Is it funny”. And if the Lucas attack was a victory it was only a Pyrrhic one. The programme had been framed in such a way – nice Caroline Lucas sits beamingly in a chair and talks caringly about the importance of recycling – that the moment I attacked Lucas, I cast myself as the nasty, aggressive, uncaring person being horrid to a nice, middle-aged lady for no obvious reason. Lucas played this role to the hilt: if she didn’t no one would be mad enough to vote for her.
But these tiny, partial victories are the exception rather than the rule. Generally, when a right-leaning person goes on the BBC, his job is to act as the token nutter who must then be shafted.
This was my job, for example, on Horizon the other week which you can read more about here
(in Barry Woods’s guest post at Watts Up With That) and also here
in The Spectator.
And I think I’ve had enough of this. I think this Any Questions in Wrexham tonight may be the last I choose to do. I appear on these programmes because I believe the libertarian and conservative points I try to articulate are ones which need to be heard and simply aren’t made often enough. But it’s precisely because I do it for the cause and not for the self-publicity, the money or the self-aggrandisement that I am now starting seriously to wonder whether it’s worth it. Surely, no one in his right mind wishes to go into battle with one arm tied behind his back – which is essentially what conservatives/libertarians do, every time they appear on the BBC. Surely the sensible thing to do in the Culture Wars is only to fight battles when the fight is fair and you know you can win. Otherwise, you’re not really helping your cause when you heroically, stupidly lay your neck on the line yet again – but doing it a disservice.
Bishop Hill’s latest take on Nursegate can be found here
. He has harsh words to say about the deviousness of the BBC.