There has been a lot of guff written following Evan Davis’s ‘challenging’ line of questioning for the Prime Minister last week.
The first thing to say is that Davis has a point. There are plenty of middle class (and more elevated) people out there who did things in their youth that could and perhaps should be regarded as criminal. How many rugby clubs are festooned with ‘liberated’ street signs and the like (criminal damage, theft); how often do university undergrads fall down drunk on a Saturday night (drunk and disorderly); how many sports teams have serenaded late night travellers with renditions of raucous and pretty offensive songs (threatening behaviour); and how many youthful parties are too late and too loud (breach of the peace)? And that’s without even mentioning drugs….
So if Davis’s point was that throwing the book at relatively minor misdemeanours and ‘low level’ criminality would have blighted the careers and life chances of many current leaders in politics, business and elsewhere, it was a good one. It is a perfectly reasonable question to ask: if some of the allegations made about the Bullingdon Club were true and had led to criminal prosecutions, where would its leaders be now?
To take the point further, we do need to acknowledge that there is no one class of ‘rioter’, and so there should be no single response to the riots. The person who nicked a bin, or the person who accepted a pair of stolen shorts, did stupid, naïve and often dangerous things that deserve punishment – but not to the extent of ruining their lives. It is the people who attacked the police or fire-bombed a shop or looted a warehouse or, of course, injured and killed passers-by who deserve and will no doubt feel the full force of the law. These actions are serious crimes that can never be excused by a suggestion of ‘youthful stupidity’ – and, as David Cameron’s supporters might just possibly point out, they can never be compared to the actions of a few braying hoorays, however loutish and offensive.
So much for the content of what Davis had to say. What is perhaps more interesting is that he felt able to say it at all.
It is probably stretching the point to read too much into one, slightly left field, interview question, but we are in interesting territory with the UK media right now. From the perspective of the average punter, a significant day-to-day impact of the rise of BSkyB over recent years has been on the behaviour of the BBC. Having the Beeb in a state of perpetual paranoia about its own funding and about any sign of better treatment for BSkyB and News International was at least a check, conscious or otherwise, on the Corporation – and to an extent on its interviewers. But with politicians seemingly now going out of their way to distance themselves from all parts of the Murdoch empire that check has, to a large extent, disappeared.
Within the constraints set by Lord Patten and the Trust, the BBC, the Today Programme, and Mr Davis can take whatever tack they choose to, asking questions of our leaders that may well prove to be difficult, irritating and inconvenient. Good for them. A bolder BBC will be a valuable check on the coalition Government, and is particularly needed whilst the Official Opposition is in its current hopeless state. But if the BBC tilts over into being fatuous, aggressive, and needling we will all start to miss the previous balance of power – and the Conservative right-wing, instinctively suspicious of what it sees as a nest of Guardianistas, will begin to get agitated. So I for one back Evan Davis, and hope he continues to be bold – but I also hope sincerely that he isn’t careless with his new found freedom.