George Osborne and the BBC 'bias' row: How the chancellor made the BBC – and not cuts – the story

Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government.

The dictionary definition of a diversion is "the action of turning something away from its course" and George Osborne successfully used this tactic when bashing the BBC over its coverage of his autumn statement.

When asked about the Office of Budget Responsibilities' (OBR) prediction that state spending would fall to the levels of 80 years ago, the chancellor attacked the BBC over a report by its assistant political editor Norman Smith which suggested he was returning Britain to the deprivation of the 1930s as depicted in George Orwell's book The Road to Wigan Pier.

As John Humphrys tried to ask questions about the OBR projection, clever George railed against (dictionary definition: vehement denunciation) the BBC coverage, claiming it was “hyperbolic”.

And to be fair to Osborne, not a phrase often heard, he had a point when attacking Smith’s early morning comparison with what he called “the book of doom”. It was over the top but Osborne went too far himself in claiming the whole of the BBC was biased and launched into Humphrys for questions he raised four years ago.

He was not only trying to kill the messenger but also attempting to obfuscate the predictions of the OBR and to make the story the BBC and not more cuts and he succeeded.

Smith, who has recently been promoted to assistant political editor, behind Nick Robinson and James Langdale, went too far when attempting to bring the OBR prediction to life with comparisons of what Britain was like in the 1930s, and he has got form for it.

The Times diary, edited by the excellent Patrick Kidd, first spotted problems with the excitable Smith a few weeks ago with the following item:

“Is Norman Smith, No 3 on the BBC political staff, after a new career as an actor? Twice last week he broke off mid-bulletin to exercise his inner thesp. In a report on the latest Euro-snub to the PM, Smith gave us his Robert De Niro, barking in a bad Brooklyn accent: “Ya talkin’ t’me? Ya talkin’ t’me?” Three days later he claimed that George Osborne’s threat to oil companies over passing on falling prices was “like the heavy in the Crombie overcoat with the big shoulders”. Having adopted the pose, Smith put on a cockney accent and growled: “Ere. If yer know what’s good for yer, keep yer prices daaan.” Both clips have been removed from the iPlayer.”

Someone in the political department has got to tell Smith to calm down and not to give politicians of any colour the chance to get themselves off the hook by attacking the BBC.

Predictably, after Osborne’s rant the usual suspects on the Tory right, who perceive the BBC to be a hive of socialists, went on the offensive, making claims of institutionalised bias and threats of removing the BBC funding. More hot air, more hyperbole but lapped up by the papers that already dislike the BBC, the Telegraph, Mail and the whole of the Murdoch press.

Will it come to anything? No. Although the Prime Minister’s spokesman also backed Osborne, the killing phrase from Downing Street was that “no formal complaint would be lodged with the BBC”.

Smith’s report was very early on the Today programme, as were Andrew Gilligan’s claims of a “sexed up” Iraqi intelligence dossier, but there the comparison ends.

Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government

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