How the BBC made democracy just a show

Simon Jenkins

Where would we be without the BBC? Not content with usurping the scrutiny function of the House of Commons, it now purports to legislate. Yesterday it presented Parliament with a Bill to allow homeowners to shoot all burglars on sight. This was justified by something called a “listeners' poll” which a tame Labour MP, Steve Pound of Ealing North, had agreed to present to the Commons, sight unseen.

Each month the corporation strains to prove its people- friendliness by staging ever dafter stunts, backed up by obsessive and relentless promotion of its beloved website. These set out to find the best, worst or most promotable someone or something of the year, or of all time. Yesterday's listeners' law would empower all homeowners to “use any means to defend their home from intruders”. The Bill is a response to the prosecution of Tony Martin for killing a youth in his house with a gun. Lord Northcliffe is plainly alive and well and living in Broadcasting House.

The proposed law is spectacularly daft. Its champions want the word “reasonable” dropped from the present law, which allows the use of reasonable force in resisting an intruder. They declare that an attack on property should be no different from an attack on its owner. Anyone who assaults or kills a burglar even in cold blood should have to prove only that the intruder was an intruder.

I assume that this law has passed muster among the parliamentary draftsmen who must now be fleeing the Palace of Westminster for the Corporation's luxury suites in Portland Place. Yesterday the BBC Today programme, beside itself with excitement, dubbed its new creation “Schwarzenegger's Law”. Meanwhile the hapless Mr Pound was clearly embarrassed by having undertaken to act as the corporation's stooge. He might have hoped to become a hero of the airwaves by championing a Bill to save rhinos or uphold motherhood. Instead he must now sponsor legislation for what he predicts would be “the mass slaughter of 16-year-olds with pump-action shotguns” . That is what happens, Mr Pound, when you sell your soul to the media.

I wonder what stopped the Today programme from putting capital punishment to the vote? Why were we not allowed to vote for a law to castrate and disembowel child- molesters or string up asylum- seekers from lampposts? Did the corporation lose its bottle at the last minute? And who chose Schwarzenegger's Law for the vote? The BBC may have funked sponsoring the judicial killing of murderers but it is saddled with the non- judicial killing of trespassers. This is close to lynch law.

I have no doubt that the claimed “tens of thousands of votes” for the BBC's law are the work of the Tony Martin lobby. While Mr Martin was clearly guilty of manslaughter, I agree with his supporters that jailing him served no purpose and was unnecessary. But the result has been a campaign to legitimise all such violent acts in defence of domestic property. It is this lobby which the BBC is now committed to promote in Parliament.

The BBC governors can thank their lucky stars that another of their Bills made only fourth place. This demanded that prime ministers be ejected from office on completing two terms. The governors' guts would have been Downing Street garters had that won the day, just as Tony Blair was indicating his bid to rule for ever. Meanwhile a sensible Bill to permit wider organ donation was beaten, alongside a mad one banning all advertising of Christmas before December 1.

I should perhaps declare an interest in scepticism towards these madcap listener/viewer stunts. My championship of a threatened building in the Restoration series failed. Poor Bethesda Chapel in Stoke put a valiant case for rescue but failed to screen the “little old lady” who, I am told, holds the key to televisual success in this field. Certainly Bethesda's phone-in operation was nothing like as professional as that of the unthreatened Victoria Baths in Manchester, which won.

A huge effort from interested parties naturally goes into winning these league table polls. For Restoration the BBC induced the Heritage Lottery Fund to offer the huge sum of £3 million as prize to the winner, irrespective of who it was. Such a pledge from a distributor of public money must border on the improper. It was a grant not to a building but to the BBC, to distribute in effect as its producers chose.

These polls are up-market game shows. In their early days, the Tories were adept at hijacking them. The BBC would demand to know the most amazing woman of all time and find Margaret Thatcher thrashing everyone from Boadicea to Mother Teresa. As with phone voting so with the internet, such polls are easy to fix. Companies will do it for you. The BBC may try to guard against fixing, but not too hard. The essence is to be able to claim that “tens of thousands” participated.

Those who want to test public opinion on issues of public policy can always employ a reputable polling organisation. Pollsters use carefully balanced quota samples for a reason. The samples are cross-checked so as to be representative of the population as a whole. Trade unions and others organising elections or referendums call on the Electoral Reform Society to vet their excursions into the sacred franchise. Democracies insist on voter registration and sealed ballot boxes. Monitoring public opinion is hardly a new science.

Voluntary polls among consumers of particular programmes and owners of computer kits may add interest to a tired programme format. But they tell us only about netsurfers and insomniacs. They have no more legitimacy than a Question Time studio audience. Results are entirely dependent on the wording of questions and on in-house shortlisting. That they should be presented to Parliament with all the dignity of the nation's public service broadcaster is a mockery of democratic process.

Indeed I am amazed that MORI, Gallup and the rest have not registered a formal protest at such unscientific competition from the publicly-funded BBC. It is one thing for a newspaper to stage “telephone polls” in response to some overnight horror. They come today and are forgotten tomorrow. The BBC is claiming access to Parliament and should surely maintain higher standards.

Yet I am in danger of taking this too seriously. The Today programme is high-octane tabloid radio. It shrieks its bias and never allows debate to draw breath. It cannot use the word war without a background of guns, or the word money without the sound of a cash register. The show reminds me of the old Daily Mirror at its best. By that I mean it is unmissable.

The listeners' law may be game-show legislation but it has reminded us that law and order hold public priority. As long as government refuses to let local people dictate what sort of local policing they want, governments will be blamed for the public's patent sense of insecurity. If the police sit hidden in offices doing paperwork for David Blunkett, the public will put its faith in ever more draconian legislation and ever longer prison sentences.

In addition, the listeners' law offers another nail in the coffin of Parliament. Broadcasting and the press are already more assertive than MPs in holding the executive to account. It was left to Private Eye to reveal the full monstrosity of Gordon Brown's 2001 disposal of the entire Inland Revenue estate of 600 buildings. He sold it for just £220 million to a tax-avoidance company called Mapeley Steps registered in Bermuda. This sale and gold-plated leaseback deal were astounding. Yet Mr Brown and his junior minister, Dawn Primarolo, were let off by MPs scot-free.

The collapse of the parliamentary arm of the British constitution invites the media to supplant it. Accountability abhors a vacuum. The Commons no longer behave in any sense as scrutineers of government or as a check on legislation. They merely date-stamp the latest Blairite ectoplasm. If the people's representatives will not do what the Constitution expects of them, self-appointed tribunes will take their place. Journalists and broadcasters will be the proxy exponents of the public will.

Which brings me full circle. There is virtue in the listeners' law after all. I have debated it for an entire column. I am sure that the BBC would declare this as no more than their original intention. A listeners' law is better than no law at all. Where indeed would we be without the BBC?