The BBC’s appointment of a Labour candidate as the new economics editor of its flagship politics show has provoked genuine anger in the Conservative Party. Sources at Tory HQ reacted not with faux outrage but actual bewilderment at how a publicly-funded broadcaster required by its charter to remain politically neutral could make such a flagrantly partisan hire.
“Arthur Scargill would be a more objective appointment,” one quipped. He wasn’t laughing.
There is no question that Duncan Weldon is a talented and respected economist. He is admired greatly on the left and, it is true, by some on the right. Though his complete lack of any broadcast experience whatsoever – in fact Weldon’s journalistic qualifications are so limited he has not yet even had a job at a newspaper – raise questions about how on earth he was possibly the strongest candidate to apply.
Inevitably, those questions focus on his links to the Labour Party. Weldon was an economics adviser to Labour MP Harriet Harman when she was acting leader of the party in 2010, before Ed Miliband took over.
Earlier that year, Weldon had been a Labour Party candidate at the local elections, winning 1,300 votes in Crouch End. There is some doubt over whether or not Newsnight bosses were aware of this detail when they announced his appointment.
Since then, Weldon has worked as a ‘senior economist’ for the Trades Union Congress, the federation of trade unions of which many are affiliated to the Labour Party and are major Labour donors.
Weldon has also blogged extensively on politics and economics, regularly praising the Labour Party and attacking the Conservatives. Writing on the Labour website LabourList in 2009, he described Tory economic policy as “folly” and said it “would lead to an economic disaster”.
Given this was a barely credible view at the time – let alone that prophecy hardly coming true in the following five years – Weldon’s predictive powers do suggest the licence fee payer may not be getting the best value for money.
Just last year Weldon used his blog on LabourList to endorse Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls’ policy of increasing borrowing as making “perfect economic sense”, writing that “the Government’s current fiscal framework” has utterly failed and that Balls was heading in “the right direction”.
Weldon has also written for left-wing blog Left Foot Forward and Class, the trade union funded think tank backed by socialist commentator Owen Jones. His personal blog describes itself as offering “economic commentary from a Labour supporting fund manager”.
This is just the latest in a number of left-wing appointments at the BBC which have stirred up Tory paranoia about the national broadcaster’s inability to remain politically neutral. In the Newsnight economics editor job alone, Weldon’s predecessors were both left-wingers: Paul Mason is a Marxist and Stephanie Flanders used to date Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. Newsnight’s new editor Ian Katz is the former deputy editor of the Guardian. The BBC’s new director of strategy James Purnell is a former Labour cabinet minister.
With the BBC’s charter up for review in 2017, with the Tories already paranoid about bias, and when we are about to enter an election year, the decision to appoint a Labour candidate in such a senior position reporting news is a bizarre provocation.
Ironically, it may end up with a more right-wing approach from Newsnight. Weldon will be under immense pressure to report in an impartial way; any deviation from fair and balanced reporting will be seized upon by the Conservatives.
It is entirely possible that this will have the effect of encouraging Weldon to over-compensate and be more critical of Labour and less of the Tories than a neutral candidate would have been. If he doesn’t, expect a whole lot more moaning in the months running up to the election.