Tony Benn: 'Newsnight would have treated suffragettes as troublemakers'
One might think that Tony Benn is as much a part of the mainstream media as the Today programme or Sky News, given the regularity with which he pops up on television and radio as a pundit and all-round polemicist.
He wouldn't forgive you for thinking so, though, because he regards himself more as a thorn in the side of a cowed news agenda, which answers to "interests" rather than what is actually going on in the world. "On the whole, the media will reflect the Establishment view," he says.
"It's not so much that the media is biased. It's just what they report and what they don't report. We get the Dow Jones Industrial Average every hour. I've never met Dow Jones, but he does work very hard. Supposing every hour they publish how many people are dying of starvation in the world, how many are unemployed, how many are homeless. Debate centres round what we hear, and on the whole, the media represents what I would call a conventional view of everything."
As a longtime Labour politician and grass-roots activist, Benn is as much a sacred cow of right-wing media as he is a treasured leftie. His first job was as a BBC producer, so he understands the business well, yet still hopes it might swing from privileging financial issues to covering worthier international issues.
Benn is not entirely critical of Britain's media, and describes himself as a "passionate supporter" of the BBC, although he believes "the role it plays delays progress". Nelson Mandela, he points out, was described as a "known terrorist" in 1964, and Benn was denounced by the media for speaking in support of him in Trafalgar Square. Newsnight, he believes, would never have invited suffragettes on to the programme, "and if it did, it would have treated them as troublemakers".
Of more recent events, he says that if anyone had suggested nationalising the banks a few years ago, the proposal would have been met with laughter.
What about the reporting of the crisis? "It has been described in terms of the people in the City. What about all the people who are going to lose their jobs? Whose homes will be repossessed? The news is dominated by Wall Street and the City, and elected leaders such as Bush and Brown just comment on it. What is happening now was being predicted and warned against for ages, but it was never mentioned, which was destructive."
Benn, at 83, is unswerving in his dedication to the cause, but modestly describes himself as an "unqualified classroom assistant to the nation". It is in this capacity that he is speaking at next weekend's Free Thinking Festival of Ideas, in Liverpool, hosted by BBC Radio 3. "Thinking is the thing that matters, encouraging people to think and ask questions," he says. "That's the way forward."