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    Monday, 18 June 2007

    First look at the report on BBC impartiality

    The following guest posting was submitted by Masters student Zack Simons. It focuses on the publication by the BBC Trust of its report From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel: safeguarding impartiality in the 21st Century. The report was written for a steering group by independent programme-maker John Bridcut. We'd like actively to encourage comment and counterpoint. There has already been much commentary - some considered some gleeful - in the newspapers (1,2,3,4) and elsewhere (1,2), and of course its not a new topic.


    2007 has not been a good year for BBC impartiality.

    The Alan Budd report into the impartiality of the BBC's business coverage was released in May, finding that although there was no 'systematic bias', impartiality standards were frequently breached. Presenters often expressed personal product preferences, for example, or showed sycophancy, tacit bias or even overt aggression toward business representatives. One Radio Five Live interview with the managing director of British Gas began: "You're taking the mickey...".

    Meanwhile, already this month the BBC has issued a public apology to the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond for the "rude and dismissive" tone of 'Newsnight' presenter Kirsty Wark during an interview after it received 120 formal complaints (see here and here for similar). In January, Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, raged against the BBC’s ‘cultural Marxism’, arguing that ‘under the figleaf of impartiality’ the BBC was ‘imposing its own world view’ (1,2,3); Robin Aitken and Richard North have already published books this year claiming systematic left-ward political skew (the latter titled, with appropriate subtlety, ‘Scrap the BBC!’). So the findings of today's report ('From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel'), that bias does indeed exist in the BBC but that ideals of impartiality remain important, may not seem a particularly exciting discovery.

    Whilst the report explicitly refrains from attempting a definition of impartiality (referring readers to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy - how thoughtful) it suggests that: "impartiality involves a mixture of accuracy, balance, context, distance, evenhandedness, fairness, objectivity, open-mindedness, rigour, self-awareness, transparency and truth". Impartiality is also, at various times, ‘coat of many colours’, ‘the BBC’s USP’, ‘not a state of grace, but a state of mind’ and ‘an ‘elusive, almost magical substance’.

    Against such an apparently tall order, the report is optimistic. It contends that an expanded model of impartiality still has a central role to play, that it is still valued and expected by the public, even though technological and cultural circumstances are changing so that: 'In today’s multi-polar Britain, with its range of cultures, beliefs and identities, impartiality involves many more than two sides to an argument'.

    The report’s '12 principles' variously cover the points that impartiality is not easy to apply, that there are many ways of applying it, that there are many stages to its application and that, most of all, we need to keep trying to apply it: "it is a legal requirement, but it should also be a source of pride".

    It accompanies these assertions with an Ipsos-mori poll, which shows that 84% of the sample agreed (half of them ‘strongly’) with the proposition that impartiality is difficult to achieve, but broadcasters must try very hard to do so. Only 3% disagreed. Victory for impartiality.

    Yet, at the level of application, the report finds systematic flaws at the BBC, finding a "Roneo mentality", or group-think, that perpetuates 'liberal' values among BBC staff. The report also criticizes the BBC's deference to single-issue, celebrity-driven campaigns like Live 8 and Make Poverty History. It gives examples of anti-Americanism, anti-countryside bias, and some dubious observances of multi-culturalism. For example, BBC executives at an impartiality seminar admitted that they would broadcast images of a Bible being thrown away, but not the Koran for fear of offending Muslims.

    The consensus reaction to the report from the UK press has so far been 'tell us something we didn't know'. We have heard these multi-faceted, dynamic models of impartiality before. Peter Horrocks, the head of BBC TV news, gave a much-discussed speech in Oxford last year that prescribed 'radical impartiality' as the way forward: "the need to hear the widest range of views – all sides of the story. So we need more Taleban interviews, more BNP interviews - of course put on air with due consideration – and the full range of moderate opinions".

    Despite this kind of rhetoric, the new report finds that 57% of survey respondents felt ‘that broadcasters often fail to reflect the views of people like me’. Indeed, the demographic that feels best represented by broadcasters is ‘middle-aged ABC1s, readers of ‘quality’ newspapers, and supporters of the Liberal Democrats.’ Not so radical after all.

    Against such mounting empirical and theoretical evidence against ‘impartiality’ as an effective ideal, on first glance the BBC’s new report is an underwhelming document. It operates on the assumption that impartiality must be maintained, notwithstanding the fact that after almost a century of broadcasting, it has no adequate definition and seems nigh on impossible to sufficiently monitor or enforce.

    One wonders whether the issue here is less one of the relevance and practicability of ‘impartiality’ standards, than the BBC’s inability to let them go. With ‘impartiality’ comes justifications for universal service, for licence fees, for public-service broadcasting itself. And, beyond this, impartiality is a key, and very economically valuable, distinction for the BBC’s brand around the world. As Ian Hargreaves put it, the BBC ‘needs impartiality to survive’. Is it surprising, then, that today’s report so cheerfully recommends that these standards are worth keeping?

    Zack Simons.


    Andrew Scott said...

    The Guardian has reported the response of the Vicar of Dibley to the criticism to the criticism offered in the report regarding the inclusion in one programme of mention of the Make Poverty History campaign. On one level his comments are based on a fine distinction between humanitarian and political movements (which to my mind doesn't stand up) and the fact that the campaign was not partisan in party-political terms. On another level, though, his comments are important for what the ysay about the report and the manner it which it was put together - worth reading: see Dibley producer hits back at impartiality report

    Andrew Scott said...

    The Guardian also has a comment from John Lloyd (see What the Media are Doing to Our Politics)) in which he identifies the real issue with the BBC as being the need to "come to grips with complexity" which is thought the "inevitable consequence of pluralistic societies and democratic governance".

    He suggests that the nature of modern societies means that questions are (almost) always open so that "journalism that slips into easy judgments, implicit or explicit, often betrays itself", and that "those who present the arguments - the studio referees - are never better employed when they seek to draw out, rather than batter, the implications of argument" (cf Kirsty Wark with Alex Salmond of late!).

    This is good stuff, but it does elide two things: (1) the impetus towards simplification in television broadcasting that everywhere (bar honourable exceptions such as CH4 news and some current affairs programming) works against dealing with complexity, and (2) the impact that choice of voices (eg choice of interviewees / panellists) can have on the presentation of divergent / competing perspectives (see Georgina Born on this process in Newsnight).

    The article is followed by a mass of comments, which are more or less enlightening - see The BBC's bias is born of a shallow view of impartiality

    Andrew Scott said...

    Finally from today's Guardian is a piece on impartiality generally, and workplace/employee diversity, in particular... Getting the whole picture

    Andrew Scott said...

    Sorry, the producer of the Vicar of Dibley !!

    Andrew Scott said...

    For a 'corrective' on the view that the BBC is left-leaning and liberal, see Who should bombIran first? from medialens, or more generally, the medialens book Guardians of Power: the myth of the liberal media

    Anonymous said...

    The BBC has been praised for its more 'neutral' coverage of this weekend's Live Earth concert - see:

    BBC's Jonathan Ross makes carbon omission

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