An impartial view
Raymond Snoddy delves into the conundrum of impartiality as BBC staffers seek to safeguard its value in the classroom
When the BBC faces a crisis of any kind the natural instinct is always to launch a time-consuming initiative and give it a fancy title.
The latest is a particularly interesting variant – compulsory impartiality training for BBC staff.
To the suspicious mind, this will clearly imply that the BBC, which has historically treasured its reputation for impartiality, must now have a serious impartiality problem.
Naturally, the course is called 'Safeguarding Impartiality'.
There are a few minor problems with such a Corporation-wide initiative, not least when thousands of people are sitting down in Safeguarding Impartiality classes they cannot – by definition-be engaged in actually making impartial programmes.
Rather more importantly, how do you currently define impartiality which once worked fine in a two-party political system where you could give approximately equal airtime to Conservative and Labour, and politicians did not on the whole blatantly and systematically lie?
BBC director-general, Tim Davie is right of course in placing restraints on BBC staffer’s ability to opine on social media or go on political marches and in setting-up a register for the speaking and chairing engagements of on-screen staff.
But even Davie seems a little muddled on what contemporary impartiality in broadcasting actually means, although no-one is suggesting there are easy answers to the conundrum.
Davie himself in recent speeches and interviews has highlighted the difficulty.
With Safeguarding Impartiality he clearly wants a more impartial BBC.
But Davie doesn’t want dull reporting and says the BBC should favour “flavoursome reporting” in order to counter “the sizzle of partiality” which has spread throughout the online world and beyond.
At the same time, Davie also wants the BBC to work harder than ever “to expose fake news and separate fact from fiction.”
How the hell do you do that? Call out lies in the middle of live interviews even when the perpetrators are senior Cabinet ministers, not excluding the Prime Minister himself who often seems to have a particularly loose grasp of the facts?
The BBC was given a master class on the issue on Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show from CNN’s Gloria Borger who has covered the activities of many U.S Presidents.
Borger has had to cope with reporting four years of lies from about to be ex-President Donald J.Trump.
When a President says X and we know that that is not true, verifiably factually untrue “ you have to be able to say it,” said Borger.
Andrew Marr’s response?
“Gloria Borger, that’s dead interesting. Thanks very much for joining us.”
The main problems for the BBC in applying impartiality, or its younger sibling “due impartiality,” are the deep divisions in British society that go far beyond conventional politics.
They range from generational rifts, the North-South divide, the threats to the survival of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the continuing skirmishing across the Brexit barricades.
The BBC’s own audience research shows that the over 50s think the BBC is stuffed with Islington lefties, while students believe it is part of the right-wing establishment.
How can you devise a working model of impartiality that bridges such chasms and such different perceptions of the world and even what constitutes a fact?
Perhaps before launching Safeguarding Impartiality, the BBC should have launched a pre-initiative initiative to decide first what impartiality actually means now.
Another problem facing, at least for the perception of how impartial BBC coverage is, involves the moment-by-moment scrutiny of news coverage by social media warriors who do not wish the Beeb well.
Why, they demanded to know this week, was the lying BBC not covering the fact that the UK now had the highest Covid-19 death rate per million people in the world, according to an Oxford University-bed research group?
People only see what they want to see, or to be precise the small part of the enormous BBC news output they happen to watch and judge.
The story was covered by the BBC World Service in the middle of the night but not, apparently in the main television bulletins. Radio 4’s Today programme presenter Nick Robinson was also robust with Priti Patel on the issue.
Perhaps a better grasp of impartiality would make more room for analysis – such as highest death rates in the world – which falls a little outside the more conventional definition of 'news'.
There is another threat to perceived impartiality and that is apparently partial appointments at the top of the BBC.
Twitter vultures have pounced on the fact that director-general Davie is a former Tory local councillor and the incoming BBC chairman Richard Sharp is the former Goldman Sachs banker who was once chancellor Rishi Sunak’s boss. Sharp has been a generous donor to the Conservative Party in the past.
There you have it, proof positive of the Conservative conspiracy at the very top of the supposedly impartial BBC.
Except that Davie was only a member from 1992 -1996 and since he joined the BBC in 2005, he has shown no signs of political partiality in his various senior jobs.
As for Sharp, we will see but there is extensive psychological evidence of appointees leaving their political tendencies at the door and adopting the values and responsibilities of their new position.
It happened with two previous Tory appointments to the BBC chairmanship - Stuart Young and Duke Hussey who both defended the BBC’s editorial independence against political attack.
Sharp might however, have come better prepared for his appearance before the Commons Culture Committee.
When asked the oldest sucker-punch question in the book, what were his favourite BBC programmes, he replied that he had liked Andy Pandy as a child – a preference that obviously created a few headlines. Luckily Sharp added that he also liked watching Fleabag with his old mum.
But is all this talk of impartiality mere deflection activity in the face of the realities just revealed by the National Audit Office: complacency about an exodus of younger viewers, a drop in the number of licence fee payers and a financial crisis that could lead to a 20 % drop in BBC output.
No. Trust, somewhat battered of late, is still the BBC’s most precious currency.
For that to be restored and safeguarded, the BBC has to wrestle the impartiality issue to the ground. But impartiality has to include calling out lies from wherever they come with greater prominence and immediacy than the work of the Reality Check team.