Some thoughts on the way forward for the BBC on impartiality
Impartiality is a practice, perceived bias is inevitable and viewpoints should be treated equitably not equally
In this age of fragmentation, polarisation and disinformation, I believe the BBC is needed now more than ever.
It’s therefore been difficult to watch the last week play out as it has and consider the potential impact on public support for the organisation.
I hope it proves to be a minor bump in the road, prompting a necessary clarification/adjustment and isn’t successfully co-opted by those hell bent on running the BBC off the road and into a ditch.
As an independent review of the BBC’s social media guidelines gets underway, it strikes me that acknowledging a simple but fundamental truth about impartiality could go a long way.
Namely, that impartiality is a learned practice that professionals deploy in the course of their work, not a character trait that applies to individuals in all areas of their lives.
It is not just possible, but inevitable, that journalists and presenters needing to practice impartiality in some or all of their work, will hold their own opinions about politics and society more generally.
No one is naturally impartial.
This is reflected in the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of impartial: “able to judge or consider something fairly without allowing your own interest to influence you”.
Switch out “judge or consider” for “assess and present” and you’ve got a half-decent working definition for BBC journalists and presenters.
The current BBC guidance on individual use of social media is predicated on journalists and high-profile presenters not allowing their personal opinions to escape into the public domain in order to maintain the illusion that they are free of opinion.
However, that’s an increasingly big ask, especially of non-News staff and those who don’t work exclusively for the BBC.
Directives such as “Avoid ‘virtue signalling’ – retweets, likes or joining online campaigns to indicate a personal view, no matter how apparently worthy the cause”, aside from unhelpfully conflating showing support for causes with a loaded and pejorative term, can feel like quite an imposition.
In addition, the line between private and public is much more porous than in the days of exclusively gatekept media. A private WhatsApp chat can become public in the time it takes to upload a screengrab, exposing the subject as a real person with opinions and biases.
It feels like time to state the obvious and acknowledge that BBC presenters do all have opinions and that holding those opinions doesn’t automatically undermine their ability to practice impartiality in their work for the BBC.
The alternative is perpetuating the myth that the BBC could/should staff its ranks with politically and socially agnostic drones or somehow contrive an equal number of employees on either side of any political fault line (left/right, leave/remain).
Absurd, right? And yet this is how so much of the media frames the conversation about impartiality and the BBC, totting up the number of presenters and senior managers whose political leanings have become public knowledge.
Surely the focus should be on whether BBC employees, whatever their personal political persuasions, are behaving inline with the BBC’s impartiality guidelines (which need to be regularly reviewed)?
The word ‘fairly’ in the Cambridge Dictionary definition is also helpful when considering impartially and the BBC, unlike the word ‘equally’ in Google’s definition (provided by Oxford Languages): “treating all rivals or disputants equally”.
Like the E in DE&I, the BBC’s pursuit of impartiality should be about treating topics and viewpoints equitably, or fairly, rather than equally.
The BBC’s impartiality guidelines do touch on this: “Impartiality does not necessarily require the range of perspectives or opinions to be covered in equal proportions”, but it had to learn this lesson the hard way on climate change and still seems to find it challenging at times, especially when it comes to domestic politics.
Whilst well intentioned, Gary Lineker’s post-resolution tweet on Monday misunderstands the Director General’s role vis-a-via impartiality. It is not Tim Davie’s job to keep everybody happy.
As per Emily Maitlis’ MacTaggart Lecture, “We show our impartiality when we report without fear or favour”, which is definitely going to mean not keeping everybody happy.
Again, the BBC’s impartiality guidelines do speak to this: “We must always scrutinise arguments, question consensus and hold power to account with consistency and due impartiality”.
However, both the impartiality guidelines and the individual use of social media guidance use a word that can rub up against this and I which think needs a fresh look: perception.
As in, “Nothing should appear on your personal social media accounts that undermine[s] the perception of the BBC’s integrity or impartiality.”
The question is, whose perception? Suella Braverman’s? Jeremy Corbyn’s?
It is not possible for the BBC to avoid perceptions of bias and too much of a focus on perceptions of impartiality (rather than the pursuit of actual impartiality) can be problematic.
When I used to check the daily audience feedback summary whilst working at the BBC, I was often struck by how often there would be a similar number of accusations of bias from both sides on divisive topics.
YouGov data paints a similar picture of overall perceptions of BBC political bias, with 22% believing the BBC is more favourable towards Labour and 18% believing it is more favourable to the Conservatives (27% think it’s generally neutral and 32% don’t know).
As well as reflecting the extent to which we, the public, view organisational impartiality through the prism of our own biases (the 22% and 18% can’t both be correct), this fairly equal split feels like a good indicator of the BBC mostly getting it about right from an impartially point of view.
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