Bias and Impartiality
Simon Pitt |
Sunday 16th February
As I’ve said before, I work at the BBC. In my six years there, I’ve had a few jobs, and now run a team that builds mobile apps. If I want to talk about the BBC or anything related to my work, I have to make it abundantly clear that the views I’m expressing are mine, and not those of the BBC. Last time I wrote this, I had a little rant:
When I say that I think something, that does not mean that is the considered view of the entire BBC. So when I say that I hate gherkins, this does not mean that the BBC, as an entity hates gherkins or that the BBC are announcing that Gherkins are objectively hateful. Nor does it mean that the BBC loves gherkins. In fact, to cut a long story short, whatever I say about gherkins bares no relation to what the BBC thinks about gherkins at all.
There’s a fun game I like to play, that involves finding people who work at the BBC, and seeing how they manage to squeeze this into their limited twitter biography section.
The BBC even does it to itself, putting in the page footer, “the BBC isn’t responsible for other webpages that have nothing to do with it.”
It’s reached rather a ridiculous point when the BBC has to have a legal disclaimer saying, “we’re not responsible for everything else that happens everywhere in the world ever.”
I find there’s something slightly strange about the phrase “these are my views and now those of the BBC.” Can the BBC actually have views? I mean, it’s a corporation, not a person. Do companies have views? It’s like Mitt Romney’s comments that corporations are people.
The word “necessarily” is crucial here. If I say “slavery is bad, but that’s my view, not the view of the BBC” (rather than “not necessarily the view of the BBC”), logically I’m saying that the BBC doesn’t think slavery is bad.
Of course, this all comes down to the BBC’s obsession with impartiality and balance.
The Agreement accompanying the BBC Charter requires us to do all we can to ensure controversial subjects are treated with due impartiality in our news and other output dealing with matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy.
I used to think this was a great thing. And, really, I still do. However, I’m starting to see that in attempting to ensure balance, the BBC often fails to challenge things that should be challenged. After all, impartiality doesn’t mean that everything should be treated equally, it means that everything should be measured objectively. So if the Conservatives say “we think tax cuts for the rich would be good,” that doesn’t mean the BBC then just needs to interview labour and call it a day. After all, all that will happen then is Labour will say, “we think tax cuts for the rich would be bad” and we’d be no further on. What impartiality means is that those views should be judged objectively, regardless of the fact that a political party on the right of the spectrum said them.
In fact, you could go as far as to say that an obsession with balance is actually making the BBC less impartial. The views of Labour, say, are no longer treated impartially. They’re treated as “the left wing view”, and the only way to challenge that is to get the right wing view. They’re no longer measured objectively regardless of their source.
Impartiality and balance are complex ideas, and you can see how it had got simplified into this bizarre, “some think this and others think that” dichotomy, with no value judgement made against the views themselves.
The BBC editorial guidelines also state that:
We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected.
And here is where another complexity comes in, I think. As a liberal type, I may not like this, but not all views are equal. There is a difference between an educated view and an uninformed view. It often seems that as much weight is given to views of the world expert in, say, economics, as to what a random person on the street thinks. Our culture of Vox Pops, creates a vicious circle, where the mood of the nation is captured on the news as fact and fed back to us at home, influencing the way we think
To be fair to the BBC guidelines, they do go on to say:
Due impartiality is often more than a simple matter of 'balance' between opposing viewpoints. Equally, it does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic principles.
But it’s easy to be nuanced in a conceptual, policy document. In reality, this subtly is often lost. Of course, the BBC is in a difficult position. Attacked regularly by the Daily Mail, the Government and y the many other media organisations that don’t enjoy a regular, safe income of £4 billion a year, it often has to defend itself against ignorant, nonsensical criticism, that is more emotive than logical.
If, say, the Conservatives say something that isn’t true, and the BBC challenges them on that, it may seem that the BBC is being left wing. They’re not, they’re being impartial. Similarly, if the Conservatives say something that is true, and the BBC interviews an academic that supports it, that may seem like the BBC is being right wing. Again, they’re not. They’re being impartial. However, for people who either like or dislike the Conservatives, it’s easier to argue for bias than it is to challenge their own views.
So, instead of impartiality, we get a simple flip flop of “they said this” but “these different people said this”.
But then, of course, this is just my view, and not the view of the BBC.