The BBC should drop the faux impartiality

The bias of broadcasters is plain to see. It is dishonest for them to pretend otherwise.

Liam Deacon

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Topics Politics UK

Another day and another impartiality and balance controversy at the BBC. One controversy at the weekend was over a reporter’s claim that a police officer at the Black Lives matter demo ‘knocked herself off her horse’. The BBC reported the clashes as ‘largely peaceful’ despite 27 police officers sustaining injuries, leading to accusations that it had played down the clashes. Conservative minister Kemi Badenoch has even accused the BBC of ‘fanning the flames racial division’ with its coverage of the protests.

Last week, Newsnight stirred the pot again by presenting some questionable coronavirus numbers. It followed presenter Emily Maitlis’s display of overt bias when she presented an opinion on Dominic Cummings as fact while claiming ‘impartiality’. This rightly provoked a backlash. She overstepped an invisible line, the BBC said, in a rare and rapid admission of error.

But her misstep was one of many. The endless war that Ofcom and the BBC are fighting to suppress all bias in broadcast news is futile. It leads only to dishonest reporters and distrustful viewers. Bias permeates all news reports. It always has, it always will. Now that alternative media are so freely available online, people are seeing through the bias and running out of patience with fake claims of ‘impartiality’ on TV.

Many older broadcasters are dismayed by this new vogue for editorialising. Alastair Stewart, former ITV News presenter, criticised Maitlis and defended the ideal of broadcast impartiality. ‘An impartial broadcast media is one of the pillars of a pluralist, democratic society; so, too, is a newspaper industry which offers readers a daily reassurance of their prejudices – left, right and pretty well everything between’, he argued.

But why is this arbitrary division desirable? And is it even enforceable anymore? The distinction our regulators draw between papers and broadcasters – allowing the first to be biased and bombastic and forcing the other to be bland and ostensibly ‘impartial’ – is unjustified and outdated. It is rooted in the snobbish view that the masses are more likely to be whipped up by exciting moving images on a screen than by the written word. The division is also increasingly meaningless as papers run video content online and broadcasters like Sky upload much of their content to YouTube. There is no longer a clear line between these two types of media.

Broadcast news bulletins, like papers, can only have one lead story. And the simple decision of what to make the lead story – what news to present as most important – says a huge amount about the lens through which that broadcaster sees and understands the world. If a BBC editor chooses to splash on a new report on the gender-pay gap instead of a migrant boat landing in Dover on the same day, it says something about what they believe, fear and value, even if they quote opposing views within the report.

I recently had Sky News on all day, mainly for company in my home office. One giveaway is the reporters’ choice of language. The disturbances in America were ‘peaceful protests’. You could also hear the naked disdain in Adam Boulton’s voice when speaking about Donald Trump.

Words and tone are subjective, and it is possible that they can be perceived differently. What can be more objectively judged, however, is what editors do and do not choose to report. Sky focused on the police’s heavy-handed use of tear gas in Washington, DC and on critics of the president, who were unimpressed with his vanity visit to a damaged church. In the rolling package, which occupied most of the day, there was little mention of the riots, looting and evening killings in other cities. The focus, in my biased eyes at least, was clearly on the actions of authorities, not the rioters. Were it not for all the breaking news articles I was reading online, I might have believed that what happened in DC was indeed the primary event of the day.

The following night, BBC News ran a long segment on slavery and historic injustice in the US before showing friendly interviews with families attending a Black Lives Matter protest in London’s Hyde Park. They created a narrative. Meanwhile, the clashes in Whitehall, which I had just watched play out on Twitter, vividly and in real-time, got a short mention at the end of a report, described as ‘disturbances’.

Every segment is gently caressed, intentionally or not, with the biases of the producer or reporter, even when it is presented by the most robotic BBC talking head. We can’t blame them for this. Everyone has values, knowledge systems and mechanisms for understanding the world, and these have to be called on when reporting on the world.

There is no objective reality in the complex world of social interactions, human emotion, politics, economics and even science. As we are finding out during the coronavirus crisis, not even science is absolute. It is often an ‘approximation to the truth’, as the philosopher of science Karl Popper once called it. Any organisation claiming to know where the correct balance of views is on every subject which makes it into the news is telling a tall tale.

And as broadcast reporters so routinely fail to meet the impossible goal of impartiality, while insisting to the contrary, they inadvertently imply that the views conveyed in their reports must be the right ones. This angers viewers who disagree, while rousing those who back the view – witness, for instance, how Dominic Cummings’ critics rose up to defend Maitlis. This exhausting, almost daily process of a biased report provoking a critical backlash online, before a backlash to the backlash forms, is unhealthy. It always ends in accusations of bad-faith reporting, which deepens mistrust journalism.

Sometimes, it seems like the BBC is caught in a perpetual impartiality crisis. The BBC, understandably, comes under far more scrutiny than most because it is funded by the public, under the threat of state violence. Corbynites became convinced the Beeb was whipping up claims of anti-Semitism, Scottish nationalists thought Auntie was pro-Union, and the Conservative government is convinced it is anti-Tory. The BBC welcomes the fact that it receives criticism from different sides as this can be held up as ‘proof’ of its impartiality. But really this is a sign of abject failure. Essentially, the BBC manages to anger almost everyone apart from the soft liberal-left.

The alternative to enforced impartiality is to allow broadcasters to campaign, preach and deliver monologues as they wish. Critics say this will coarsen debate and will lead to a media landscape dominated by conservative ‘shock jocks’ and liberal crusaders, like in the US. But right now, I cannot see how public debate can get much coarser. Sure, strong views are more readily heard on screen in the US, but at least they are honestly held views. Our culture of faux impartiality is breeding an extra layer of dishonesty.

Online output is already dominated by partisan but passionate voices. Drawing a sharp line between podcasts and radio, online shows and TV shows, and webcasts and broadcasts is pointless. There is nothing special or uniquely powerful about a newsreader at a major broadcaster. Alastair Stewart at ITV or Emily Maitlis on the BBC are no more likely to spark civil unrest if they give their views on air than a popular YouTube star (who will often have many more viewers). To argue that ‘an impartial broadcast media is one of the pillars of a pluralist, democratic society’ is to assign a select few legacy media brands a special power which they no longer have.

As the power of old media wanes, the era of faux impartiality should also come to a close. The rise of social-media censorship aside, a more diverse online media landscape is hopefully emerging, where all voices, ranting or otherwise, are represented and viewers are treated as adults, able to deal with different viewpoints.

Liam Deacon is a writer. Follow him on Twitter: @LiamDeacon

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK

Comments

Steve Turner

15th June 2020 at 8:05 pm

I think Channel 4 news is far more biased than the BBC and ITV news programs. They make no pretense to be impartial. The complete and utter contempt they display when mentioning Boris or members of his cabinet is plain to see.

NEIL DATSON

9th June 2020 at 7:33 am

This article is right on target. It is not the BBC’s biases that are indefensible but its unique right to tax the people.

Jack Sprat

8th June 2020 at 11:22 pm

BBC brags on its website that it is a trusted source of news. However it can’t be trusted and has a standard procedure for fobbing off complaints of breach of its own editorial policy. An example is a news item claiming “ whites get paid more than all ethnic minority groups “ however comparable data shows showed Chinese and Indian paid more than white British and most Asian ethnic groups paid more than white ethnic minorities. Clear and serious breach of editorial standards of truth were fobbed of as “ people will not always agree with us “ . Further challenge exposed astonishing ignorance of basic race equality legislation and refusal to provide an address for a formal complaint of BBC racism

Mike Coops

8th June 2020 at 10:37 pm

The BBC are not fit for purpose,whilst they fail to report accurately once again they have often allowed many of their lefties on several BBCs HYS forums to abuse openly Priti Patel. Their bias is sickening and the TV licence tax should be abolished.Time for them to stand on their own two feet and not live on the backs of others.The public are their slaves.

L Strange

8th June 2020 at 10:33 pm

The current funding model is untenable. They either need to become a commercial channel or a voluntary subscription service. Either way, they will then be obliged to create content that their customers actually want, rather than that which the BBC believes they should have. As it stands, the public are forced to foot the bill for their own manipulation and deception. This is grotesque.

We’re constantly told that the BBC is “the envy of the world” and a “national treasure”, though mostly by the BBC themselves, in which case it will thrive under the new arrangement.

steve moxon

8th June 2020 at 10:12 pm

The Boob is beyond any pale. Its systematic lying about the nature of domestic violence is ubiquitous and daily, and I regularly submit complaints citing the decades of science papers showing mainly female perpetration, thus refuting the Boob’s entire position. I submit my own science review papers on the topic. The Boob never ever concedes any factual inaccuracy or bias, no matter how blatant, in disrespectful, insulting replies from BBC Complaints and the Boob’s Editorial Complaints Unit. Their stategy is to make it always pointless to complain so that most people just give up.
Never ever pay the Boob’s poll tax. Not under any circumstances. It’s ‘identity politics’ central. The Boob’s about little else but hate-mongering towards the general populace.
A disgusting anachronism that deserves everything that’s coming to it.

nick hunt

8th June 2020 at 10:45 pm

BBC controllers are scientifically-illiterate, and my jaw still drops at the infamous memo leaked in 2018, which informed news staff that they could henceforth exclude ‘climate deniers’ (now analogous to witches or racists), just as they would “someone denying that Manchester United won 2–0 last Saturday. The referee has spoken.” They clearly think science is like the Oracle of Delphi, when it is really ‘belief in the ignorance of experts’ (Feyman). In this respect, the BBC are as ignorant as our embattled government. For an analysis of how scientific illiteracy rules us and is a vital ally of closed ‘progressive’ minds, allow me to promote my own article:

https://medium.com/@nickhunt_41682/how-not-to-become-a-climate-crisis-fear-monger-e6cf65168c21

steve moxon

9th June 2020 at 7:36 am

Yes, there needs to be sustained challenge to the Boob that it is indeed across-the-board scientifically illiterate, and — as you say — notably re supposed anthropogenic climate change. The Boob is willfully ignornt of the entire ‘electric universe’ new paradigm, so everything it broadcasts re cosmology is bunkum. Everything it broadcasts about the sexes, about the nature and basis of prejudice, racial difference … all utter nonsense, and all though the Boob having not even elementary scientific understanding.

Neil John

9th June 2020 at 3:00 pm

Yes every item about domestic violence during CCP virus lockdown has always been more of the man hating kind, no mention of the men forced to try and set up a workspace at home getting abused by wives who don’t want them under their feet all day, nor the female/female violence lesbian couples are well known for, as a Union rep I’ve had to help with examples of both, but with the BBC bull getting the employer to believe the reality is almost impossible.

Dominic Straiton

8th June 2020 at 9:29 pm

What is going to happen when Trump is re elected? Its time for the BBC to go. They can become an offshoot of CNN . They can use the murder of a black man to try to get a senile old white man elected. Or a magic grandpa. It obviously wont work. The electorate arnt that dumb anymore.

Philip Humphrey

8th June 2020 at 7:53 pm

It’s definitely time to drop any pretence of or requirement for impartiality, it simply doesn’t work. That’s why I think that defunding of the BBC is inevitable, it needs to be a subscription station paid for by those that want to watch it. And we need our own equivalent of Fox News to counterbalance the left wing Channel 4 and BBC. The writing’s on the wall for the mainstream media journalism anyway. Already some YouTube bloggers get bigger audiences than some mainstream TV journalists and presenters. Probably because they have more talent and cover stories the mainstream media willfully ignore.

Christopher Tyson

8th June 2020 at 7:09 pm

‘Ideology’ is a bit of an outdated word but that is what we are dealing with. The liberal media, or liberal/left, or metropolitan elite… is a class of influential people in society who hold the same worldview. For them, we have reached the end of history, they have found the correct way, everybody else is either trying to catch up or dubious, contrarian, odd, bigoted, or something of that nature.
Tolerance and impartiality are by definition part of their world view. Reaming in the EU is for them self-evidently the correct option, black lives matter are for them inherently deserving of the support of all reasonable and/or intelligent people. They are themselves by definition the most intelligent and/or reasonable people that it is possible to be.
These ‘journalists’ have not even posed one question about the organisation of BLM. This publication has in the past be subject to exposes by supposed liberal journalist (actually it’s usually the same bloke), I’m not proposing a hatchet job ‘who’s paying them’ kind of thing, but some elementary questions about what their politics are, who they affiliate too, their views on free speech, and in all seriousness their position on Brexit, at least to rule them out (as the police say), of any ulterior motives or agendas. I would bet that they are remainers, ask them the question, do they have a political programme? It seems obvious to me that they do, you cannot sustain a movement on one slogan, a good slogan for a one off demo, in time the winning, sympathetic and successful slogan begins to look like a cover for something else. At least ask them the question.
Not just the BBC, but other supposed impartial parts of the British state have accepted BLM at their own estimation, as far as they are concerned BLM are what they say on the tin, above politics, and committed to doing nothing but good. Supposed journalist just accepting what they are told.
If it turned out that BLM were supported and organised by well known left wing groups, I suppose that would be okay too, I mean left wing is good, right?

Arthur ASCII

8th June 2020 at 6:29 pm

The BBC is obliged to maintain the fiction of impartiality, so long as it is funded by the effectively compulsory license fee. How could it overtly reflect its undoubted biases under this payment model?

Linda Payne

8th June 2020 at 10:32 pm

I’m cancelling my direct debit – I’m not paying for ultra left fascist propaganda

steve moxon

9th June 2020 at 7:40 am

I haven’t paid the obscene poll tax for 40 years. I used to write in to ’em annually inviting them to court, giving ten reasons why under any circumstances would I ever pay. They never responded and I gave up with the ritual.

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