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Feedback - Should the BBC always be impartial?

Friday 18 October 2013, 16:34

Roger Bolton Roger Bolton

Editor's Note: You can listen to Feedback online or download it here.

It may come as a surprise to some listeners, and to some newspaper editors, but journalists who join the BBC have the concept of impartiality, and the need for it, drummed into them relentlessly. This does not mean that the BBC is always impartial, but that it genuinely strives to be so.

When I joined the Corporation as a callow 21-year-old, I remember my first boss saying to me “If you want to express your own opinions, go to Fleet Street”.

Fleet Street Fleet Street 1971

I stayed, but over the years, as I began to edit current affairs programmes, I became aware of the dangers of too much 'impartiality'. It could lead to reporters failing to come to a judgement when they were paid to report what they saw and discovered, particularly if it was in a controversial area, or at the time of an election. And how could you be impartial over genocide, for example? In the 1980s Norman Tebbit attacked the BBC for saying it was not impartial over the issue of apartheid. Should it have been?

On the other hand, the idea that one was impartial if one represented the consensus in a 'balanced' discussion, excluding so-called ‘heretical’ views, could also be flawed. On that basis, a modern day Galileo would not have been invited to give his views.

After all, science advances by challenging the orthodox. The outsider often deserves and needs not the same but extra time, since his or her views will need greater exposition than those already inside the mainstream, which are relatively well-known and understood.

I became aware of how difficult it was to give new and challenging voices airtime when, in the 1970s, the Conservative politician and thinker Sir Keith Joseph began to make speeches about monetarism. The temptation was to give them little airtime, if not dismiss them entirely, because such ideas were not then part of the mainstream debate.

Similarly, during The Troubles, there was a front bench consensus in Parliament as regards the future of Northern Ireland, and as a result there was no proper examination of the case for Reunification. "It’s not an issue", I was told.

It was in Ireland.

The coverage of climate change and its causes yet again raises what constitutes balance and impartiality, when the overwhelming - almost universal - consensus of climate change scientists is that such change is happening and that man has caused a considerable amount of it.

This is how we dealt with the World at One’s decision to interview an Australian geologist, who is a climate change ‘denier’ following the UN Report on Climate Change:

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Reporting climate change

In next week’s Feedback I’ll be talking to David Jordan who is responsible for the BBC’s editorial policy about what constitutes impartiality in politics, sport, and every part of the BBC’s coverage. I am particularly keen to explore what he means by ‘due impartiality’. Do let me know what you would like me to ask him. It’s your show.

Roger Bolton

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    This one's for the 'correct use of BBC English' Dept.

    Increasingly, the BBC in it's News output, either News Announcers or BBC correspondent omit the definite article- 'the'. The omission occurs most when referring to 'the UK'. May I refer you to tonight's 6pm R4 News for an example. It will be found in a feature around 6.05/10pm; where the Correspondent referred said.... '..in UK'. -unquote.

    Could you ask the 'BBC English Dept monitors to check it out -and give me a reply?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Should the BBC always be impartial?
    What a ridiculous question.
    Have you forgotten that the BBC charter requires it?
    Have you forgotten that we live in a democracy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    And your labelling of scientist Bob Carter as a "denier" is a disgusting and pathetic attempt to associate climate sceptics with holocaust deniers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    If BBC management were seriously committed to the concept of "due impartiality" Thought For The Day would be opened up to include non-religious contributors. Instead, sermons by religious contributors attacking anything humanist or secular are allowed to go unchallenged. Why is David Jordan on the side of the religious and an advocate of gross unfairness?

    What is he doing to ensure that in the run-up to the Scottish referendum on independence there will be "due impartiality" and no "undue prominence" given to of either of the two opposing campaigns?

    If the Scottish Nationalists perceive that they are getting too much negative coverage and the people vote for independence, will the BBC lose the licence fee collected in Scotland much quicker than expected?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    What the BBC has to realise is that no professional engineer with extensive process plant experience can accept the heat transfer claims in IPCC Climate Alchemy. Neither can any professional physicist with a good knowledge of Radiation Physics.

    13 mistakes in the physics include a bad mistake by Sagan so the cloud physics is wrong, also a failure to understand Tyndall's experiment. So, there has been AGW from polluted clouds but there is next to zero CO2-AGW. To cap it all, the claim of 'back radiation' is a failure to teach correct physics in meteorology and the soft sciences: there is no such energy source, a perpetual motion machine of the 2nd kind.

    So BBC, do you stick to junk science just because people like Steve Jones, a biologist, pronounce on science of which they haven't a clue, or do you give time to experts who state very clearly why IPCC Climate Alchemy is fundamentally wrong and has been so for 32 years since this paper: 1981_Hansen_etal.pdf which falsely claimed 33 K GHE when it's really a third of that?

    PS the climate is now cooling with a strong chance of a 1 in 200 years Northern winter with bitter cold already in Europe and the USA.


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