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28/07/2017
BBC Radio 4

    Feedback - Should the BBC always be impartial?

    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 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:

    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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