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01/08/2015
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Robin Day

Sir Robin Day and I were having one of our many arguments about the coverage of Ireland.

It was over 30 years ago. The veteran TV interrogator, with his “cruel glasses”, was in his prime and I was his very young programme Editor. There was a consensus between the two frontbenches in Westminster that the future of Ireland, indeed the possible reunification of North and South, should not be discussed. I thought it should.

I argued that the conflict in the North had been going on for almost 15 years, with great loss of life, property and the maiming of many innocent bystanders. It showed no sign of ending. Several opinion polls had indicated that between 40 and 50% of the British people thought that British troops should be brought back to the mainland. Surely the audience in a democracy should be allowed to hear the arguments for and against?

Robin’s view was that it was Parliament which set the agenda in a democracy. “After all”, he said, “no one elected us”.

I thought of that exchange again this week when reading the latest report from the BBC Trust on impartiality. Stuart Prebble, the former Chief Executive of ITV who is its author, argues that the BBC’s journalists, though in general doing a pretty impartial job, are too often influenced by the Westminster hot-house, and that the network journalists, now all brought together in their spanking new newsroom in London, home also to the World Service, could fall prey to the dangers of “groupthink”.

The danger is that voices from the rest of the country and from the margins of debate could be excluded.

In Feedback this week I talked to Stuart Prebble about his report. 

Feedback reports on the BBC Trust's latest impartiality review and hears listeners' views.

Also this week, as a result of listening to last week’s discussion on Recycled Radio, we were sent this song by David Summers. We couldn’t play it in all in Feedback but here it is in all its glory.

Dave loves Recycled Radio so much that he dedicates his song to anyone who doesn't.

By the way did you hear the two old 69 year old men talking on the Today programme?

I refer of course to Mick Jagger and John Humphrys. Sir Mick showed real talent as an interviewer. He got John to reveal that he will never retire but intends to present Today for as long as he is wanted. I’m not sure how well that news will go down with some of the BBC's younger presenters!

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Comments

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  • Comment number 7. Posted by All for All

    on 13 Jul 2013 23:39

    Held under the Chatham House rule, the discussion reported with no attribution of comments, the BBC Trust Seminar on Impartiality and Economic Reporting, on 6th November 2012, with 39 attendees including the Trust Chairman, several Trustees, many BBC staff, and figures from academia, the CBI, the TUC (a media officer), and the 'Institute of Economic Affairs'.

    There was recognition of complexity, uncertainty, and difficulty for all concerned, not least the lay audience, but disagreement was reported on whether coverage by the BBC "should reflect a consensus view… where there is one", or whether it must "reflect the range of opinions even if parts of that range are minority views". As to who should declare 'consensus', and who should define 'the range', indications were only indirect, implicitly with risk of settling for any old challenge to "a dominant narrative", likely to reflect pressures from 'the usual suspects', never for the BBC to risk 'making the news' with challenge beyond the establishment-scripted.

    Anxieties were shared over the use of provisional official economic statistics, some participants wishing more focus on measures of policy performance, in welfare or education for instance. It is left open to doubt whether any participant mentioned duty to report on the meeting or not of conditions for enduring equality of material means for political influence, so central to 'representation' in democratic decision-making.

    Blaming deficiencies of reporting on the need of journalism for "news to be new", and on the need of TV for "interesting pictures", may be missing the real difficulty in both 'the real world' and its reporting', namely that all decisions are framed by
    personal insecurities, whether of fear or greed or both, and that 'higher decisions' are made by the employed and well-rewarded, with what appears indifference to the undeserved unemployment or working poverty of others, and with relevance to 'people and planet' only incidental.

    The general view is reported that the BBC "did a good job", and that the BBC must address the "gap in public understanding", meaning of economics rather than of representation. Without the support of an informed public, the BBC will continue to find difficulty in "questioning".

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by This is a colleague announcement

    on 13 Jul 2013 09:51

    People, understandably, take impartiality to relate to the editorial handling of matters covered by the BBC in the first instance.

    However, there's a much more subtle, and manipulative form of bias which passes many by, with notable exceptions such as Tony Benn.

    That is, "what they don't tell you on the BBC". By this we do not mean omissions from coverage of a given topic. Rather, the refusal to acknowledge the existence of certain topics, and the scope for very pertinent propositions etc., at all. In other words, the ongoing creation of elephants in rooms.

    One such one would be the unstated, but scrupulously adhered to acceptance of the Principle Of Irreversibility of any Tory, especially the Thatcher government's so-called "reforms". The slightest possibility is virtually never mentioned, and if it is, it's accompanied by a case against.

    On the other hand, the consensus politics of the Attlee government and it's achievements are discussed in much the same way as the Slum Clearances, and as if this is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by john lancaster

    on 12 Jul 2013 12:47

    I think the BBC would be seen as more impartial if they had reported the comments by Harpal Kumar, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, in this morning's discussion on the Today Programme. He was discussing the report that the Government is not at present going to make a decision about blank cigarette packets. He said quite strongly that he disagreed with this decision, because it is well-known that cigarette smoking causes deaths from cancer, and if the packets contain advertising, this will encourage young people to take up smoking, and to continue smoking for many years.

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by JunkkMale

    on 12 Jul 2013 10:57

    'Does Ms. Boaden understand the thinking..'

    Possibly only too well.

    On the plus side things are improving.

    Last time she had an outing on matters BBC & state of play, the comments took an ironic turn and stopped at... two.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/aboutthebbc/posts/helen-boaden-director-of-bbc-news-at-the-lse

    All uphill since then, eh?

    Getting to four (now) is a 100% improvement. One expects the BBC to run with that in the unique, if semantic way they have of sharing their 'achievements'.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by This is a colleague announcement

    on 9 Jul 2013 21:33

    Impartial? It easily suggests an absolute, but is almost always necessarily relative in practice.

    Some people even demand a numerical balance: equality of tough questions for one side v. the other, but they miss the point.

    That rests on norms, and the problem the BBC has is that it is not explicit as to what these are. However, if one side's case departs more extremely from these than another (whatever they may be) it's only logical that it will be exposed to more difficult questions than the other.

    It's rather like Speaker Bercow's critics accusing him of bias. It is indeed his job to be biased against unparliamentary conduct, and so if one party displays this more than another it can only expect proportionately more censure.

    The country (whatever that is) has a problem in that it really has no working definition of society (who started that?) and so "we" don't know where to begin in defining social and many other norms, about which the BBC can be clear in adopting as references for impartiality.

    I would not expect this to be easily settled.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by Lawrence Jones

    on 8 Jul 2013 07:58

    I would like to know when Ms. Helen Boaden is going to be interviewed on Feedback in her new role as director of radio? Like many serious radio listeners, I was extremely disappointed when she didn’t attend her leaving interview (with Feedback) after her appointment as head of News. Ms. Boaden is a huge radio fan and so it would be good to hear her views on the future of radio.
    Some topics for discussion:

    Why isn’t Feedback commissioned by all the BBC radio networks (i.e. they all share the cost)? It’s clear over recent years that Feedback is terrified of upsetting the R4 controller – thus diluting the programme to the point where it is a complete waste of time. Why doesn’t Ms. Boaden make it mandatory for producers, editors etc to attend interviews on the programme and forbid R4 controllers to interfere with the programme (either directly or indirectly). If this weren’t the case, Archers features wouldn’t be discussed on the programme so frequently.

    Does the R4 obsession with the south and Oxbridge concern Ms. Boaden? I was listening to an Oxbridge graduate taking part in a radio quiz (on R4) a few months ago and she couldn’t even identify the introductory music to ‘Breakaway’. A reputation for (alleged) intelligence is no indication that a broadcaster will possess an ability to bond with a radio audience. Quentin Cooper isn’t an Oxbridge graduate, doesn’t possess a Ph.D or university chair and I doubt if he longs to acquire a gong, yet he bonded strongly with radio listeners.

    Does Ms. Boaden understand the thinking behind this mysterious Woman’s Hour ‘Power List’? A former WH presenter admitted (on air) recently that she’d never used a power drill in her life and so I was left wondering what posh southern women do if they need to erect bookshelves? Surely a powerful woman should be skilled at the application of a power drill?

    What is Ms. Boaden’s thinking in respect of attracting a new generation of radio listeners? Does she think the person who appeared in The Villagers ‘Nothing Arrived’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDEzRraYgA8 ) a typical male R4 listener?

    Does Ms. Boaden think the quality of radio producers is improving/declining?

    Hope these questions are useful.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by newlach

    on 6 Jul 2013 12:53

    "Is the BBC Impartial?"

    Not an easy question to answer. I would suggest, however, that any organisation dependent on what is effectively a tax to survive must show due consideration to the views of those who could decide to end its funding. The views of MPs are therefore especially important.

    The view of Robin Day is interesting: he always robustly challenged his interviewees but on the wider issue he thought it wrong to challenge. Only after politicians determine what journalists can and cannot discuss does he turn into an attack dog. Much too cosy for my liking, but it might it explain why he got a knighthood and why Mr Bolton is, well, er, still waiting!

    The Royal Family. One of them cuts a ribbon somewhere and it is news - why? A Royal Correspondent - why? A lack of critical reports on how much they cost taxpayers - why?

    David Summers is the new Richard Stilgoe!

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