Bias at the BBC?
I am not surprised that some readers of the Mail on Sunday, the Daily Mail and the Express are furious with the BBC. If I had paid my licence fee in good faith for an organisation which claims it is passionately committed to impartiality, only to discover – according to the Mail on Sunday – that the organisation itself has admitted it is biased, I would be pretty livid.
According to the Mail on Sunday, and other recent press reports, we have admitted that we are an organisation of trendy, left-leaning liberals who are anti-American, biased against Christianity, in favour of multiculturalism, and staffed by people who wouldn’t know an unbiased fact if it hit them on the head.
The Mail on Sunday based its story on a leak from what it called a “secret” meeting of BBC executives and governors, and claims that it was our former political editor, Andrew Marr himself, who confessed to the liberal bias of the organisation. His take was reinforced by Jeff Randall, who until recently was our business editor. “If they say it, then it must be true” was the thrust of the story.
Well I was one of the people who was at the "secret" meeting. and I have to say the reality was somewhat different to the way the press are reporting it.
For a start, this wasn’t a secret meeting... it was streamed live on the web. The meeting was made up of executives, governors and lots of non-BBC people like John Lloyd from the FT and Janet Daley from the Daily Telegraph. It was planned as a serious seminar to investigate and understand better the BBC’s commitment to impartiality in an age in which spin and opinion riddle much of the world’s journalism. The seminar was part of a bigger project kicked off by Michael Grade earlier this year to re-examine the underlying principles of impartiality in the digital age when boundaries between conventional broadcasting and the new platforms will increasingly disappear.
To keep us all on our toes, a rich variety of formats was used during the day. I was on a "Hypothetical" – where a panel of people in charge is given a series of mounting “real life” crises and asked how they would handle each of them. It was fun, occasionally illuminating, and often very challenging.
There was for example a heated debate about the whether or not a Muslim newsreader should be allowed to wear a headscarf. Jon Snow was all in favour. BBC Washington correspondent Justin Webb was vehemently against. I had deep reservations because I felt a scarf would be a distraction from the news but pointed out - in the interests of debate - that if we banned the headscarf, how would we justify that cross which I was sure I had once seen Fiona Bruce wearing. From this discussion emerged the wholly untrue newspaper story that the BBC had banned Fiona’s cross.
The point of the Hypothetical is to generate discussion, debate and ideas. The situations aren’t real; the discussions aren’t binding and they certainly don’t define BBC policy.
There was discussion of the BBC’s culture and some provocative points were made.
Jeff Randall made a few good jokes about the occasional examples of political correctness he found among some BBC colleagues. I remembered an incident about 15 years ago when a freelance reporter working for me on a programme about bullying in Feltham Young Offenders’ Institution asked me if it was acceptable to broadcast what they had discovered: that most of the bullies in Feltham at that time were black and most of the victims were white. Not only was it acceptable, I told the reporter, if he had evidence of this he had a duty to report it. And so we did.
Andrew Marr made some comments about BBC culture being more liberal than the rest of the country – points he makes in his book on journalism.
The main thing is, however, they were both giving their personal opinions. That is entirely their right and what they had been asked to do in the interests of discussion. I disagree with them. I found their claim of liberal bias unconvincing – based on anecdote and attitude rather than evidence.
The BBC employs more than 20,000 people across the UK. It is not a chattering class club of the kind depicted by the papers. It is a hugely varied organisation with many different cultures and a huge variety of opinions on every single issue among its staff. What does unite BBC staff however, is a deep commitment to BBC values and at the heart of those values is a commitment to impartiality.
When I first joined the BBC I asked a very experienced and subtle journalist what was meant by BBC impartiality. “It means we don’t take sides,” he said. “We don’t take sides either explicitly or implicitly. We test all opinion toughly but fairly and we let the audience make up their own minds.”
It’s a simple but absolutely correct definition which audiences see, hear and read in our output everyday. In the end, the personal views of our staff are not the point. The issue is that their views and opinions never stray on air.
And that’s where the broad audience comes in. What really counts is not what a group of BBC executives and VIPs think, or indeed what a few columnists believe. The important thing is whether or not our audiences think we are biased. And on that the evidence is robust.
Asked recently which of the four main broadcasters they would term "trustworthy", nearly two thirds - 60% - cited the BBC. In contrast, 26% said ITV, 16% mentioned Channel 4, and 14% Sky. (Mori, 2006)
That research is very cheering but it never allows us to rest on our laurels. Impartiality is not so much a fixed point as a process of open mindedness which should be the basis for everything we do in journalism.
Part of that open mindedness is being tested in exercises like the Hypothetical which ran at the impartiality seminar. No one has all the answers on any subject and debate and discussion are vital if we are to ensure that impartiality remains a living reality rather than an empty claim.
It’s a shame that the newspapers have made mischief with the seminar, but we won’t let this small storm put us off trying to get impartiality right.