Trusting the BBC
Former BBC correspondent Robin Aitken has written a stimulating book on his experiences of working in the BBC - "Can we trust the BBC?" Last night I appeared in debate with him at the ICA in London.
Robin's case, to simplify massively, is that the BBC is full of left-leaning journalists who produce left-leaning news that is anti-European, anti-monarchist, anti-prison, pro-immigrant, anti-market, pro-public spending etc etc.
Robin delivered his polemic with brio. He is clearly enjoying the role as a controversialist, freed from the constraints of BBC impartiality. But I argued that his book wouldn't pass muster as a piece of BBC journalism, as it was strongly anecdotal and not based on firm evidence.
If the question is "Can we trust the BBC?", the evidence shows most people do trust the BBC. Survey after survey indicates the BBC is significantly more trusted than other broadcasters and more trusted than any national newspaper. The public which trusts the BBC includes many readers of right-of-centre newspapers. Those people clearly distinguish between a newspaper that might reinforce their views and the BBC's role in providing an impartial perspective.
However I acknowledged in the debate that there are subjects where the BBC has been too slow in reflecting the full range of public perspectives - in particular over immigration and Europe. I argued that that shortfall derives not from the personal perspectives of BBC journalists, whatever that may be, but from the particular institutional position of the BBC. Its relationship with parliamentary politics, while fully independent, has always been a close one and the BBC has tended historically to operate within the parameters of formal politics.
However the range of opinions in an increasingly fragmented population and the technologies, such as texting and e-mail, which allow these diverse opinions to be more easily expressed have obliged us to shift the balance between formal politics and public politics. This disparity has been one of the factors behind our coverage over the years on Europe and immigration. Opinion surveys show there has been a gap between the range of views within Parliament and the range of public opinion.
The BBC's commitment to interactivity - for instance through this site's Have Your Say section, through texts to Five Live, Radio 1 Newsbeat and News 24 - is providing an important new element that is feeding directly into our journalism. Although that can only ever be one influence on our editorial decision-making and in the end, we are paid to apply our judgment.
But listening to audiences more and being open to public criticism through debates and blogs (such as this) are ways in which we are able to demonstrate openness. We hope that greater openness will mean that the trust we already receive from audiences can be maintained and strengthened.