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Reporting in complex times

Craig Oliver Craig Oliver | 10:28 UK time, Tuesday, 19 June 2007

It used to be so simple.

BBC Ten O'Clock News logoA generation ago the concept of impartiality amounted to giving "both sides of the argument". It was assumed that - give or take a little - it was enough to allow someone to state an opinion, someone else to disagree with it - and as long as you gave them roughly equal time, you'd been impartial.

The world of politics confirmed that this was the right approach - there was a clear spectrum, where people tended to fall on the left or the right.

A report this week into the concept of impartiality at the BBC called this the "see-saw" approach, easy to understand and implement - but patently unworkable in today's diverse society. (Read the full report here [PDF].)

Britain is now home to a variety of groups with often strongly diverging opinions on how the world should be run and people should behave - the report used the analogy of a "wagon wheel", something with no fixed centre, and with spokes shooting off in all directions. The idea of a wagon wheel certainly helps remind editors that we live in complex times, and should strive to reflect that in our reporting, but it doesn't help you to remain impartial. So the report has come up with 12 ways to help ensure impartiality.

Those points are extremely useful - and here are the things I remind myself of when I come up against complex issues:

• No one thinks they're biased, so a good editor always challenges his or her own assumptions about a story/ the world.
• You can't always give the full range of views in one report. Fortunately you can return to the big issues of the day time and again.
• Sometimes views that people think are offensive need to be heard
• The BBC is for everyone, but if a certain group's views are not often reflected we won't fully understand the issues (and members of that group will simply switch off).


  • 1.
  • At 11:41 AM on 19 Jun 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

What a lame excuse for practising biased reporting. So by agreeing to this philosophy, BBC is saying that there is no way to debate or examine an issue, to represent all reasonable points of view so we will just present our own and leave it at that. Well I have to give BBC credit for inventive novelty if nothing else. So now that you have agreed that a fair representation of all or most or even the two or several of the most widely held or strongly supportable alternative ways of seeing something cannot be presented to your audience, do you openly admit to reporting bias by presenting just one, your own? It's a conclusion your critics such as me have often expressed but you have vehemently denied when you chose to respond at all. What say you now or do you choose to ignore this alternative point of view as well?

  • 2.
  • At 12:13 PM on 19 Jun 2007,
  • Keith wrote:


If thats your understanding of the report then sadly I don't think anythings going to change really.
The core problem is the group mindset of a large part of the BBC staff that is avowedly left of center and the way this is relected in the reporting of various issues.
One particualr line in the report illustrates this, in response to the statement 'Broadcasters often fail to reflect the views of people like me' the lowest level of agreement came from 'readers of quality papers and Liberal Democrat supporters' no prizes for guessing which newspapers those might be then, Guardian anyone??

No thats not me cherry picking one comment to reflect my views, I have read the whole report, just think it illustrates very well the problem the BBC has and may finally be recognising.

You could certainly start by cutting off the oxygen of publicity to Mark Regev, and giving some to the oppressed peoples of Palestine instead.

  • 4.
  • At 12:38 PM on 19 Jun 2007,
  • Simon Carter wrote:

Dear BBC.

Why oh why is there no balance in the BBC news reporting.

Take the recent Salmone Rushdie reports over his knighthood. All I here is reporting on the damage this is doing to British interests in Muslims countries and the fall out from Iran and damage to relationships that where mending...blah ... its all so politically correct. For the sake of some balance get Salmone Rushdie's view point, better yet get some back bone, and balance this media debate.

I have not particular axe to grind for or again Rushdie but surely the guys should have some supporting position ( balance ) rather than this constant one way traffic.

Come on get a spine and report some alternative views.

Simon Carter

Simon Carter

Would it be possible for Mark to point out where in Craig's article it says that the BBC will, due to this report or otherwise, report only its own points of view and ignore all other possible opinions?

It appears to me that Mark is simply restating some doctrine that he has made himself believe.

Mark, have you actually read Craig's article or simply seen the word "impartiality" and launched into your little monologue?

  • 6.
  • At 01:05 PM on 19 Jun 2007,
  • Adam wrote:

Impartiality, if it means giving equal weight to both sides of a story, can itself be an important form of bias. Sometimes there are two sides to a story but those sides really do not deserve equal weight.

There was a great example of this on BBC Breakfast this morning. Your presenters interviewed 2 people in connection with the imminent smoking ban: a smokers' rights campaigner (against the ban) and a spokesman from the British Medical Association (for it).

It would have been very easy to take away the impression from the interview that some people think passive smoking is harmful, while others do not. While that's true, the overwhelming majority of scientists, backed up by plenty of research, believe passive smoking is harmful, while a few tobacco company marketing departments tell us that it isn't. Giving equal weight to both sides really doesn't give a very accurate impression.

So I'm all for impartiality, but there are times when pursuit of it can be taken too far.

For the record, I think the BBC generally does an excellent job of being impartial when reporting politics, but its reporting of scientific controversies often leaves plenty to be desired.

  • 7.
  • At 01:59 PM on 19 Jun 2007,
  • Bill Akin wrote:

"Just the facts Mam"

  • 8.
  • At 02:03 PM on 19 Jun 2007,
  • Flipper wrote:

I agree with the comment above. Sometimes in the effort to be impartial, equal time or consideration is often given when one side clearly does not deserve it. You could have an article about the planet being round, should you also refer to the flat earth society for thier opinion too?
Too often this is happening, perhaps it's because of the wish to be even and impartial, but more thought is needed in many issues we see today.


  • 9.
  • At 02:52 PM on 19 Jun 2007,
  • Cyril Jengo wrote:

I am not sure whether the BBC will reflect the impartiality standards it has set for itself. The fact reamins that facts are distorted to reflect the British value or the Western interest. When you are truly impartial I do not need a research to tell me. Your coverage of Zimbabwe and Sudan (for eg) is enough

  • 10.
  • At 02:52 PM on 19 Jun 2007,
  • Tim Dennell wrote:

Regarding climate change (on page 40 of the report): ‘Impartiality always requires a breadth of view: for as long as minority opinions are coherently and honestly expressed, the BBC must give them appropriate space.’

Minority views that challenge a mainstream consensus have use in sharpening arguments and ensuring rigour as well as reflecting the values of those promoting them. However the views and any evidence of minority views (climate dissenters) should be subject to equally rigorous critique. That these views have public support is often due to lack of additional knowledge (by broadcasters as well as the public) within which claims can be assessed. An oft-cited example is that rises in CO2 lag the rises in temperatures shown by ice cores analysis. Therefore the argument leads to a conclusion that a rise in CO2 cannot responsible for a warmer climate.

What’s missing is knowledge that ice ages are caused by astronomical cycles, how these cycles affect the overall distribution of solar energy over the planet, causing ice to advance and recede, that this only raises or lowers temperatures by around 5 degrees centigrade, that these changes initiate changes to CO2 concentrations and that this is believed responsible for the rest of the subsequent temperature differences.

Without greater depth of reporting (and journalists well versed in the subject their covering; many journalists seem comfortable with politics, sport or economics, much, much less so with science) or establishing background such as this so the audience can judge how well the dissenting view stands up, minority views will be given more weight than they deserve, by broadcasters as well I suspect. Given the depth of public interest in this topic, combined with the low level of general science knowledge amongst the public (reflected by the lack of take up in schools), the BBC could do more to explain and explore the science behind it in an honest, engaging way. That could include exploring the counter claims as well. Until the broadcasters are prepared to devote time to giving greater background depth to subjects and promoting a better informed debate, any such ‘impartiality’ will only serve to leave it’s audience mired in confusion. Surely not the best way of serving them?

Given that dissenting views are driven by underlying value systems it may be more productive to explore and debate those values in the context of how we respond to change.

  • 11.
  • At 02:57 PM on 19 Jun 2007,
  • Tim wrote:

The thing is Craig we don't all switch off - we just get angry at the bias. I can accept that the problem of offering balance is also compounded by the noisy (and noisome) single interest groups who insist they have an irreducable right to be heard. But this is made even more unacceptable by the inclination of certain editors and producers to invite in the loudmouths - presumably on the grounds the confrontational stuff makes good viewing/listening. It may do or it may not. It sheds little light on anyhing and informs almost nobody apart from the zealots.

  • 12.
  • At 03:21 PM on 19 Jun 2007,
  • Sam wrote:

Adam #6

Actually the majority of scientists concede the effects of passive smoking are so insignificant they don't even register, so it shows the BBC bias has infitlerated your mind and molested your brain also.

Sitting with the guise of being 'the best of the best' and being 'impartial' gives the BBC the license to fool people in to thinking what they say is fact.

Well it isn't. And this goes way behond how an issue is presented it goes in to the issues that get presented in the first place.

The BBC doesn't just report what happens it goes searching for news, fair enough, but if by searching for news they only present topics that support there liberal agenda they are commiting the worst kind of bias. Invented bias.

Take the upsurge of troops by the US in iraq a couple of months ago. Instead of reporting the fact that violence was reduced at the time the BBC instead posted a loaded poll it had made for the people of iraq attempting to discredit the coalitions presence there.

That is inventing news and ignoring whats actually happening to support a anti american liberal agenda.

This report shows the BBc doesn't even concede this so i very much doubt we will see any reduction in BBC bias any time soon.

Personally i think this report was rushed out as a piece of propoganda as a way os appeasing the BBC's critics, negative enough to 'keep them happy' but not negative enough to actually say anything of substance. All in an attempt to distract us form the Balen report which the BBC are still fighting a legitimate FOI request for.

  • 13.
  • At 03:29 PM on 19 Jun 2007,
  • Ruth Jabili wrote:

You have,for example,never given any voice to the strong objections of the vast majority of Muslims to homosexuality.One of the major reasons why the Muslims hate the West is theencouragement of homosexuality in the western countries.You have always tried to ignore or sideline this fact.

  • 14.
  • At 04:53 PM on 19 Jun 2007,
  • Steven M. Dorif wrote:

Impartiality is not just showing both sides, which is not done as often as the BBC likes to think, it is also showing them in proportion.

As Adam pointed out both sides are not always equal in weight, if the correct empahsis were given on the MMR issue for instance; "1 doctor thinks there may be a connection between the MMR jab and autism, many thousands of other doctors don't", then we may have avoided a panic and endangering childrens lives.

Putting both sides also means giving context. When you say "25% of health trusts failed to meet at least one of their core hygiene targets", you need also to point out this means most trusts met most targets and compare progress, or lack of it with earlier stats overall, not just where the figures can make a problem seem worse. That is, only pointing out stats that have not improved or gotten worse.

This is not balance and certainly is not giving the full picture.

  • 15.
  • At 05:07 PM on 19 Jun 2007,
  • r.muggeridge wrote:

One only had to listen to the Radio 4 'World At One' News interviews about the up-coming EU Non-Constitution-Constitutional deal discussions to hear at first hand the BBC's complete abdication of responsibility for representing the overwhelming interests of the UK License Fee payers.
Don't bother to try to explain yourself.
The BBC is simply PRO-EUROPEAN UNION to its elitist, self-serving eyebrows.
"Impartiality"... I doubt there's a Thesaurus with sufficient scope to allocate the meaning of this word when uttered by a BBC Editor!

  • 16.
  • At 05:30 PM on 19 Jun 2007,
  • Syed Hasan Turab wrote:

Why BBC is involve in influenced reporting, do media need to be investigated by Amnesty International too, if this is the case Democracy need reforms of practical nature otherwise Democracy may be understand a declared human desaster.

Impartiality is indeed a difficult thing to achieve but like the Holy Grail it is the act of pursuing it that makes you holy even if you never quite reach the prize.

Let me illustrate from my own perspective.

I have been critical of the BBC re its middle east reporting which on balance fails often, I think, to adequately critique the role of sme of the more fundamentalist islamist groups. I was not a happy bunny either over the Balen report issue.
nevertheless I recognise that this is a complex situation with multiple perspectives.

However consider another issue - the so called "debate" over creationism/intelligent design versus evolution.

Now anyone with half a brain knows that Bible literalists are off their trolley and that Intelligent Design fails all the basic tests of being a scientific theory. What troubles me though is that in some drive for impartiality you start giving equal weight to such views in situations where one side is quite palpably wrong (and where those views are in fact quite dangerously ill informed)

Please reassure me on that one!

  • 18.
  • At 05:45 AM on 20 Jun 2007,
  • Anthony wrote:

Too much talk about 'impartiality', a nebulous concept that can never be validated objectively. Not enough focus on ACCURACY. Too many journalists, special correspondents and editorial correspondents make basic errors of fact and omissions of crucial context. I'm not going to cite specific examples, that would only invite a narrow rebuttal on the specifics themselves. I'd rather like to leave this as a general point.

To retain credibility, the BBC needs a ruthless focus on accuracy, completeness and context. That would produce a better quality of output. The current, simple-minded "we receive equal number of complaints from all sides so we must be impartial" is way too superficial.

  • 19.
  • At 09:55 AM on 21 Jun 2007,
  • John wrote:

It's not just the individual reports. The filtering of news is far more important. You're right, we are all 'biased' but I think the BBC really needs to start employing people with wider range of biases - then you might see your groupthink challenged from inside. Go on - employ an eco-sceptic 'environment correspondent', or a few ex-military to report from Iraq or a few who are critical of immigration policy - see what effect it has. For example I would have no problem with John Simpson sucking up to the Taleban and telling us we are loosing, if it was regularly balanced by more people like Mark Urban telling me a military perspective to the story.

  • 20.
  • At 12:54 PM on 21 Jun 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

I agree with Andrew Marr and Jeff Randall that there is a definite liberal bias to pretty much all BBC news output.

Frankly, I pay my TV license and expect the BBC to present truly impartial news output, so that I and all other viewers can decide ourselves. If I want intrinsic liberal bias in my news coverage, I will go and buy the Guardian; and if I want right-wing bias, I will go and buy the Telegraph. I don't want any bias from the BBC.

If the BBC continues to put out the kind of politically correct and biased output that it does, it will be hard in future for the BBC to expect the public to fund it.

And just a quick comment of the BBC's 'coverage' of global warming:

I accept the scientific evidence of (man's responsibility for) global warming, but I am really, really tired of the BBC acting like a campaign group on the issue and shoving it down our throats at every opportunity - every five minutes we get another 'special report' or a 'special series of programmes' highlighting the danger. Please, return to reporting, and leave the campaigning to campaign groups.

  • 21.
  • At 08:46 AM on 25 Jun 2007,
  • John O'Donnell wrote:

The big weakness in arguments about balance is that giving equal weight to the oppressors and the oppressed is not actually commendable. It smacks rather of the attitude in reporting on Hitler and Mussolini before the 2nd World War.

The point has already been raised about incomplete and selective reporting. The BBC will never ask why it is acceptable for Israel to have nuclear weapons but not Iran for instance. The answer might be awkward so don't ask the question.

  • 22.
  • At 03:27 PM on 26 Jun 2007,
  • merle wrote:

When in doubt, stick to the truth:
'Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.

'There are a terrible lot of lies going about the world, and the worst of it is that half of them
are true.

'In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard.' - Winston Churchill

  • 23.
  • At 09:47 PM on 27 Jun 2007,
  • TonyStellaFella wrote:

Mmmh - not sure I agree that the BBC is run by clever people who know what's best for us.
But I don't recognise the BBC as some Castro like struggle against capitalism or rabid ultra left conspiracy even if Daily Mail readers do. I think of the BBC as less Lenin and more Val Doonican. A Comfy cardigan wearing medium where people are very proper and occasionally dull. BBCTV seems to be as drivelly as most channels (celeb rubbish etc) but BBCR4 seems as good as ever. So what am I missing?
Do a load of 'teach yourself Mao' programs come on after I've gone to bed? Are the Archers sat on a stash of WMD'? Do Womans Hour cover Kalashnikov maintenance?
And didn't BBCR4 give an hour to the BNP last week - I'd have thought that was a fairly 'far right' thing to do, surely. Should I launch a report accusing them of Nazism?
I could not work out who these moaners are. Then I heard Melanie Phillips on 'The Moral Maze'. I guess its her and her mates.
Lighten up weirdoes - the 1950's ended in 1959. Deal with it.
Radio 4 at least is spot on (even if Ms Phillips is on once a week).

  • 24.
  • At 04:12 PM on 29 Jun 2007,
  • merle wrote:

How can the BBC claim it's impartial when it is currently tarring all critics of Richard Porter's condescending, dismissive Editors Blog entry with the 'conspiracy' brush? We all know 'conspiracy' is a loaded word, in the same way as 'bunny-huggers', 'greenie fanatics', etcetera are loaded words. Hundreds have posted comments on the so-called 'Conspiracy Blogs' - "conspiracy' being entirely the BBC's choice of word here. If you question the rapid, unexplained collapse of WTC7 or BBC reporter Jane Standley's pre-emptive report of this extra-ordinary event, you are featured under the 'Conspiracy' headline. I suggest you funnel bloggers about global warming into a thread headlined 'Fanatic Greenies' and see how well you do. Porter's 'Conspiracy' thread, which has dragged on for months, has attracted hundreds of comments - though many have been yanked - and exhibits all the interactivity of a clay brick.
Until all the facts are in, the BBC should stick to objective analysis.
People have the right to keep their intellectual options open. A loss of critical standards is more dangerous than particular interpretations of events.

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