From what I've absorbed from television, radio and online during the
campaign, the BBC rose to the challenge.
At least that is how it looked to this licence fee payer, although
we'll have to wait for the necessary process of post-election review
of the audience research before making the final gubernatorial judgement
on the impartiality of the coverage.
Because the independence of the BBC is so important to our audiences,
and because ensuring "due impartiality" is the most important legal
responsibility laid upon the Board of the BBC by Parliament, it's something
that we, as Governors, worry about endlessly.
We are accountable to Parliament and to the licence fee payers to make
sure that the BBC's editorial systems deliver impartiality. It is something
the BBC can never take for granted.
That's why the Governors have commissioned a series of investigations
into the impartiality of particular areas of BBC journalism over the
past few years. It's why the Board deliberately targets these investigations
at the most sensitive areas of the news agenda.
In the old days, the BBC carried out such investigations in-house.
The governors commissioned them: management did the work. The investigations
may have been admirably rigorous. But because they were executed by
management, albeit with some outside assistance, there was always bound
to be a question mark over their objectivity.
Last year the Governors decided that in future such investigations
should be done entirely outside the management chain, and that for the
first time the results would be published, in full.
So when the Governors commissioned their last review, on the impartiality
of the BBC's coverage of the EU, we called in a team of outside experts,
chaired by the unimpeachably impartial former Cabinet Secretary, Lord
Wilson. Their report was published in full - even though it didn't make
entirely happy reading for BBC journalists.
The panel found no evidence of deliberate bias, but did find what they
called: "a widespread perception of cultural or unintentional bias."
They concluded that BBC coverage of the EU needed to be, as they put
it: "improved and made more demonstrably impartial."
Having published the report, the Board then passed it to management
for their response, which, as you may know, we published earlier today.
As a direct result of the Board's concern to ensure impartiality and
the action we took, management is implementing wide-ranging changes
to the way the BBC covers the EU, including creating the new position
of Europe Editor, reconfiguring the Brussels Bureau, and focusing afresh
on training - to improve BBC journalists' understanding of the complexities
As Governors, charged with representing the public interest, we commend
BBC management for its swift and constructive response, which seems
to the Board to deal fully with the issues raised by Lord Wilson's inquiry.
Nevertheless, we will continue to monitor progress.
Preparations for the next impartiality review are now in progress.
This will examine the BBC's treatment of Israel and Palestine. Terms
of reference and methodology have still to be decided. But again it
will be independent of management and again it will be published.
This is a long-running issue where sensitivities are particularly acute
- and, in fairness, one where management has made significant efforts
to improve the BBC's coverage.
These include creating the new position of Middle East Editor in order
to strengthen the BBC's ability to report, analyse and explain developments
right across the region, from Turkey to Egypt, from Morocco to Iran.
This new post is an indication of how seriously the BBC News takes
the job of reporting Middle East affairs in a way that is both rigorous
and impartial - that delivers a balanced scrutiny of the issues that
commands respect from all sides.
Ever since the BBC was formed, it has come under fire from those who
believe it is not delivering on its obligation to report political issues
fairly; or more specifically from those who wish to restrict the BBC's
independence freely to report stories perceived to damage particular
But now there is a new set of challenges.
They arise from technological change. And they raise real questions
about how the ideal of impartiality in broadcasting will look in the
not too distant future.
To make my case, I need first to step back a little.
It's worth reminding ourselves that the rationale for imposing a legal
obligation of impartiality on broadcasters stems in part from the shortage
of frequencies in the old analogue days.
There was a deal on offer to broadcasters: access to scarce and valuable
frequencies in return for accepting public service obligations including,
But, now, as analogue spectrum scarcity mutates into digital spectrum
plenty, the terms of this deal are coming under increasing pressure.
In the digital universe, barriers to entry are falling away dramatically,
enabling unlimited new providers to enter the marketplace.
Some people argue that when this process is complete, broadcasting
becomes for the first time directly comparable to the press.
Newspapers enjoy the freedom to be partial - a freedom publishers fought
for valiantly down the years, to escape censorship and establish their
right to report their view of the world.
No-one today would seriously argue that Government should oblige newspapers
to be impartial.
We let newspapers publish what they will, subject to the usual constraints
of libel, incitement, contempt and so on.
We leave it to the market, not to media regulators, to decide which
set of opinions will flourish and which will wither.
Once we are in the digital universe, why not allow broadcasters the
same freedoms? Why not abolish the requirement for due impartiality?
Why not let opinionated broadcasting take root, and leave it to the
market to decide which set of opinions will win audiences?
In the United States, where they are much farther along the path to
spectrum plenty, we are beginning to see this new ecology taking shape.
Shock jocks in talk radio and Fox News presenters in television make
no bones about letting their opinions show on air. And they are finding
audiences by doing so.
Religious groups with distinct positions on many sensitive areas of
the political agenda have themselves become broadcasters, and found
audiences for their views.
And some of these religious groups are now turning their attention
to the big network broadcasters too, mounting successful campaigns not
just to express their own views and attitudes but also to restrict those
At the moment the hot issue for these protest groups is usually the
portrayal of sex.
Largely in response to pressure from vocal Christian groups, for example,
the US media regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, has become
The clearest evidence of this comes in the rocketing fines it is now
imposing on broadcasters. The FCC has an Enforcement Bureau, established
six years ago, which has the power to exact financial penalties. In
its first three years its fines averaged less than twelve thousand
dollars each. Over the last three years they have averaged
well over a quarter of a million dollars each.
They include last year's fine of more than half a million dollars on
CBS for Janet Jackson's so-called "wardrobe malfunction" which fleetingly
exposed a breast during a half-time entertainment in the live transmission
of the American football Super Bowl.
As a result there is now something approaching panic among American
broadcasters as they run every programme through the long-wash cycle
to reassure themselves and their advertisers everything is squeaky clean.
We're now beginning to see similar organised protest by religious groups
on this side of the Atlantic.
Here, it is not portrayal of sex that has religious groups complaining,
but more the portrayal of religion itself.
The Advertising Standards Authority has reported that sex is no longer
the topic that brings most complaints about advertising posters. According
to the ASA, most complaints about outdoor advertising last year were
prompted by religious imagery or references.
In Birmingham we saw, or rather we didn't see, a play by a Sikh writer
which was closed down after violent protests by Sikhs who found elements
of the play offensive to their religion.
At the BBC the decision to show Jerry Springer - The Opera prompted
many thousands of complaints, most of them before the programme had
been screened, from people who deemed it offensive to the Christian
The Rev Dr Colin Morris, a retired senior BBC editorial executive
and Methodist Minister, recently wrote in relation to the Jerry Springer
" … In a post-Christian society, for the BBC to apply to the whole
of its output one particular valuation of Jesus would turn the Corporation
into a confessional Christian station - which from the outset, John
Reith, the BBC's first Director-General, for all his Scottish piety,
refused to countenance; and which millions of licence payers would regard
as an intolerable infringement of their freedom to think for themselves."
Dr Morris reminded his readers:
"It isn't an exact parallel, but I recall Mary Whitehouse insisting
the watershed did not work because not all small children are in bed
by nine o'clock - thus implying that the entire television output should
be suitable for tiny tots."
You may have seen, incidentally, that Ofcom has now ruled that Jerry
Springer did not contravene its own code, even though, in the regulator's
view, the representation of religious figures was offensive to some
Now it may seem that all these are issues that are fundamentally about
taste and decency. But I would argue that they encroach on impartiality
Impartiality, freedom of expression, and offence are not separate and
disconnected issues. They overlap.
In regulating and legislating, society has to balance freedom of expression
against the need for impartiality and decisions over where the boundaries
of taste lie.
Broadcasters aspire to reflect society as it is in order to connect
with their audiences. Today, that includes balancing the interests of
people of many different faiths - and people of none. Many different
value systems now co-exist and are accorded equal respect as long as
they operate within the law.
The BBC has to reflect that fact - and reflect it impartially.
Things were different when the BBC was founded. In 1928, for example,
the anonymous author of the BBC Handbook had no doubt about where the
BBC's ethical centre of gravity lay. "The BBC," said the handbook, "is
doing its best to prevent any decay of Christianity in a nominally Christian
Reith had no compunction whatsoever about imposing his unbending Calvinist
values on BBC employees. When the Corporation's first chief engineer
was discovered to be having an affair and about to be involved in a
divorce, he had to resign.
Not many people would expect the BBC to return to those values today.
I would certainly include this Chairman!
Britain has changed. Social attitudes have changed. Many new groups
have entered British society, bringing with them their own cultures,
and religions, and value systems - all of them legitimate expressions
Now, when legitimate value systems compete, the BBC must act
impartially. That applies to areas of cultural controversy, just as
much as to the traditional areas of political and industrial debate
as defined in the impartiality regulations.
The claims and beliefs of religion are - or should be - open to debate,
discussion, even satire, just as much as political or philosophical
Once a particular faith group is allowed to impose its vision
of what is appropriate to broadcast, then the BBC's ability to reflect
impartially the full breadth and scope of British society is diminished.
To raise this issue must not be interpreted as somehow attacking the
place of religion on the BBC. On the contrary. Religious broadcasting,
and broadcasting about religion, is an important part of the BBC's public
As Governors, we want the BBC to do better here. In a couple
of days time we are hosting a important seminar on precisely this issue.
The Governors do not want to see the erosion of religion
in the BBC schedules. We want the BBC to create compelling programming
that fully reflects the increasing impact of belief in the modern world.
However, as Governors, our job is to represent the interest of all
licence fee payers - and that means resisting calls to restrict the
range of voices on our airwaves.
This is a challenge we have to face now. But it is only an opening
skirmish compared to the battles that lie ahead when we meet head-on
that technological challenge I spoke about earlier.
In that coming world of spectrum plenty, what price impartiality?
There is no doubt that some commercial media groups see the obligation
to broadcast impartially as needlessly restrictive. They look forward
to the day when competition reigns and there is no further need for
impartiality rules for any part of the media.
There are also influential voices among media commentators suggesting
that the time is right for Britain to start experimenting with opinionated
Is this a threat to the BBC? Or an opportunity?
On the one hand you can point to the States where, as I've already
suggested, traditional news providers have been put onto the back foot
by the success of Fox.
On the other, you can take comfort from the fact that at moments of
national emergency the British public still turns to the BBC for its
news because it believes the BBC tells it like it is.
In a digital universe of Daily Mails of the air, and Guardian Newspapers
of the air, and almost certainly of well-funded faith-based broadcasters
too, I would hope and I would expect there would still be an overwhelming
demand for an impartial BBC, because much as people like opinions, they
want - and need - the impartially reported version too.
But that, of course, assumes that in this new world of opinionated
news the BBC service would shine out as offering something fundamentally
different: a good deed in a naughty world, a proud beacon of impartiality
But would it? What if I am wrong?
It could be that, in the context of this new world of opinionated value-laden
broadcasting, the BBC would be perceived not as fundamentally different
from other providers, but as fundamentally the same.
Not a proud beacon of impartiality and accuracy, but just another vehicle
for another set of opinions and another value-system.
There are big issues for the BBC to work through here.
We know from all our research how important impartiality is to our
licence fee payers. It's one of the BBC assets on which they place great
But we must not take it for granted.
We have to ask ourselves: In this new world we are entering, do we
have the right defences in place for the principle of impartiality?
Do we have a really robust understanding of what it means for the BBC
in the 21st century? Of what it would mean if we were left standing
as the only broadcaster still committed to delivering an impartial news
We have to be sure that we do.
I think it is time to open up the debate about impartiality.
To take it beyond its application to particular issues, and to treat
it on a more fundamental level.
To try to establish a broadly accepted understanding of what it means
for the BBC in the digital age.
Not just the traditional balancing of mainstream opinion, but ensuring
that the fullest diversity of significant voices and beliefs is reflected
throughout our programmes.
This should not just be a debate among professionals - although we
would clearly need to call on academic and editorial expertise.
Crucially, this is a debate for the BBC to have with the licence fee
payers, to involve them in the shared journey towards greater understanding.
This is a theme the Board of the BBC intends to develop through the
transition to a new Royal Charter.
I've entitled this lecture The Future of Impartiality. As I hope
I have shown, there are those who think impartiality does not have a
I do not agree.
We need to replenish our intellectual reserves on this issue. It is
time to begin that process.
Impartiality must remain the cornerstone of the BBC's editorial mission.
Remove it and the whole edifice begins to totter.
Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for giving me this opportunity tonight,
but most of all thank you for listening - with, I hope, due impartiality.