BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

24 September 2014
Press Office
Search the BBC and Web
Search BBC Press Office

BBC Homepage

Contact Us

Michael Grade


Michael Grade

BBC Chairman

Goodman Media Lecture: The Future of Impartiality


Given at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers

Wednesday 11 May 2005
Printable version

Check against delivery


I'd like to take this opportunity to explore the future of impartiality. In particular I want to examine difficult new dilemmas surrounding impartiality that the BBC is having to face as a result of technological and cultural change.


And I want to begin to sketch out how the BBC Governors propose to respond to these challenges.


Impartiality lies at the heart of the BBC's editorial mission. We've seen this over the last few weeks, during the General Election campaign. For the BBC's journalists, as usual, it posed a formidable test of impartiality.


They set out to deliver campaign coverage that was authoritative and impartial; coverage that offered rigorous analysis of the different policies and campaigns, but coverage that was also scrupulously fair. Coverage, in other words, that lived up the extremely high expectations of licence fee payers.


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 of Europe.


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 vested interests.


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, especially, impartiality.


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 of others.


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 increasingly draconian.


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 religion.


The Rev Dr Colin Morris, a retired senior BBC editorial executive and Methodist Minister, recently wrote in relation to the Jerry Springer broadcast that:


" … 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 people.


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 too.


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 country."


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 of belief.


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 beliefs.


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 service mission.


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 broadcast news.


Is this a threat to the BBC? Or an opportunity?


Probably both.


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 and accuracy.


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 value.


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 service?


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 future.


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.


V W X Y Z    


Printable version top^

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy