BBC publishes report on safeguarding impartiality in the 21st century

Date: 18.06.2007     Last updated: 23.09.2014 at 09.48
Category: Impartiality
The BBC has today published a new report on safeguarding its impartiality in the 21st century, together with extensive research on audience expectations and perceptions of impartiality.

The report is the result of a project first commissioned by the BBC Board of Governors in conjunction with BBC management in November 2005 to identify the challenges and risks to impartiality. The report has been fully endorsed by the BBC Trust, the BBC Executive Board and the BBC Journalism Board.

The report, From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel, contains 12 guiding principles to inform the BBC's approach to ensuring impartiality in the face of rapid technological and social change. These principles are complementary to the BBC's Editorial Guidelines on impartiality and do not replace them. The report also makes some recommendations to strengthen the BBC's delivery of impartiality in all its broadcasting, all of which are being implemented.

Qualitative and quantitative audience research was commissioned for the report. The findings include that 84% of people questioned agreed that impartiality was difficult to achieve but that broadcasters must try very hard to do so; 61% agreed that broadcasters may think they give a fair and informed view but a lot of the time they don't; and 83% agreed that broadcasters should report on all views and opinions, however unpopular or extreme some of them may be.

Richard Tait, BBC Trustee and chairman of the steering group which has overseen the project, said:

"New technologies and changes in society have given rise to a spread of opinion which goes way beyond the traditional divide of left versus right. These new complexities need to be clearly recognised to ensure the BBC's impartiality is sustained.

"We know that audiences demand and value impartiality as essential to the BBC's independence. They particularly value impartiality in news, and they recognise its importance in other programme areas.

"But BBC audiences believe that impartiality should not lead to political correctness. The BBC agrees and one of our new principles makes clear that impartiality is no excuse for insipid programme-making. Providing space for controversial and passionate writers and contributors of all kinds will ensure impartiality is an antidote to political correctness.

"This project, the research and the report shows that to safeguard impartiality in the 21st century, the BBC must strive to provide the full breadth of views in all their complexities so that a complete picture is offered to audiences to make up their own minds. Achieving this requires commitment and a sophisticated approach to match the public's differing expectations for each genre. For programme-makers and journalists, this is a creative opportunity because it means bringing extra perspectives to bear, not limiting horizons or censoring opinion.

"This project signals a new, more open approach to achieving impartiality at the BBC. It is not intended to prescribe definitive solutions or an impartiality template but aims to stimulate further discussion throughout the BBC and so bring impartiality to the forefront of the production process."

Mark Byford, BBC Deputy Director-General and a member of the steering group alongside other senior BBC representatives including Creative Director Alan Yentob and Director of News Helen Boaden, is today launching a programme of activity to communicate the report to all staff.

This will include an extensive programme of training, seminars and debates through the BBC's College of Journalism and in conjunction with Editorial Policy. The BBC will also liaise closely with PACT – the independent programme-makers professional body – to raise awareness amongst those who contribute from outside the BBC.

The BBC management has given a number of undertakings to the Trust, including regular reports on impartiality to Trustees; avoiding conflict of interest situations by not commissioning from independent production companies who have a direct commercial interest in the programme content; encouraging a closer working relationship between independent companies and BBC Editorial Policy earlier in the process; a senior BBC editorial figure to oversee themed seasons; and a re-emphasis to staff about editorial guidelines surrounding campaigns, user-generated content and conflict of interest around outside interests.

Mark Byford, BBC Deputy Director-General, said:

"Impartiality is a core value for the BBC which is non-negotiable and central to its relationship with licence fee payers. We recognise that, as audience behaviours change and the media landscape develops rapidly, the BBC has to keep asking itself how best to safeguard impartiality in this digital age. The new audience insights from this study of external research and the guiding principles will help us do that."

The report was written for the steering group by independent programme-maker John Bridcut. It was informed by the audience research; interviews with commissioners, broadcasters and programme-makers, commentators and other interested parties; and a one-day seminar in September 2006, which was streamed live on the Governors' website.

The 12 guiding principles included in the report are:

  • Impartiality is and should remain the hallmark of the BBC as the leading provider of information and entertainment in the United Kingdom, and as a pre-eminent broadcaster internationally. It is a legal requirement, but it should also be a source of pride.
  • Impartiality is an essential part of the BBC's contract with its audience, which owns and funds the BBC. Because of that, the audience itself will often be a factor in determining impartiality.
  • Impartiality must continue to be applied to matters of party political or industrial controversy. But in today's more diverse political, social and cultural landscape, it requires a wider and deeper application.
  • Impartiality involves breadth of view, and can be breached by omission. It is not necessarily to be found on the centre ground.
  • Impartiality is no excuse for insipid programming. It allows room for fair-minded, evidence-based judgments by senior journalists and documentary-makers, and for controversial, passionate and polemical arguments by contributors and writers.
  • Impartiality applies across all BBC platforms and all types of programme. No genre is exempt. But the way it is applied and assessed will vary in different genres.
  • Impartiality is most obviously at risk in areas of sharp public controversy. But there is a less visible risk, demanding particular vigilance, when programmes purport to reflect a consensus for "the common good", or become involved with campaigns.
  • Impartiality is often not easy. There is no template of wisdom which will eliminate fierce internal debate over difficult dilemmas. But the BBC's journalistic expertise is an invaluable resource for all departments to draw on.
  • Impartiality can often be affected by the stance and experience of programme-makers, who need constantly to examine and challenge their own assumptions.
  • Impartiality requires the BBC to examine its own institutional values, and to assess the effect they have on its audiences.
  • Impartiality is a process, about which the BBC should be honest and transparent with its audience: this should permit greater boldness in its programming decisions. But impartiality can never be fully achieved to everyone's satisfaction: the BBC should not be defensive about this but ready to acknowledge and correct significant breaches as and when they occur.
  • Impartiality is required of everyone involved in output. It applies as much to the most junior researcher as it does to the Director-General. But editors and executive producers must give a strong lead to their teams. They must ensure that the impartiality process begins at the conception of a programme and lasts throughout production: if left until the approval stage, it is usually too late.

The report, From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel: safeguarding impartiality in the 21st century, together with appendices including audience research and other background material, is available in full here

From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel: safeguarding impartiality in the 21st century


Notes to editors

The qualitative research for the report was undertaken by the Sparkler agency in July and August 2006. It took the form of a series of group discussions that progressively explored the audiences' understanding of the broad concept of impartiality; its importance in relation to their media worlds; the extent to which they believed it mattered more to the BBC than to other outlets; and the variation in its importance across BBC platforms and genres.

Ipsos-MORI then conducted an omnibus survey of 2000 people in October 2006 with the aim of testing and quantifying the Sparkler findings. With a definition of impartiality as giving the public "a fair and informed view on events and issues, in order to let the audience make up their own mind", Ipsos-MORI explored in particular:

  1. the importance of impartiality;
  2. how journalists and reporters attempt to achieve impartiality; and
  3. what kind of views and opinions a broadcaster should report on.

The research was broken down demographically (by gender, age, social class, region, newspaper readership, voting intention, ethnicity, internet access and multi-channel TV access).