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At the BBC, impartiality is precious. We will protect it

Francesca Unsworth

Director, News and Current Affairs

In these febrile and politically polarised times it’s hardly surprising that the BBC, which seeks to represent the nation in its entirety, is a lightning rod for political discontent.

People have never been shy of letting us know what they think of our coverage and, in an age of social media, that feedback comes faster than ever. Sometimes it’s from people who’ve actually watched or listened, but nowadays often it’s from those simply consuming others’ impressions of it.

We receive roughly equal volumes of audience feedback suggesting we favour opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Throughout this election campaign, the BBC’s priority has, and will continue to be, its audiences. Millions have tuned in, and the BBC is consistently rated best for its coverage, ahead of our competitors.

We’ve put party leaders under audience scrutiny with a special Question Time, a seven-way debate, with a head-to-head debate to come this Friday, as well as debates between the parties in each nation of the UK. We’ve broadcast hundreds of hours of programming, with comprehensive outside broadcasts taking a wide range of channels and programmes around the UK.

We’ve ramped up our Reality Check service, fact-checking campaign claims. The Really Simple Guide and the Policy Guide have given online audiences an overview of the choices they face; Your Questions Answered has allowed audiences to put questions directly to the BBC’s experts; and Electioncast has offered an irreverent view of the campaign trail.

But some people have chosen to ignore all of this and focused instead on a couple of editorial mistakes that they suggest are either emblematic of all our election coverage, or damning evidence of an editorial agenda that favours the Conservative party.

Conspiracy theories are much in vogue these days. But we are a large organisation that employs thousands of independently minded journalists. Our editors employ their judgments on their own programmes for their own audiences. These aren’t the ideal conditions for a conspiracy. And we would be particularly inept conspirators were we to produce and broadcast a two-hour leaders’ special debate - a debate in which the prime minister was robustly challenged by the public - run highlights of it on our evening bulletins, cover it in full online and yet rely on a clumsy one-second edit in a short news summary the next day as a means to convey our supposed support for the governing party.

Similarly, to suggest this is in some way linked to an editorial mistake made a fortnight previously by a different team in an office hundreds of miles away, in which an archive cenotaph clip was wrongly used in a news package (about an event broadcast in its entirety by us the day before) is fanciful.

Our audiences want us to be impartial. That means fighting for their interests, not taking sides, and being the trusted place to find out what’s happening.

As we set out at the beginning of the campaign, BBC impartiality does not rely on a stopwatch. We’re not trying to include voices from opposing sides in every single news report, programme or tweet. On some days one party may be in the news more than the others. There is no exact mathematical formula when it comes to this. But over time achieving fair and proportionate coverage will be the standard we hold ourselves to.

Party leaders, and their agendas for government, must all receive scrutiny. We’re as disappointed as our audiences that the prime minister, unlike all his fellow leaders, has not yet confirmed a date for his Andrew Neil interview. The logistics of pinning down party leaders is highly complex; if we had to wait for confirmation of the date and time of every interview by every party before anyone appeared anywhere, hardly anything would get on air. But let’s be clear: we’ll clear our schedules and we’re ready at any time, and any place, for a half-hour interview in which Neil scrutinises Boris Johnson.

This campaign has been unlike any before it. Information is routinely weaponised. Our impartiality is precious to us and we will protect it. We are well aware how news footage can be used to unintended political ends. This week, at our behest, Facebook has removed political adverts by the Conservatives that gave the false impression our presenters were supporting their political agenda. We will do the same if any party distorts our journalism or jeopardises our impartiality.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the view that if we get complaints from both sides, we are doing something right - though we do receive roughly equal volumes of audience feedback suggesting we favour opposite sides of the political spectrum.

And to those who have suggested we are somehow cowed or unconfident, let me assure you - we are not.

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.

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