Balance over time
Last month I wrote on this blog about claims that BBC Arabic was "anti-Western". Thank you for all the comments - perhaps it's time for for me to chip in once more. Inevitably many of the responses were from people who do not listen to BBC Arabic nor see translations of it; so inevitably the debate developed into a broader discussion about whether the BBC is biased.
Perhaps all judgments about this are bound to be relative to each person's experience and perspective. I know from personal experience that my colleagues inside this organisation put considerable effort and reflection in to trying to ensure that the output is impartial but - as some commenters point out - such assertions count for little.
Some questions might help.
Does the BBC have a proprietor defining an editorial line which journalists are expected to stick to?
No. Unlike many organisations the BBC has no such person. Instead it publishes its own guidelines so that the public can judge whether we abide by them or not.
When we say we try and be impartial - what do we mean?
We don’t mean that we never make mistakes. We are by no means perfect. Mistakes do get made and we are not always able to get access to every piece of information or every view but we strive hard to be accurate, balanced and fair - and audience research suggests that most people who use BBC services greatly appreciate those efforts.
Do you hear views you disagree with on the media you use?
I certainly hope so. Personally I hear all kinds of views on the BBC I do not agree with and hear interviews with all kinds of people I would prefer my children not to meet, including some contributions from those on published lists of "terrorists". I disagree with what some of these people say and if I hate what someone stands for that does not mean their views should not be heard; nor does it mean that I should not spend some time in trying to understand where they are coming from.
f Protestant or Catholic leaders had held to a view that "terrorists" should not be given opportunities to air their views publicly there would be no power sharing or reconciliation in Northern Ireland - and peace (which is surely what most people want) would remain elusive. Very few commenters suggested that views should be suppressed. Most are essentially discussing the concept of balance. That can be impossible to achieve within single reports, especially when one side has a more efficient press machine than another. However, it can be achieved over time. One thing that is very difficult in this is the sheer impact of a picture. If a bomb hits a civilian area and you see pictures of children dying - that is going to stay in the mind longer than a reasoned argument from a politician. Different people - depending on their own personal experience - will react very differently to the same piece of information.
An example: you see a picture of a policeman beating up a man in civilian clothes on the street of some foreign country. If you are British you might think immediately that a great offence is being committed. If you are from that country you might think the same thing. But if you are someone in that country who spends their lives constantly in fear for your safety on the streets from thugs and cronies in civilian clothes - you might well feel that someone in authority is on the street battling on your behalf. Your own experience can change or distort the meaning of something that at first appears quite straight forward.
I think what the BBC can and should continue to strive to do is report over time and in detail what is actually happening so that over time people are in a better position to make up their own minds about what is going on. It’s not our job to push a line or push a "BBC" point of view. It is our job to enable many others of very diverse views to air their own - as has been done here so you can make up your own minds.
When you listen to the BBC do you hear a consistent view pushed continuously?
I suggest that anyone - academic or not - would find that very hard to prove unless you quote only highly selectively - always ignoring anything that does not fit the case you are trying to prove. I do see some things on the BBC that make me wince as a piece of individual journalism. But I can quickly point to something else that counters the concern I have. And encouragingly I find my colleagues are open to criticism and indeed criticise my work - so we try and keep each other on our toes (and of course our audiences are constantly in contact!)
The point I am making is that impartiality is partly dependent on balance and it is not possible to internally balance every piece. If we waited to do that we would be very slow on stories and our credibility would diminish. That kind of balance is only achieved over time and if you are going to be as highly critical as Professor Frank Stewart was in the original attack which started this debate, you ought really to take a broader look at the output than I believe he has done.
But of course he is entitled to his view!