We are so utterly surrounded by bias that we often fail to recognise the importance (and difficulty) of walking the fine line in the middle. The inevitable consequence is that we make no one happy and infuriate everyone. The BBC’s commitment to impartiality is vital, it should be an ambition of the media, instead it’s seen as a threat.
As someone who spent several years at the BBC, first in programme making working freelance as a “mic stand” then as a broadcast journalist and producer it is hard not to take criticism of the BBC personally. You work hard, as a BBC journalist. One of the first messages you’re told is that, chances are, you’ll be the first person your interviewee meets from the BBC. You represent all of that global institution to them, all of it. It’s a weighty responsibility. BBC journalists can be utter arseholes, as can journalists from every newsroom, but they also know they represent something bigger than their own newsroom. I’ve never met another journalist from another institution who felt that weight of expectation, and I’ve met an awful lot of journalists.
There is not a higher standard of rigour at the BBC nor do you often do a better job journalistically (I remember being in a newsroom where our backside was regularly handed to us by the – now departed – Daily Post which revelled in a string of exclusives we were left to chase). You are, however, part of something everyone has an opinion on, everyone feels they own and everyone is keen to vent forth on their own position.
Impartiality is the only way to navigate that field. It wasn’t a chicken or egg. Impartiality is often viewed as having no opinion, of being a blank canvas. It is anything but. It’s a powerful tool that allows the facts to speak for themselves. Does the BBC always succeed in getting it right? Nope. Are their fights when an editor or producer is felt to have gone too far one way or another? Definitely. But there is an ambition to maintain it.
It’s never been more important. Opinion, chatterati, swathes of column inches that seem to sway and shape our daily lives are nothing new, even if they are more immediate. Through a blog like mine I can share my voice where if I could before it would only be to a limited audience. Each of our opinions now has a platform, a space where we can nail down our flag. It’s empowering to a certain extent (who does not like to share an opinion) but it isn’t exactly useful. Even the Guardian’s opinion section to give it it’s full title quotes “Comment is free, but facts are sacred”. Online newspapers might say the BBC is crowding their market but it doesn’t seem to affect hit rates at newspapers. If the BBC continues to write features online they stand alone simply because many newspapers removed many features writers long ago, or made them go freelance. The digital landscape and advertising revenue drops aren’t the fault of the BBC. They are, perhaps, an easy steadfast target, however.
As we have mutated from viewers into consumers opinion and position have become increasingly important. We sway, foam and froth like a continually breaking wave at high tide. Bias, be it from the owner of a newspaper, broadcaster, political ideology, is so part and parcel of our news coverage we now only recognise it when we see it in cartoonish form from another country; when a newsreader loses it or says something so monumentally ridiculous we laugh. It isn’t just a problem for “the other” though; we routinely let newspapers and broadcasters publish pieces having a market impact on their rivals, attacking those they wish to destroy. We let it go because we idealise our media. It’s free speech. Is it really so free when it’s motivated by a desire for power and riches?
It’s the power we’re sucked into. Because the BBC isn’t really part of that, although we have nowhere else to put it, it seems weak, unadventurous, hiding it’s true ideals beneath a veneer of beige. We compare the BBC to commercial rivals, with their brash big colours and voices designed to enthuse and manipulate us as consumers, because we have no alternative. We hold them up alongside the brighter rival, designed specifically to make us buy things and feel a certain way, and we think the BBC is weaker. Impartiality isn’t weakness, it’s strength. The BBC is not without its problems; huge payouts, a lack of transparency, a tendency to spend too much time in an ivory newsroom and not enough talking to people (a trailer on BBC Global News, by the way, describes people as “ordinary people” as though she, the presenter of a news programme, has a loftier calling than their lives could have). There’s often more than a whiff of arrogance, why wouldn’t you move heaven and earth, we’re the BBC for heaven’s sake.
Yet there’s a central core we need to hold onto with both hands. In many ways we’re selling ourselves down the river as consumers making it easy for global companies everywhere to encourage us to buy something. Paying a licence fee for something doesn’t mean we own it, it means we protect it. If it makes us angry it’s probably doing it’s job right. Let’s not stop asking questions but focus on what, at it’s heart, we want to preserve at the BBC. The right to not voice an opinion but to let the facts speak for themselves.