Thursday, 1 November 2012

Universal Discredit?


Part of the BBC's proclaimed commitment to impartiality involves providing fair and balanced coverage of matters of political controversy. This must necessarily mean offering a wide range of conflicting opinions and ensuring that no important strand of opinion is significantly under-represented. Of course, this doesn't mean that every important stand of opinion needs to be represented on every occasion, nor does it mean that each side needs to have equal amounts of time given to them on every occasion.  However, balance (or at least something sufficiently close to balance) should be achieved over time. Well, that's the theory anyhow.

In the year or so leading up to the passage of Iain Duncan Smith's Welfare Reform Act in March 2012, BBC Radio 4's Sunday discussed the highly controversial bill on four separate occasions.

Given the criteria for impartiality outlined above, what could we reasonably expect from the team behind Sunday in their treatment of this extremely hot political issue? 

Speaking for myself, I certainly would not necessarily expect to hear an interview between a supporter and an opponent of the bill on every one of those four editions. That would be unreasonable. Nor would I expect (or require) that a simple tally of the numbers of supporters and opponents across all four editions would (or should) result in precisely equal numbers of supporters and opponents. That too would be unreasonable. What I would expect to see would be something roughly like this: Maybe one edition featuring an Anglican bishop opposing the bill, a second edition featuring a debate between a supporter and an opponent of the bill, a third edition featuring an interview with Iain Duncan Smith (perhaps discussing whether his Catholic faith has anything to do with the matter) and a fourth edition featuring a debate between a supporter and two opponents of the bill. Yes, that would give a 3:4 ratio in favour of the opponents, but that would surely be perfectly acceptable to any reasonable person. Isn't some permutation of that scheme roughly what you would also expect to happen?

So, what actually happened?

The first edition of Sunday to discuss the subject (27/3/2011) dealt with it by interviewing a critic of the bill, Ilyas Khan, Chairman of Leonard Cheshire Disability. No supporters of the bill were interviewed.

The second edition to discuss the subject (20/11/2011) dealt with it by interviewing a critic of the bill, John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds. No supporters of the bill were interviewed.

The third edition to discuss the subject (22/1/2012) dealt with it by interviewing a critic of the bill, John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds. No supporters of the bill were interviewed.

The fourth and final edition to discuss the subject (19/2/2012) dealt with it by interviewing a critic of the bill, John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds. No supporters of the bill were interviewed.

So, there were only opponents of the bill across all four editions and not a single supporter of the bill. Isn't that startling?

You might have wanted to hear an ethical case for the reforms alongside or in contrast to all the ethical objections being made against it but you weren't given the chance. 

I cannot see how that can be considered impartial, given that a very narrow range of opinions was offered, conflicting points of view were not heard, one side was so under-represented as to be completely absent and - above all - no balance was ever achieved, even over a whole year's worth of programmes. 

Can anyone see a defence for this?

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