Monday, 3 April 2017

"You get impartiality by really good judgement"

For those who didn't see this week's Newswatch, here's a transcription of the interview between Samira Ahmed and the BBC's chief political advisor Ric Bailey. 

Mr Bailey makes the usual case that the BBC is getting it about right and that you can't measure bias with a stop-watch, as well as having a dig at those MPs who criticised the BBC's Brexit coverage, while Samira Ahmed gets confused between Lloyds of London and Lloyds Bank: 

SAMIRA AHMED: Well, let's take a step back and examine the BBC's approach to reporting on our forthcoming departure from the European Union with the corporation's chief political adviser, Ric Bailey. As you heard, there are strong feelings on all sides. Is there something different about Brexit which makes the BBC's commitment to impartiality actually quite a new challenge? 
RIC BAILEY: I think whenever you have a referendum, in particular, opinion becomes very polarised and views become very entrenched and it is very difficult often to appreciate or even value impartiality in those circumstances. That vote is now done, it's over. Leave have won and our job now is to really scrutinise carefully the execution of Brexit, if you like. How the government carries out Brexit, how it carries out the negotiations, to scrutinise not just the government but other politicians. That's why Andrew Neil did all these interviews this week with party leaders across the UK, but also of course to scrutinise European Union officials and politicians in Europe. So our job now is much more intricate and complicated than a simple, sort of, mathematical balance between people who were Remain or Leave. So that journalistic challenge is really very strong. But the audience trust the BBC to do it more than anyone else. 
SAMIRA AHMEDBut, as we were saying, we do get a lot of complaints, especially from pro-Brexit viewers, who say the BBC, they feel, is actually rerunning the referendum by always airing what might go wrong or might not work. How do you answer that? 
RIC BAILEYThere will be parts of the community who will have concerns about it and we should report that. I don't think every time we find somebody who is optimistic or pessimistic we should suddenly have to find the opposite view every time. We're no longer in that situation of a sort of mathematical balance. What we do have to do is report it properly, so that the audience understands what the challenges and issues are. But that must be a broad range. It mustn't just be those people who are worried, it must be also those people who think there are opportunities. 
SAMIRA AHMEDWe heard a reference to the march last weekend, that the BBC supposedly goes to great lengths to ensure their coverage is impartial. Could you give us an insight into how you do that, how you monitor and measure impartiality? 
RIC BAILEY: In the end we put a lot of obligation on individual editors of programmes to do that and part of what I do is to help them make those judgements. But across time, it may not be one individual programme, it may be a series of programmes, people have to think about making sure they're getting that range of views, and that will be different for different programmes. 
SAMIRA AHMEDIs that partly about a head count, or about measuring air time? 
RIC BAILEYI think it's really important that we don't pretend that you can get impartiality by the stop watch, or the abacus or a calculator. You don't measure impartiality by maths. You get impartiality by really good judgement, and that's what our editors are trying to do all the time. 
SAMIRA AHMEDPeople also wonder how the BBC should be reporting a story like, say, Lloyds Bank moving lots of jobs to Brussels. To some viewers, it is an example of emphasising the negative, when that's only one event in a big, often very quickly changing picture. 
RIC BAILEYI think you have to make judgements on individual stories, and you have to decide what level of prominence they're due, and you have to take advice on that from the business community and so on. So, in the end, editors make judgements about those things. I agree that it's important that when you hear those stories you are also hearing other stories that might reflect something from a different perspective. After all, this is going to go on for a long time. Over the next couple of years of negotiations there will be many examples of this and I think it's quite right that editors should be challenged to think about a wide range of views, not just those stories that you've heard talked about by viewers today. 
SAMIRA AHMEDOn the other hand, many viewers have got in touch with Newswatch to say any criticism, any critics of Brexit, are just labelled 'Remoaners' and they feel the BBC is cowed by the political criticism, notably from those MPs who complained to the director-general. Are you cowed? 
RIC BAILEYOne MP actually said this week that relying on MPs to be arbiters of impartiality was a bit like asking Sir Alex Ferguson to referee a home match at Old Trafford. I think you've got to remember where criticism is coming from. It's very important that the BBC listens to criticism and acts on it, particularly if there's evidence, but it's also really important that we're robust in defending the BBC's editorial decisions and its journalism when we get political pressure. Sometimes there will be genuine issues, sometimes there will be political pressure, and it's very important to the BBC's independence that it withstands that. 
SAMIRA AHMED: Ric Bailey, thank you very much. 


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  2. Ric Bailey is clearly too self-satisfied to realise that the Alex Ferguson analogy equally applies to the BBC whenever they assure us they “have got it about right”.

  3. We all know that bias can be effected by a number of means: agenda selection...prioritisation of reports...tone of voice...interview interruptions...harsh (and soft) questioning...misrepresentation of populist arguments...choice of "experts"...presenting claims as established science...reporting views as news...highlighting protests and protest banners making outlandish claims...using drama and other programme formats to push's a long, long list. The BBC deploys all these tactics and more whilst at the same time maintaining a goassamer-thin loin cloth of impartiality, to preserve its modesty e.g. having the odd Brexiter on, or allowing its preferred right wingers on programmes like Question Time (tend to be slightly colourful and old fashioned like Peter Hitchens and Jacob Rees-Mogg).

  4. This is rather like the dogma of Papal Infallibility isn't it?

    Because the BBC is always right it can never be wrong or "impartial". How does it know it is right? Because it has good judgement. How does it know it's got good judgement? Because its inquiries into allegations of bad judgement always show them to false. QED