Monday 29 October 2012

A response to a response

Thank you, Sue, for your kind words. I'm looking forward to reading all your thoughts on the reporting of Jon, Jeremy, Yolande, Kevin, Wyre & Co. - and much else besides - in the months to come. 

You raise a lot of interesting points there, not all of which I entirely agree with. (I know you'll be genuinely relieved to hear that!)

I must admit to a certain Gradgrind-like obsession with "Facts, facts, facts" and I've not exactly taken a great deal of time to reflect on the conceptual problems underlying terms like 'bias' and 'impartiality' and such questions as "What hidden assumptions and misunderstandings might I be labouring under?" So your thought-provoking response tells me it's now clearly time to do so!

Is bias inevitable? If it is then the title of this blog, 'Is the BBC biased?' , becomes rather beside the point as it can only ever truthfully have one answer: "Yes." Maybe it should be titled 'What biases does the BBC have, and which ones matter?' instead. (Less snappy though!) 

I would be interested in hearing the case for for the undesirability of scrupulous impartiality and arguments for the inevitability of bias, as I may be missing something important here.

OK, time for a speech on 'What I think about bias and impartiality'!

Regarding the concept of 'impartiality', I would say that it simply means not taking sides (whether for or against) and being fair and balanced. I want my BBC to be impartial in that sense. Using Sunday's  treatment of the various shades of Catholic opinion as a yardstick, I don't want the programme to be either on the side of conservative Catholics or liberal Catholics. Of course journalists are only human and come to their work (like the rest of us) with their own opinions and prejudices, but if they are going to do justice to the depth and breadth of the news or to particular issues they will have to put most (if not all) of those opinions and prejudices aside, however hard it may be for them to do at times. That's the only thing they can do if they are truly aiming at impartiality. If they have personal reasons to dislike, say, the Catholic Church or Israel or if they object in principle to conservative Catholic attitudes towards gay marriage or to a particular Israeli government policy they should never allow that attitude to influence their reporting or interviewing.   The aim of journalism is surely to increase our understanding of the world and if a journalist fails to explain and give voice to the interests, opinions and motivations of a diverse range of parties to a subject or to a particular news item (even if they believe some of those parties to be wrong or mad, bad and dangerous to know) they are failing to report the story properly and do it justice, with potentially dangerous results. People in conflict with each other need to understand each others point of view and impartial reporters should always seek to help their audience to share that multi-faceted understanding too. 

What this would mean in practice is that the Sunday should provide balance, not just in terms of opinions but also in terms of the issues it covers. It should not fixate on particular stories. It should offer a wide - as opposed to a narrow - range of opinions (so not only 'The Tablet' but also 'The Catholic Herald'). It should seek to examine conflicting points of view and it should take strong steps to ensure that no important shade of opinion is either under-represented (e.g. conservative Catholicism) or over-represented (e.g. liberal Catholicism).  

Obviously, the balance sought doesn't mean that every edition of Sunday must feature every important shade of opinion on a particular topic and it is, of course, perfectly fine to feature just one shade of opinion on a single edition. If over time, however, one shade of opinion on a particular topic comes to dominate over the others, then the programme is not being impartial. The greater the predominance of one strain over all the others the greater the bias.

What does the BBC itself say about impartiality? 

Well, at the heart of the contract between the BBC and its licence-fee payers - according to the BBC Charter - is the public service commitment to be impartial. That commitment, as stated in its Editorial Guidelines, ranges across all its output (including magazine-like shows such as Sunday) and involves being "inclusive" and offering a broad range of views on matters on matters of public policy and political controversy. The BBC also says that it commits itself (above and beyond its original charter) to applying that concept of 'due impartiality' to all subjects. It defines 'due' as meaning "that the impartiality must be adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content, the likely audience expectation and any signposting that may influence that expectation". This, it states, is more than merely balancing opposing viewpoints. There is, however, some wriggle-room: "Equally, it does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic principles."

If it truly has "points of view", such as a bias towards liberal Catholics and against conservative Catholics, then the BBC is surely breaching its own editorial guidelines. Which would be wrong, regardless of how we ourselves feel about the groups in question. 

I like this concept of 'impartiality' too much to give it up or downgrade it, however unrealistic some may consider this to be. I want it to be The Ideal towards which the BBC always seeks to strive. I don't want it to be dropped - unless and until the licence fee is dropped. I want the BBC to live up to its charter and its overall commitment and keep its wriggle-room to a bare minimum. Yes, it doubtless is impossible for the BBC to be truly impartial and  totally free from bias - just as it is for us as individuals to be perfect - but I think the BBC should always be trying as hard as possible to fight against the inevitable and strive towards the impossible here. This may sound old-fashioned, but I see this as a parallel with what I think individuals should (ideally) also keep trying to do - strive towards understanding and appreciating views other than our own, with a view to arriving at the truth, even when those views conflict with our own wishes and biases (though we aren't bound by a charter so to do, nor do we charge anyone a compulsory fee (or tax)  to fund our so doing!)

To continue with the classic argument (regardless of whether bias is inevitable or not)...The BBC is unique. Unlike its rivals, it is funded by a licence-fee. Newspapers, like the Guardian or the Daily Telegraph, can be as biased as they like as we don't have to pay a penny towards them. People who object to their biases can have nothing to do with them. Anyone who watches T.V. in the United Kingdom is legally required to fund the BBC, even if they fundamentally disagree with its "points of view".  If it truly has "points of view", such as a bias towards liberal Catholics and against conservative Catholics, it is surely doing a disservice to a significant proportion of licence payers.  We may ourselves share the BBC's bias against them, but does that make it right? I don't think so. (There are democratic reasons for strongly disapproving of this too). 

That is, as you say, often the criticism blogs (like this, and several others) which allege BBC bias receive - that we aren't against BBC bias per se, we are only against biases that don't suit us and are only interested in alleging bias when it's something we feel strongly about ourselves. If the BBC were against ideological opinions, religious beliefs, foreign governments, countries, political parties, and social attitudes of which we also personally disapprove, would we care and would we blog? Do we really want a BBC that is, say conservative in outlook and/or pro-Israel - our brand of bias?  I have to say that I think you're right to say that there's some truth in that, unfortunately. 

I will try to fight against my own biases (I'm not Catholic, or religious for that matter, and I'm socially liberal but I can still point out bias against socially conservative Catholics if I find any - which I do!), but do I only try to fight against the biases I don't feel too strongly about? If I found evidence that a BBC programme was strongly biased against the Labour Party, Palestinians and the European Union would I report it? I hope I would, but I'm not kidding myself that I wouldn't do so through gritted teeth and probably with a spectacular lack of enthusiasm. I don't doubt my prejudices will inevitably show through here on 'Is?' and I'll find myself blinded by them from time to time. If I'm going to criticise the BBC for such things I ought to keep a close eye on myself to and try to put some of my affection for the concept of 'impartiality' into practice. I would really hate to think that all I'm doing is trying to reshape the BBC in my own image.

I also see the force of your point about our not wanting the BBC to be so scrupulous in its striving for impartiality (if it really is still striving for impartiality, of course) as to end up in a moral relativistic quagmire where the accidental, unintended deaths of children in an Israeli air-strike intended to take out identified terrorist targets is reported as if it were morally equivalent  to the deliberate firing of missiles from Gaza into Israel (by those self-same terrorists) with the specific intention of killing civilians or to the bombing of an Israeli school bus. I see that, and yet I still don't want the BBC to force me into any moral reactions. I feel that they are trying to force me at times and I object to it. I want BBC reporters to report fairly, fully and accurately and let the fairness, fullness and accuracy of their reporting speak for itself. Then I'll form my own opinions. I don't want them to tell me or to steer me towards 'seeing' what's right or wrong, or evil or righteous. "I'll assess the facts you present, thank you very much Mr. Donnison, and make up my own mind - but please try to present them accurately, fairly and without trying to tug at my heart-strings."  

Of course, much of this has been giving the BBC the benefit of the doubt that it really is striving to be impartial. It's very much the issue at hand as to whether this is actually the case. Some people (and we've read their comments assiduously for several years) think it isn't striving to be impartial at all. (We've thought this ourselves from time to time). Others say that parts of it are trying, other parts of it aren't. Another point of view is that it is striving to be impartial, but failing! Of course, it may be striving and, by and large, not failing - 'On the whole, we think we got it about right', as BBC editors like to say. I've thought that the BBC has serious failings in this respect for years and - on two other blogs (Biased BBC and the embarrassingly-titled Beeb Bias Craig) - have, I hope, provided some stand-up evidence to back this up. However, my contributions were always based on the underlying, largely unexamined assumption that the question 'Is the BBC biased?' was pretty much equivalent to the question 'Is the Pope a Catholic?' (and 'Do bears shit in the woods?') and I didn't feel that its bias was either a good thing or necessarily an inevitable one. I want to challenge myself here to research a subject so thoroughly and in as 'impartial' a spirit as I can muster so that I can test whether I've been correct about the extent and seriousness of the bias all along, or not as the case may be. 

I know I've probably not thought everything through properly here and am open to having my eyes opened. 


  1. Craig, I think you have stumbled upon moral equivalence.

    Since a mere mortal broadcasting organ can’t transmit *everything* *everywhere*, of necessity some sort of selectivity must be brought to bear. One would expect the BBC to look at things through some sort of prism, preferably based on civilised principles (that have evolved over time) namely, for want of a better shorthand) Judeo-Christian morality.

    So reporting of ‘news’, (meaning ‘events’ and current affairs) needs intelligent editing, selecting and contextualising, so someone somewhere has got to play God, and choose what to report, and how to report it.
    The same goes for all broadcast material, but with ‘non urgent’ news, balance can be achieved over time, and outlook and attitude and can adapt and change, bending with the ebb and flow of society’s whims and foibles, but somehow maintaining stability and steering a steady course with the aforementioned principles holding everything together..

    However, the BBC is not God, not wise, and not all-knowing, and in addition, along the way it has acquired the power to create as well as reflect opinion.

    The BBC has to operate in a world of ignorance, parochialism and small mindedness, so it has to take on the role of ‘educator’ as it wends its way. As things stand, it’s not really up to it, is it?

    Pretending that any broadcasting organ can achieve pure impartiality is delusional. We have a flawed principle, and at this point in time the cracks are showing.

    P.S. For years the BBC has made a religion out of representing the ’underdog’, by vigorously putting the case for the opponent of the status quo, whoever he may be, until their influence overturns the accepted moral consensus. The zeitgeist flips. A sort of social revolution, not necessarily a bad thing, occurs, but the majority now regards the authority figure with contempt, and (not necessarily a good thing,) the non-conformist as automatically righteous.

    Authority figures and institutions are: Christianity, Capitalism, Business, Britishness, Adults, heterosexuality, marriage; you get the drift.

    While I’m at it, the righteous include, Muslims (obviously) the residents of Dale Farm, gays / lesbians, transgenderists, rap musicians, young offenders, and the poor, oppressed Palestinians.

  2. It was definitely a case of stumbling upon it, Sue.

    Yes, there are difficulties with my position.

    It obviously isn't desirable for a BBC interviewer to conduct an interview with a killer in anything like the same way as with a family member of his victim. Similarly, who would think it right that a terrorist or an apologist for terrorism is given an easy ride by a BBC interviewer? And, say in the case of Mugabe, who would object that the regime's opponents are given more air-time than the regime itself? And in the case of things like female genital mutilation, it's hard not to will the BBC to be actively biased against it.

    So many complications!


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