The transcript below takes us into very familiar territory.
Here again is a senior BBC figure denouncing "slide rules and stopwatches", and then rowing back somewhat when it's pointed out to him that the BBC itself is perfectly happy to use "slide rules and stopwatches" when measuring things like male-female balance on programmes.
Shaun Ley did well in putting that point but could have gone even further by reminding Ric Bailey that the BBC's own landmark impartiality reviews also used such methods, without complaint from the BBC.
And, of course, as ever, it's all about 'due impartiality' - that most flexible of terms - which basically boils down to 'editorial judgement'...i.e. the very thing BBC critics are most distrustful of yet which Ric seems to be inviting us to accept on trust.
And what's the main basis for slippery Ric's confidence that the BBC is getting it about right? Yes, astonishingly, opinion polls 'showing' that the BBC is trusted!
Now, I've seen all manner of opinion polls on the matter and they tend to say very different things, depending on how the question is put and who commissioned the polls. For the BBC to be asking us to trust it on impartiality because some polls say lots of people trust it is an argument built on quicksand.
A lot of those polls also show plenty of 'don't knows' - and, frankly, why would everyone know whether the BBC is biased or not if many merely dip into BBC news and have never really considered the matter?
And this isn't just Ric Bailey garbling the BBC's case here. This really is the BBC's main argument: Trust us because opinions polls say we're trusted.
Hmm. I think not, Ric.
Also, it's surely also perfectly possible to update the 'binary' Leave or Remain-voting tags of 2016 into something that isn't "arbitrary". You could, say, divide guests into (a) those who would vote Leave again or Remain again in the event of another referendum, or (b) those who want to stop Brexit completely, those who say they want to honour Brexit but want to keep us within the customs union and those who want us to leave the customs union.
Anyhow, here's the transcript:
Shaun Ley: Let's discuss this now with the BBC's chief political adviser Ric Bailey. Ric, thanks very much for coming in to Newswatch on what's turning out to be a very busy time politically. Has Question Time raised this question of Brexit balance with you?
Ric Bailey: The obligation for all BBC programmes, and particularly for political programmes - including Question Time - is to be impartial - actually, to have due impartiality. And people forget that word 'due'. It means that programmes have got to think about the context in which they are making judgements about impartiality. So if you think of the context of the referendum, June 2016, voters had a very clear choice between Remain and Leave. It was a very binary moment in British politics, as all referendums are. But particularly so with that one. The situation has changed a lot since then. Our obligation as journalists after that vote was to hold politicians to account for that decision, to hold the Government to account. And don't forget, we've had a general election since then as well, in 2017, when people remind us a lot that both the big parties stood on a platform of exiting the European Union. So to define people individually on programmes like Question Time as either Remainers or Leavers, it's not something to ignore, we've got to take it into account, but it's not the be-all and the end-all any more, because people who might have been on the Remain side in 2016 have stood on a platform saying, actually, now we're going to leave.
Shaun Ley: What you seem to be saying is that there's no actually objective measure of due impartiality, that the BBC decides from situation to situation what due impartiality means. Now, if that is the case, how do you demonstrate to the audience that you are being impartial if you don't have any criteria, objective criteria, against which that can be judged?
Ric Bailey: I don't think that it's not objective. I think where you've got to be careful is thinking that you can do this by maths and slide rules and stopwatches...
Shaun Ley: (interrupting) Do you do anything of that kind? Because you do do it during elections. You measure the number of people, the number of contributions from political parties. At the moment, you're measuring the number of women versus the number of men contributors. So you are using those tallies in some circumstances. Are you tallying up people who supported Brexit and people who opposed Brexit?
Ric Bailey: I'm not saying the maths is irrelevant. What I'm saying is it's not the be-all-and-end-all. So we need to be conscious of how much people are on and what their views are, but we don't go back to some arbitrary definition of what Remain and Leave was which doesn't necessarily fit exactly where we are now.
Shaun Ley: If you don't have those figures, how can you refute the figures that, for example, Charles Moore used? He quoted the Institute of Economic Affairs. 18 months, it monitored, from June 2016 to December 2017 - so, after the general election - Question Time and its radio equivalent Any Questions, and it suggested that 69% of the panelists had been declared Remain supporters during the referendum and 32% had voted Leave. And even if you included in the Leave column the people who had shifted their positions - they had been Remain during the referendum but now support Leave - it was still split 60-40.
Ric Bailey: You're still trying to put it in those terms of using slide rules and stopwatches, and measures which are not a definition of impartiality. Impartiality, in the end, is about good editorial judgement...
Shaun Ley: (interrupting) That's the BBC's judgement, not the audience's, is what you're saying.
Ric Bailey: Of course, and that's what journalism is. Journalism is being asked to make those judgements. And, if you like, one of the tests of that is, what does the audience think of that? And still, the BBC is trusted by more people than any other organisation to be telling the truth and to be giving an impartial account of what's been happening in Brexit, which after all is an incredibly complicated political situation.
Shaun Ley: What advice, then, have you given to Question Time and to similar programmes about how they construct panels at this very sensitive time politically, when we are still aiming to achieve Brexit but it hasn't been delivered?
Ric Bailey: So that question of due impartiality ... Obviously programmes have a long timescale in which to think about that. It might be over a whole year or a series of programmes where we make sure that views are represented appropriately. There will be moments where that impartiality needs to be judged on a shorter timescale, as now when we're in an election period, and it needs to be judged more carefully around parties as much as Brexit, Leave and Remain. So you're talking about different ways of approaching this. That's why I am not very keen on the word 'balance' because 'balance' implies only two sides, and actually this is much more complicated than that, and there are many different issues you've got to talk about.
Shaun Ley: Just before we finish, as we record this interview, we know that there are expected to be European parliament elections. Whats sort of challenge does that pose to BBC News?
Ric Bailey: I mean, it's a big challenge for everybody. We don't even know if the elections are actually going to take place, so we're starting an election period without knowing if people are actually going to vote. So it's a pretty unique set of circumstances. A and I go back to my word 'due'. Due impartiality means we've got to think really carefully about this particular context and make sure that we're thinking carefully about what 'impartiality' means when we have got this European election, in some parts of the UK we've got local elections at the same time. That's a really complicated position against that background of Brexit.
Shaun Ley: So a lot of thinking to go on over the coming days and weeks. Ric Bailey, chief political advisor, thanks very much.