Thursday 4 November 2021

''The line between total impartiality and comment has blurred almost beyond repair at BBC News.''

These Letters to the Editor in yesterday's Times are quite something and worth quoting in full:
Sir, In the BBC that I joined in 1962 there was no question of establishing a commission on impartiality: impartiality was in its lifeblood. Some of us younger reporters at the time believed that it was promoted to the point of blandness. The two sides of an argument would be presented alongside each other, timed equally by the stopwatch, and the reporter would be invited to conclude with some such inanity as “only time will tell”. What an age ago that seems. Parts of the output are now so lopsided that they need serious review through the lens of the principles that guided us. These include BBC1’s Six O’Clock News, which has come to resemble an extended medical bulletin, with space reserved in the second half for campaigns by sectional interests.
Martin Bell
BBC reporter 1962-97; London NW11
Sir, James Kirkup’s plea for the breath of life for BBC journalistic impartiality comes not before time. When I was covering the Vietnam war for BBC TV News in 1968 I witnessed US F-4 Phantoms pulverising a village outside Saigon. When they had finished we went through what was left and found only the corpses of children and elderly women. In my reporting piece to camera I concluded with this anodyne comment: “Military historians may one day question the wisdom of these tactics.” On my return to London my deputy editor told me that I had been fired for inserting even that one line of comment, and he had had to fight to keep me on. The line between total impartiality and comment has blurred almost beyond repair at BBC News. In an era of fake news this is catastrophic for the reputation of the BBC.
Tom Mangold
BBC Panorama, 1976-2003; Richmond
Sir, James Kirkup is right that the biggest threat to the BBC’s future will come from within if BBC bosses don’t prevent their staff from campaigning and taking sides on contentious issues to influence its journalism and programming (“BBC’s boss must protect it from progressives”, Nov 2). The people who ultimately determine the BBC’s future are licence-fee payers, most of whom don’t want to engage in battles but do want information on which they can rely and quality entertainment that they can enjoy for its own sake. That’s why Tim Davie is right to fight on this front: he deserves support for doing so and for making impartiality his priority. But if the BBC is to fulfil its purpose, bind us as a nation and serve us all, its efforts need to take it beyond what we have now.
Baroness Stowell of Beeston
BBC head of corporate affairs 2008-10; House of Lords
Sir, James Kirkup identifies an existential threat to the BBC. Generations of former BBC journalists will be alarmed at the apparent inability of more recent intakes to understand the concept of impartiality. We all managed to report the facts as accurately as we could, put them in context, include dissenting voices and then let viewers and listeners make up their own minds. Usually the real story was very clear without the need for BBC reporters to act as campaigners with microphones, smartphones and laptops. The problem started with social media and its temptation to editorialise; Tim Davie is the first director general to tackle the problem head on. Although not a journalist he seems to have a sounder appreciation of what BBC News is all about than some of his predecessors.
Neil Bennett
BBC reporter 1971-2006; London SW12

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