I don't thnk this week's discussion of BBC impartiality on Newswatch did the programme great credit. Former BBC boss Mark Damazar almost entirely defended the BBC, while Samira Ahmed largely fed him questions which helped him defend the BBC. Both put the blame on 'wrong-thinking' by the BBC's critics. That's not what Newswatch should be doing. Very disappointing.
Here, for what it's worth, is a transcript:
Samira Ahmed: Hello, and welcome to Newswatch with me, Samira Ahmed. Coming up: Ofcom says the BBC has a problem with impartiality. Does it?
Samira Ahmed: Those in charge of the BBC often speak about impartiality being one of the corporation's chief qualities. But the perception has grown recently that it's not fulfilling its remit in this regard. When he took up his post in 2020, Director-General Tim Davie spoke of the need to restore trust in the BBC's impartiality. Last month, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries launched a review into the subject, and last week, the regulator Ofcom published its own review, which found that audiences rate the BBC less favourably for impartiality than they do for truth and accuracy. On Friday, the Director-General told staff it was making progress on its impartiality plan, but Newswatch viewers have expressed their own concerns with John Huw Jones writing:
John Huw Jones: Since the 2016 referendum I have been totally dismayed by the BBC bias against supporters of Brexit. The BBC was once renowned for its impartiality, but alas no more.
Samira Ahmed: And last weekend, Janet Fillingham objected to coverage of the decision on abortion in the United States:
Janet Fillingham: I didn't keep a stopwatch record of balance but wish I had done. Perhaps you felt the shock value of the Supreme Court ruling was self-evident and that balance wasn't needed?
Samira Ahmed: Ofcom also said too many people lacked confidence in the BBC's complaints process and that it needed improvement, and again, that's something we've also heard from members of the audience such as James Mayes:
James Mayes: The BBC complaints system is dysfunctional, and over-bureaucratic, to discourage complaints. The BBC marks its own homework.
Samira Ahmed: We were told no-one from the BBC was available to discuss those issues this week, but I am joined by the former BBC executive, Mark Damazer, whose roles included deputy director of BBC News and controller of Radio 4. Mark, thank you so much for coming on Newswatch. This debate feels as old as the hills. Does the BBC really have a problem with impartiality?
Mark Damazer: Well, there is if you want perfection, because I don't think the BBC, given the volume of its output on any given day, can claim to be 100% successful on impartiality even on a given date, never mind across a year. But if you take a more practical view of it, which is measure the BBC's impartiality record or the accuracy and trustworthiness of its journalism against the sheer volume of its output and then look at the size of the mistakes it makes, and the number of mistakes it makes, I would contend that, overall, the BBC does an extremely good and effective job at being a trustworthy and impartial broadcaster, and in doing that, serves British democracy extraordinarily well.
Samira Ahmed: It's fair to say we are living in a much more polarised - politically polarised time, and the news media landscape has changed with much more commentator-led coverage on talk radio and TV, and I wonder, aren't people just wanting the BBC to represent their points of view on issues?
Mark Damazer: So, I think that is acute and is the key point, which is the extent to which people recognise that the BBC is not there to make their own personal world view feel reinforced or better, and the BBC is not there to attack, deride or belittle your opponent, and the BBC does something completely different, which is to present a big range of views and to have them effectively both reflected and challenged by qualified journalists and presenters who know their business. And you don't end up - you're not supposed to end up with a warm, cuddly feeling inside that the BBC has endorsed your view.
Samira Ahmed: Many people think impartiality means equal time, and we heard a viewer there complaining about needing a stopwatch to measure abortion coverage. Is that the right way to measure it?
Mark Damazer: No, and it's an important point. The technical term for this, both through the BBC and Ofcom and other public service broadcasters in the UK, is 'due impartiality', and what due impartiality means is precisely is not equal time, and the BBC should not be giving equal time to people who believe that there is no such thing as global warming as opposed to people who believe that there is such a thing called global warming, and the reason for that is because there is a body of factual evidence which makes it clear that giving somebody equal time on that is giving equal time to a nonsense.
Samira Ahmed: And do you think that social media has changed both the way people think about impartiality and also the way BBC polices it?
Mark Damazer: That's absolutely right in each of the respects that you mention. And, first of all, the pressure on all broadcasters - I mean, the BBC is the biggest, and so feels the most pressure, but I don't exempt others others from feeling this pressure too. If you make a mistake or even if you don't make a mistake and you broadcast something that a social media group doesn't like, the multiplier effect of spreading that around can be corrosive. I mean, sometimes I dare say can be helpful because it corrects an error made on screen, but very often, what's generating the social media outcry is simple disagreement with something that you've heard or seen because it just doesn't correspond with your view and take on the issue.
Samira Ahmed: Ofcom also criticised the BBC's system of handling complaints. What can be done to improve that?
Mark Damazer: Yeah, so, I mean, I think Ofcom has a point, and some of this is going to be administrative and institutional, and it's just about the resources that you put in and the number of people you have and the training that you give them to make sure that they can handle better, more quickly and more deftly the volume of complaints - and there are a lot that come in - there are a lot because the BBC is a big beast. But some of it is psychological and anthropological. The extent to which the BBC feels inhibited, I think, too often from thinking out aloud about how it's made particular judgements, and very often - and I say this both as somebody who made these decisions and then somebody who had to judge them when I was on the governing body - there are a whole number of factors and you try to weigh up what the right answer is, and I don't think it's an embarrassment to say it's a finely balanced decision, and this is what we've decided in the way that gives the complainant and the wider public some assurance that the BBC has considered all the factors, even if you don't In agree with the conclusion.
Samira Ahmed: Mark Damazer, thank you.
Mark Damazer: It's a pleasure.