Should the BBC change policy?


by Sunny
27th March, 2007 at 10:39 am    

I’ve been invited to the BBC to take part in an internal debate tomorrow on whether the BBC should embrace ‘radical impartiality’. This was a term coined by its current head of TV News, Peter Horrocks, in a recent speech to the Reuters Institute at Oxford. He explained:

So, the days of middle-of-the-road, balancing left and right, impartiality are dead. Instead I believe we need to consider adopting what I like to think of as a much wider “radical impartiality” – the need to hear the widest range of views –all sides of the story.
So we need more Taleban interviews, more BNP interviews – of course put on air with due consideration – and the full range of moderate opinions. All those views need to be treated with the same level of sceptical inquiry and respect.

The Daily Mail called it ‘political correctness called mad’ – nothing new there. But is Peter Horrocks right in his assessment? Part of the BBC’s problem is that it gets it in the neck from all side, especially over the Middle East. Globalisation and increasing proliferation of media makes it difficult for them to compete with organisations that preach to the converted. Fox News is perhaps the best example.

A few months before Horrocks’ speech, I coincidentally wrote an article titled The death of debate for CIF on the same issue, disagreement with the jist of what he was to say (hence the reason for my invitation). I did say, almost rhetorically, that they should invite the BNP on more regularly ‘for balance’ because they keep extending the courtesy to Al-Muhajiroun types, but the point is of course that I’d prefer neither were.

What do readers think: should the BBC change or stay the same? Is ‘radical impartiality’ a silly buzzword or a necessary direction? Would like to hear your thoughts. I may even feed them into my debate.


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    Radical Impartiality…

    Thanks to Sunny at Pickled Politics for this quote from Peter Horrocks, the head of BBC News at the BBC:
    So, the days of middle-of-the-road, balancing left and right, impartiality are dead. Instead I believe we need to consider adopting what I like to…




  1. Duc De Nemours — on 27th March, 2007 at 11:25 am  

    Hold on what is this site for? Are contributors merely a ready horde of bright idea merchants to make you look good?

    I don’t know. Terrible.

  2. douglas clark — on 27th March, 2007 at 11:28 am  

    Sunny,

    Off the wall maybe, but I’d rather they employed people like John Stewart who takes the piss. Or maybe more to the point a Keith Oblermann. In other words a daily satirical news or satire with a serious bent. I think we underestimate the viral importance of Oblermanns polemical approach. It is, frankly, extremely healthy.

  3. Duc De Nemours — on 27th March, 2007 at 11:36 am  

    Oblermann is awesome isn’t he?

    I think though that the BBC will be left with no choice but to provide two contradicting view points and down that road lies Crossfire. A program so unbelievably awful and full of partisan hackery that John stewart himself stuck the boot in on it and it ended up getting axed.

    I do not think that douglas option is vaible for an organisation such as the BBC.

  4. douglas clark — on 27th March, 2007 at 11:41 am  

    Duc de Nemours,

    Last time I remember you on here you were an apparatchik to some MP or other. No doubt he talks to you, and probably robs your ideas blind. Sunny otoh, is quite up front about it.

    Why shouldn’t he ask like minded people what they think? Open minds, closed minds….

    I don’t know. Terrible!

  5. Chairwoman — on 27th March, 2007 at 11:44 am  

    The BBC should broadcast unexpurgated views from all the looneys. Let’s hear what they really have to say. No more PC, vanilla versions please.

  6. douglas clark — on 27th March, 2007 at 11:52 am  

    Chairwoman,

    Bloody hell, I wouldn’t go that far! You can take a sabbartarian to the TV studio, but gripping TV it does not make. I suspect you are one of these folk that doesn’t like the licence fee and wants the BBC abolished!

  7. sonia — on 27th March, 2007 at 11:52 am  

    “Full range of moderate opinion” – who’s that?

    I doubt they’re going to get ordinary folk onto television debates, so is the end result going to be more ‘extremists’? but then they always got onto tv anyway – ( or their actions) isn’t that reallly why they’re extremist? If we know there are extremists about – don’t we want to see them on TV? Or would we prefer to not put faces to names? I say put’em on tv and keep ‘em up there where we can see what they’re doing.

    radical impartiality? But more importantly – moderate/extremist – well that’s still subjective and relative. i think more people would be happier with some more transparency – who is being invited to come on air and why them and not someone else etc. If there is a good reason, then I want to know. And also I want to know – did someone else want to come on and speak – and were they not allowed/welcome etc. because they’re thought of as a ‘nobody’ and haven’t got ‘commentator’ experience. Whatever the hell that is.

    i think the BBC is fine as they are with regards to the moderate/extremist balance. there will always be people who are not ‘happy’ with the ‘balance’. And there are so many ‘commentators’ out there. 5 to 10 years later people who sound like moderates now will probably be ‘community leaders’ and there will be a different lot of people wanting to get on and have their voice heard.

    So this is probably not very useful to you Sunny. Because ultimate I don’t think its about the balance of moderate/extremist but the balance of ‘professional’ career commentators vs. ‘ordinary people’s views’. If you want the full range of opinion it ought not to be limited to ‘journalists’ or ‘commentators’ i.e. people who have chosen themselves as ‘representative’ commentators. Yes i understand that’s how traditionally ‘ news’ has come about – and I think if we want to accept that = its fine – but let’s not fool ourselves it’s a full range of opinion. It isn’t. What people really want to know is what is the agenda of the person who is on air – as much information as possible – then they can make up their own minds on what that person is saying.

  8. Taj — on 27th March, 2007 at 11:58 am  

    Doesn’t the phrase “radical impartiality” seem a little oxymoronic? I think Mr Horrocks probably knows that, but it feels more like a renaming exercise rather than a coherent change of ethos (“New BBC! Even more impartial!”). (Apologies for the glibness, but I just couldn’t help it.)

  9. sonia — on 27th March, 2007 at 12:01 pm  

    yes it does seem a bit that way Taj.

  10. Chairwoman — on 27th March, 2007 at 12:10 pm  

    douglas clark – You obviously have some extremely strange ideas about me.

    I am just fed up to the teeth with the BBC’s obvious partiality. I want the opportunity to make my own judgements. I don’t want the opinions of the editor/reporter/whatever rammed down my throat. I want to hear and see the whole story.

    I don’t just need my opinions coloured by the Beeb’s employee of the month.

  11. Chairwoman — on 27th March, 2007 at 12:11 pm  

    Taj – Ethos? Since when has the BBC had an ethos?

  12. G. Tingey — on 27th March, 2007 at 12:12 pm  

    IF, and it is a very big if the statement is correct, and they do this, it would be a very good idea.

    As Chairwoman says: “let’s hear all the loonies.”
    THEN, we can all see what an unpleasant bunch of nasty little fascists they are, and be revolted.

    Lets’ have the islamic “radicals” pleading for a medieval treatment of woimen and petty criminals, and watch everyone stop “respecting” the!

    How likely is it,really, though?

  13. Duc De Nemours — on 27th March, 2007 at 12:13 pm  

    I agree with Chairwoman.

    Someone once pointed out to me that the Guardian’s expose of the BNP a few months ago said nothing about their actual policies but succeeded in stigmatising a selection of people more or less in the public eye who had racist views.

    Fair enough to a certain extent but there was nothing about the fact that the BNP is essentially a deeply unpleasant housing pressure group. This notion of ‘other people’ getting houses is the core of their campaigning. If you want to stop the BNP then this is where the battlefield is.

    Furthermore, the government knows this and does fuck all about it. This is either because of insidious political reasons or simple intellectual sloppiness. All you are left with is Margaret Hodge getting slapped about on a slow news Sunday for sticking her neck out and saying some half-arsed stuff to the papers.

    The situation that results is a kind of deadlock that benefits no one but the BNP who carry on ‘saying what people really think but are too afraid to say’ or however they put it. For me the only way to address the issues these loons bring up is to let them on TV and see what they say then we can combat it.

  14. Riz — on 27th March, 2007 at 12:23 pm  

    I’m not sure it is wise to widen the net too much. One risk for consideration is that it could lead to a gaming of the system. I can imagine the BNP for example, using the channel as a means of increasing its audience through the veil of moderate, thoughtful commentary, specifically designed to increase support. Other nutters will come across as loonies, but the clever groups may adapt their communication policy in line with the prize on offer.

    Whilst you are speaking to the Beeb Sunny, tell them to fire all their business reporters. They are so weak, it hurts – the chap who reported on the whopping salary of the head of Barclays Capital yesterday was so animated and excited, he must have been on something.

  15. soru — on 27th March, 2007 at 12:27 pm  

    I’m strongly against this. I can’t see how it could lead to anything other than the tabloidisation of the BBC.

    ‘One nutter one interview’, ‘one militia one documentary’, those are not the principles of public service broadcasting people pay their license fee for.

  16. Dan Goodman — on 27th March, 2007 at 12:43 pm  

    There is something wrong with the BBC’s concept of impartiality and balance, but I’m not sure that this is the right solution to that problem. As an example of what I consider to be the problem: giving equal time in a discussion on climate change to someone who does believe in it and someone who doesn’t isn’t impartial or balanced, but is in fact making an editorial statement. This is sort of similar to the problem mentioned earlier of having two sets of extremists on (say neocons and supporters of terrorism). There’s a systematic distortion (I won’t say bias) going on, but it’s not simple to identify it or the exact causes of it. Having more ‘ordinary people’ on would be one way to address it, but shouldn’t be the only way. In principle, I want to have people who are expert on any given subject on the news. Even if I disagree with them, they ought to be able to tell me something I didn’t already know. In practice, the experts they get on tend to say things which are entirely predictable and very uninformative. The Beeb needs to give us more information, but putting on more extremists (like the BNP) doesn’t necessarily do that. They also need to be less subservient to authority but that’s another story.

  17. Arif — on 27th March, 2007 at 12:47 pm  

    The BBC can never please everyone, the best they can do is be transparent and accountable. Currently they are not. Radical impartiality or studied moderation aren’t solutions in themselves, because as sonia said above – there is still the question of selection, the rationale behind it and the suspicions of those who disagree with the selections.

    So the rationale should be clear and publicly accessible. One show may adhere to radical impartiality, another to neutrality, another to moderate commentary etc. They should all be accountable at least in the sense of being transparent in the values or rationale for selecting topics and interviewees/commentators.

    Those values can then be discussed by fanatics on my behalf, pressuring the BBC to make changes to their show policies when the editors are convinced by argument (or whatever), and then making the change public. If they do not stick to their policy, then again they are accountable. The media can watch the media (as it does so much anyway) with fanatical bloggers and commentators providing me with the security that corruption (in terms of not sticking to stated values) will be punished ruthlessly.

  18. Anna — on 27th March, 2007 at 1:00 pm  

    Soru’s “tabloidization” is a good word. Also recognizing the impossibility of “impartiality,” why would “radical impartiality” suddenly make it possible?

    I find it disappointing that the word “credibility” is increasingly nowhere to be seen.

  19. Boyo — on 27th March, 2007 at 1:21 pm  

    “Radical impartiality” will of course be nothing of the sort. What it means that the liberal elite are sick of the Reithian constraints that try to reach at least a balance of olde world “objectivity”.

    Of course (as we learned on the first days of my “micky mouse” comms degree circa 1986) there aint no such thing as objectivity, or impartiality for that matter. What we will get instead is a furthering of the liberal agenda (effectively dissed by their bette noire Nick Cohen in What’s Left). And because everyone around the Notting Hill dinner table knows what’s best for us that’s alright then isn’t it.

    So-long then social cohesion and outmoded bourgoeis concepts about educating the masses (unless its about how crap England is, right?) and hard luck if you’re a member of the white majority (and particularly working class, who will be roundly demonised in the up-coming sit com Chav).

    This is about the opposite of impartiality – this is about shoring up the already dominant MIDDLE CLASS liberal agenda, which is in actuality only the flip-side of the middle class right-wing one. After all, they all go to the same schools, parties and weddings. And, while they may well have the odd “pickled” buddy or newsreader, they’re more likely to know what you and I want from their cleaner, cook or housekeeper than their dining companion. And that’s just the way they want to keep it.

  20. Don — on 27th March, 2007 at 1:28 pm  

    I can see very little potential benefit from this, and a huge potential to totally screw up.

    Besides, ‘All those views need to be treated with the same level of sceptical inquiry and respect.’
    So the BNP and the Taliban get an equal measure of respect as, say, Amnesty? What nonsense.

  21. sonia — on 27th March, 2007 at 1:46 pm  

    dan’s got a good point about the expert analysis.

  22. Bert Preast — on 27th March, 2007 at 1:50 pm  

    Sunny, while you’re there could you remind the BBC that they are not there to battle for ratings like other news services have to. So can they kindly ditch the celebrity and sensationalist crap and get back to providing serious news like they used to?

  23. Chairwoman — on 27th March, 2007 at 1:50 pm  

    Don – Not the same measure of respect, but allowed to state their case.

    You must be aware that I am not likely to be a supporter of either of the two parties you mention, and hope to see them hoist by their own petards. But Amnesty, Oxfam, Christian Aid etc., also have their own political agendum, and it would not hurt for them to be questioned in greater depth.

  24. Sid Love — on 27th March, 2007 at 2:06 pm  

    Who do you think you’re kidding Mr Horrocks?

    The last time the BBC was ‘radically impartial’ was when Andrew Gilligan reported the Iraq Dossier had been “sexed up” by the government in order to buy public opinion. This in spite of the inclusion of Blair’s profoundly unsexy foreword:

    “The document discloses that [Saddam's] military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.”

    Since then there has been the Hutton enquiry, the sacking of Greg Dyke and the extraction of any sign of authority or edge from BBC reportage. Its been a painful de-teething of Beeb aunty-ji.

    Is this debate an attempt to regain those teeth?

  25. sonia — on 27th March, 2007 at 2:25 pm  

    Speaking of ‘impartiality’ at the Reuters Institute of journalism. ( how amusingly ironic, a journalism institute funded by a News Organisation – how impartial is that..ho ho)

  26. Twining or Black in Blue — on 27th March, 2007 at 3:03 pm  

    RADICAL IMPARTIALITY – is that like the difference between good and bad? The difference between right and wrong? If so, then it gives minority people that are margianlised a voice. And bloody time too! Oops.

    But, if it includes allowing radical extremists like the BNPA and Nation of Islam airtime to say what they peach is right then I have to say no. Sunny, what will you tell the BBC?

  27. Kulvinder — on 27th March, 2007 at 3:04 pm  

    It’s an incredibly silly idea, i stand by what i wrote here.

    I want to hear arguments being made with their own internally consistent logic. I don’t want polar extremes brought together in shitty attempt to cover everyones point of view. They’ll turn whats left of TV into a flamewar.

  28. Twining or Black in Blue — on 27th March, 2007 at 3:04 pm  

    Sunny can you remind the BBC that we need more air time er like anything except when we are asleep will do.

  29. Kulvinder — on 27th March, 2007 at 3:05 pm  

    Sorry link didn’t work here

  30. Sid Love — on 27th March, 2007 at 3:39 pm  

    you’re too kul for skulvinder.

  31. Sid Love — on 27th March, 2007 at 3:41 pm  

    Oh yeah, and Sunny, whilst you’re there – tell them:
    More Family Man and American Dad

    for shoooar!

    that’s as much radical impartiality they can probably stomach for now.

  32. Jagdeep — on 27th March, 2007 at 4:03 pm  

    All those views need to be treated with the same level of sceptical inquiry and respect

    So a meek and mild lady who represents some church organisation and takes an eminently moderate and sensible and respectful considerate position on an subject, for example, deserves to be treated with the same level of sceptical inquiry and respect as some skanky ideologue who justifies suicide bombing, or some redneck racist from the BNP? Yeah right.

  33. Leon — on 27th March, 2007 at 4:16 pm  

    Oh yeah, and Sunny, whilst you’re there – tell them:
    More Family Man and American Dad

    for shoooar!

    Hell yeah!

    (he says even though he has all five seasons of FG and season one of AD on dvd…)

  34. Sid Love — on 27th March, 2007 at 4:20 pm  

    you’re just showing off.

  35. Roger — on 27th March, 2007 at 4:21 pm  

    Sir Boyle Roche, who boasted that he would judge a case fairly, without being partial on the one hand or impartial on the other, would get on very well with Mr Horrocks. An important aspect with balance in physics is that the effect of a weight depends on its mass multiplied by its distance from the centre of balance. By the same token, it only takes a small mass at the extremes- HuT or the BNP, say- to outweigh the solid sensible opinions near the centre.

  36. Jagdeep — on 27th March, 2007 at 4:36 pm  

    You know what really grinds my gears Sid? You know what really grinds my gears?

  37. Sid Love — on 27th March, 2007 at 4:40 pm  

    what’s that Jagdeep?

  38. Jagdeep — on 27th March, 2007 at 5:08 pm  
  39. Sid Love — on 27th March, 2007 at 5:18 pm  

    pure radically impartial genius.

  40. lithcol — on 27th March, 2007 at 8:06 pm  

    So, the days of middle-of-the-road, balancing left and right, impartiality are dead. Instead I believe we need to consider adopting what I like to think of as a much wider “radical impartiality” – the need to hear the widest range of views –all sides of the story.

    Does Peter Horrocks really think the British public are stupid? Does he believe that the BBC has been broadcasting “middle-of-the-road, balancing left and right” news and opinion? Of course not. He has at last admitted, although in a somewhat coded style, what many others have being saying for sometime. The BBC has been broadcasting the biased agenda of a privileged liberal elite.

    Radical impartiality! Bullshit terminology. Impartiality is sufficient. Difficult to achieve in practice but nevertheless a worthwhile pursuit.

  41. Sunny — on 27th March, 2007 at 8:12 pm  

    Hold on what is this site for? Are contributors merely a ready horde of bright idea merchants to make you look good?

    But of course. I get most of my inspiration from my readers, didn’t I say this before? Surely that is the best form of interaction?

  42. Rumbold — on 27th March, 2007 at 8:32 pm  

    Nemours is just bitter because he was on the losing side during the French Wars of Religion.

    If the BBC became a genuine subscription service, rather than a TV tax, then it could be led by what its consumers wanted; if that meant excluding certain groups from having a voice, then so be it.

  43. William — on 27th March, 2007 at 9:54 pm  

    Impartiality is partly in the minds of the partakers anyway in this case BBC staff and interviewees. Radical impartiality will be subject to the same criticism. I am with Chairwoman however. Let it happen, the looneys will fall in an open arena but this time being in an open arena we can then see them fall. OK groups like the BNP may continue to hide behind a veil of moderation. But we know this already so lets tell them that we know how they hide.

  44. ZinZin — on 27th March, 2007 at 10:18 pm  

    How about reporting information and thats it? There is too much comment and I am not just talking about the commentariat its the phone-ins as well. Still at least the phone-ins keep you up to date with the ignorance thats out there.

  45. lithcol — on 27th March, 2007 at 10:43 pm  

    William I assume you are well educated and probably fairly prosperous. You are also probably liberal in your outlook. You probably support the interests of minorities etc. All to the good, however there is a large constituency out there who do not see their views supported or aired often enough on the media, particularly the BBC.
    Like it or not the far right is making massive inroads in this country and Europe as a whole. Radical impartiality would of course have to give them a bigger voice. Exposing the inherent racism of the BNP would I fear have absolutely no effect as long as some of the failings of the current government are not addressed.
    Actually I probably assume too much. Who watches news on the telly anyway? Not many by all accounts, and if they do it ain’t the BBC. So why bother with radical impartiality.

  46. bananabrain — on 28th March, 2007 at 5:38 pm  

    all journalistic pretensions of impartiality are shams and the bbc’s is no exception. i’m not a daily mail reader myself, but i can certainly sympathise with the following:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=436794&in_page_id=1770

    to say nothing of this:

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/gerard_baker/article1522471.ece

    although i am in many ways one of the “liberal”, “progressive” “élite” and practically make up a chattering class on my own, i have to say that it annoys me intensely that the bbc seems to have its own foreign policy – although it would be even more grounds for suspicion if it just reflected government policy (especially after the interview i heard this morning about dentists – sheesh). i suppose that’s the difficulty.

    b’shalom

    bananabrain

  47. Elaine — on 29th March, 2007 at 11:39 pm  

    Why not propose something different from the rest of the UK media world and worthy of functioning as a public service broadcaster? Something like ‘intelligent conversation’ based on competing analyses drawing upon sourced and reliable evidence.
    The UK print media are adversarial, partisan and increasingly dominated by commentary rather than analysis. With the exception of the Economist I find very little reliable analysis in the print media (I find I often disagree with the political analysis -but enough information is there to form one’s own opinion). I certainly find that the scope of the coverage of world news is diminishing; I tend to agree with John Lloyd’s view that the media has been central in debasing public political discourse. (I have written something lengthy about all this with some attempts to provide evidence for these assertions)

    There is more than ample public media space for the venting of ‘opinion’ and aggressive confrontation. The BBC does not need to offer this: it needs to stand out from the crowd.

    Impartiality should allow different interpretations, emphases, etc to be aired; it does not require providing a platform for unsubstantiated opinion. Being a responsible public service should entail questioning evidence and the bases of argument for these interpretations. Unless one is an utter relativist, one weighs the logic and evidence that support arguments. Inevitably, ideological difference means a selectivity about ‘evidence’ — but that should be made manifest (not by sneering ‘you would say that wouldn’t you); it also affects the way issues are ‘framed’ and journalists should be aware/sensitive to when/how that is done and how to challenge such framing. (I had a long exchange with BBC about a complaint I made about racist and communalist framing in discussion programmes)

    This carelessness with issues of valid argumentation and evidence is very corrosive and is incredibly widespread. I operate in a number of social and political worlds. Here in the UK – even amongst academics and journalists in a social setting – it is almost considered ‘rude’ to ask for evidence for assertions and even ruder to ask for the source (I have perfected an ‘interested/fascinated’ mode to deflect that sort of response). You rarely find citations in the UK print media; on programmes like Question Time, etc. anecdote almost always trumps statistical research, basic recurring factual inaccuracies are never challenged, etc. (I can give specific examples).

    I would like to know that I am ‘well-informed’ by the BBC because of the scope, diversity and quality of the material offered. I would like to feel that there are standards for evidence, for quality of argument that are – yes – imposed on those who engage in public political discourse. I would like to be able to ‘rely’ on the BBC. That doesn’t mean that it has to be boring or bland or lacking in humour; it doesn’t mean that there can’t be real drama–just not confected drama/opposition framed in the tabloid sytle.

  48. Sunny — on 29th March, 2007 at 11:52 pm  

    Completely agree with you Elaine….

    I tend to agree with John Lloyd’s view that the media has been central in debasing public political discourse. (I have written something lengthy about all this with some attempts to provide evidence for these assertions)

    have you got a link to this? I’d love to read it…

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