Let's scrap the impartiality rules holding back British broadcasters

The EU referendum is fast approaching, and British TV is failing to engage the public. It's time to look again at ‘impartiality’ rules that prevent broadcasters from fulfilling their democratic remit. 

David Graham
31 May 2016
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Screenshot from the BBC Two documentary 'Europe: Them or Us'. Credit: BBC

We in the UK are facing the decision of a lifetime, one that will affect all our futures. It raises many issues and questions. Yet journalists working on our major medium of public information, TV, cannot explore those issues, report their findings and tell us what they think. In fact, they are positively forbidden to do that by the so-called 'Impartiality' rules, which apply to all UK broadcasters. The rules should be scrapped and the legislation that imposes them should be repealed.

The BBC’s Guidelines, which implement the terms of its Charter, require that “controversial subjects are treated with due impartiality in our news and other output dealing with matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy”. While BBC compliance is monitored by the BBC Trust, Ofcom, which regulates other UK broadcasters, requires impartiality on all “matters of political or industrial controversy… on which politicians, industry and/or the media are in debate”.

What sounds reasonable is actually a massive constraint on independent journalism. In practice it means that coverage of a contested policy issue must follow the contours of the Westminster debate.

The monitoring of this rule by politicians is intense, especially at times like this. Indeed, as reported by the Guardian in February 2016, BBC journalists have been warned, in rules specially drafted for the EU referendum, that: “…the BBC’s impartiality will be under the most minute scrutiny from all sides." 

One of the results of this rule is that the public are disengaged. One of them typified the reporting of the referendum debate as “old men shouting at each other”. The disengagement is extreme among young people whose future the June vote will determine. A YouGov poll published on the BBC News Site on May 19 tells us that only 10% of 18-30 year olds trust politicians to make the case for either a Remain or a Leave vote. Other groups are similarly distrustful. That’s a massive disjuncture, a political fault line.

But it’s a problem which should be addressable. Our TV News and Current Affairs departments are full of intelligent, skilled, conscientious men and women, aware of their public responsibilities and the power of their medium. The indifference of the public should be, must be, a critical issue and a challenge. Why are we not sending the best producers, directors and reporters to pick up the challenge and create powerful exciting content that breaks people out of their disengagement?

Yet we have seen no powerful independent TV journalism since the referendum was announced. We are missing passion, just when we need it most, for passion engages people – and engagement is what we now need.

Instead a quite different tradition of TV reporting has built up around the constraints of the Impartiality rule. The coverage of key issues becomes politicized, in the sense that it becomes a kind of extension of a parliamentary debate, something that has little resonance with the general public. The palace of Westminster is a court, and the echelon of parliamentary reporters are its courtiers. They can ask difficult questions and may bring down an erring minister from time to time, but their professional life is in and around that court and it defines the dominant mode of reporting on TV.

Away from the court, TV journalists may investigate issues, research them until they feel they have got to the bottom of a story, work hard to make it comprehensible and clear, tell us of their conclusions — except when it’s a matter of public policy.

So what have we missed? There’s a huge cleavage of opinion between young and old in our country, but have we seen searching interviews into this cleavage? Why not? Perhaps because the BBC’s referendum rules referred to above specifically tell BBC journalists to be cautious around opinion polls and refrain from running, I quote, “online votes or SMS/text votes attempting to quantify support for or against the referendum issue”.

Are there forces in the EU who are really trying to create a super-state? Let’s send a top investigative journalist to find out. But the answer might not be “balanced”, that is, in accordance with the official positions of Leave or Remain. The net result is impoverished coverage.

If it is true, as the Telegraph alleged in May 2016, that proposals for a European army have been purposely delayed “until after the UK has completed its referendum”, even more reason for TV journalists to find out what is happening and tell us.

As Oliver Daddow has pointed out, there has also been a deficit of reporting on key issues on which the UK has been active in Europe and played a positive role: its “leading role in pushing EU action on climate change (on which the UK Green Party is an authoritative but relatively rarely heard voice), Britain’s role in pushing good practice in Corporate Social Responsibility and its role in Common Defence and Security initiatives, for example in the EU Naval Force’s Operation Atalanta combatting piracy off the coast of Somalia.”

Committed TV journalism can only be found on the internet. Brexit the Movie, partly funded by Kickstarter, is on YouTube and the Great European Disaster Movie, originally aired on BBC 4 before the referendum was announced, is unavailable on the iPlayer but can be rented from Vimeo. Here’s a telling comment on the first of these: “This was insightful and entertaining, albeit (intentionally) one sided. Anybody know of any productions of similar quality that argue the contrary viewpoint?”

I am not the first person to argue for the abolition of the Impartiality rule. Far from it. In 2010, as reported in the Telegraph, David Attenborough backed change: “I think that the multiplicity of channels makes a quite totally fundamental difference to the sort of television I went into which was a monopoly. If you are a monopoly, you have to be unbiased.”  Mark Thompson, then Director-General of the BBC, concurred: “Why shouldn’t the public be able to see and hear, as well as read, a range of opinionated journalism and then make up their own mind what they think about it?”

Many years earlier, when Channel Four was launched, there was an attempt to push the limits of these rules, but it was quashed.

The referendum is a politician’s rather than a people’s issue. Politicians projected the referendum: the people didn’t ask for it. Yet the people have to decide. We have now seen two of the BBC’s planned long-form programmes, Nick Robinson’s 'Europe: Them and Us' and Jeremy Paxman’s 'Brussels: Who Really Rules Us?'. They both end with huge questions which offer no guidance. Nick Robinson tells us: “They (the politicians) have failed to resolve the question. It will now be the public who’ll decide”. Jeremy Paxman ends: “Sovereignty has been lost. The question is: has it been worth it?”

If the public are to be engaged, they need good storytelling, intriguing new insights, passionate reporters – not just talking heads and a licensed list of pros and cons. And if politicians want to keep the rule that enables them to manage TV’s political agenda, let the consequences be recognized.  It is a limitation on freedom of speech. It has impoverished public understanding of a vital issue and desiccated the coverage of a critical moment. The people have been short-changed. Let’s hope the lesson will be learned.

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