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Was truth the casualty of the BBC’s impartiality rules?

Following a referendum campaign in which the UK media has been accused of failing in their duty to educate, momentum is building to scrap, or revise, the BBC's impartiality rules.

I last wrote about this during the referendum campaign, before the British people voted to leave the EU. I said that the way the referendum was being covered was “impoverishing the understanding of a vital issue”. Many more have since joined this discussion, including Lord Puttnam, on June 29th in the Guardian, who described the BBC coverage as “constipated, … hamstrung by the strict rules on impartiality which govern it, which meant as soon as one campaigner said something it had to find someone to say the opposite”.

Was truth a casualty of the impartiality rules? It seems paradoxical, but it’s not.  So it seems time to formulate a basic strategy, addressing, first, the underlying ‘value’ we should support, and then what steps might get us there.

First, a democracy in which public ignorance can be exploited is a democracy at risk: it’s a potentially dangerous place to be.  A reasonable level of knowledge is essential to its functioning when and if its people are consulted on a major issue. We can now see how and why the truth becomes a casualty of this process.

There was good evidence before the referendum on how ill-informed the public was on such issues as the number of citizens living in the UK, the amount we pay into the EU budget, and the amount spent on welfare payments to EU immigrants. Late in the campaign, six million people, it is claimed, downloaded or streamed a lecture by Professor Michael Dougan of Liverpool University, telling them things that they do not seem to have been told elsewhere.  That, like the BBC’s Reality Check – along with ‘committed’ content ranging from ‘Brexit: The Movie’ to John Oliver’s hilarious broadsides – could only be viewed online.

This was a ‘political’ argument. There was nothing new about the process, but the impartiality rules enabled an extreme form of it. First they permitted politicians set the agenda.  So both sides looked for simple messages to capture public support. They dumbed down the debate. The Leave side started with one message – unelected officials are telling us how to run our country – and then found a couple more: the money we spend on the EU could go to the NHS, and we will only be able to control immigration if we leave the Union. The Remain side tried to frighten people about the economic consequences of leaving, which became known as Project Fear. On TV there were really two modes of the ‘debate’. First, there was the forensic interview in which (1) the interviewer pushes arguments from the ‘other side’ or (2) hosts a mini-debate between the antagonists. The second mode was the long-form programme – Jeremy Paxman on sovereignty, Mishal Husain on immigration – where different aspects of the issue were presented, but without conclusion. In short, the agenda was set by the politicians and the ‘rules’ severely limited the range and type of journalism that could be applied. 

I said in my previous piece for openDemocracy that what was lacking was ‘passion’. Bluntly, what the best TV journalists working in news and current affairs are passionate about is getting to the truth, which often is about finding out what politicians are hiding. Excuse a short biographical moment. Long ago, when I worked on Panorama, that was what journalists like Peter Taylor, Tom Mangold, Mike Cockerell, Tom Bower, and Robert Harris were all about. Editor Roger Bolton strongly supported the duty of journalist to tell the truth: ‘impartiality’ applied to opinion, not facts. Indeed, most of the big crises in British political journalism have occurred when a journalist got hold of facts that did not suit the government.

Independent TV journalism should have found all sorts of things, some potentially embarrassing to either side, to talk about. There was no proper investigation of the actual impact of EU originated legislation, negative or positive.  What are the forces taking EU towards a superstate? How serious are they? To what extent does the EU actually hold back our trade? Who really tried to get to the bottom of the costs and benefits of the single market? Or was ready to get the whole truth on immigration?

In the hands of really good TV journalists, this could have been really gripping stuff.

Jeremy Paxman was also part of that Panorama team long ago. He is famous for giving all politicians a hard time, a true successor to Robin Day. He presented one of the major set pieces, on sovereignty. The issue was reported with a sort of jaunty cynicism consistent with his normal persona but offered no conclusion. No compensating value was proffered to offset the sheer strangeness and unfamiliarity of the institution he was describing.

The EU is a massively complicated issue. The ‘rules’ prevented TV journalists from doing justice to it.

So what are the steps? A body of opinion may be forming. Peter Preston asked “how those BBC rules on fairness and balance helped public understanding”. Critics of my first piece on this issue have said change would mean that the broadcasters would become like newspapers, committed to a certain opinion. I completely disagree. I believe broadcasters would wish to remain ‘impartial’, but impartial in respect of the truth. The boards of the major channels would inevitably be very concerned to secure the highest standards of accuracy. That takes us to a key observation by Lord Puttnam in his recent interview with openDemocracy where he speaks of the importance of fact checking. That proposes a new approach where a regulator, such as Ofcom, imposes a duty of accuracy, with the resources to review and decide on complaints. Should there be some requirement for ‘balance’ over time on Public Service Channels in particular? I remain unsure about that. Some, like Ray Snoddy, have suggested that a proper interpretation of ‘due’ impartiality might work. I don’t think so. These rules have run their course. The world has changed.

As for newspapers, they have their role, but I am not equipped to speak on it. Just let’s release TV from these rules. If there is another seismic decision to be made, let us pray people are better informed. 

About the author

David Graham is a former BBC producer who worked for Panorama and set up Diverse Production at the launch of Channel Four in 1982. He now runs and owns technology company, Attentional Ltd. 


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