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The BBC Editorial Guidelines and Impartiality

December 29, 2008

Whilst impartiality in the BBC is also regulated by Ofcom, the BBC itself has a strict self-regulatory process to help ensure its’ output meets certain criteria. The BBC Editorial Guidelines outline the standards that the BBC expects of all producers and directors that create content for the channel.

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Section 4 of the Editorial Guidelines outline rules on impartiality and the diversity of opinion. As part of the BBC’s status as a public service broadcaster, the editorial guidelines state that:

“The BBC’s Charter requires us to produce comprehensive, authoritative and impartial coverage of news and current affairs in the UK and throughout the world to support fair and informed debate. It specifies that we should do all we can to treat controversial subjects with due accuracy and impartiality in our news services…It also states that the BBC is forbidden from expressing an opinion on current affairs or matters of public policy other than broadcasting.”

Therefore, the BBC has a legal obligation to ensure impartiality in its news output. It must meet certain criteria to ensure it retains its status as a public service broadcaster and keep the funding from the licence fee.

As in the Ofcom guidelines, the BBC has a very similar definition of ‘due impartiality’.

“It requires us to be fair and open minded when examining the evidence and weighing all the material facts, as well as being objective and even handed in our approach to a subject. It does not require the representation of every argument or facet of every argument on every occasion or an equal division of time for each view.”

Therefore the BBC is not meant to express an opinion or if it does, it must balance this bias by illustrating the opposite side of the argument.

But is the BBC always impartial? What about the role of correspondents, who follow a certain area of the news in detail and often seem to give an authored opinion based on their own insider knowledge? Robert Peston is one such reporter. 

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 Over the past year, Robert Peston’s exclusive scoops on the Northern Rock crisis for example have led to calls that he may actually be responsible for the credit crunch, by triggering shares falls and scaring bank customers into panic withdrawals. This has drawn his impartiality into question. But the Editorial guidelines state that personal views by correspondents must always be clearly signposted because:

“Presenters, reporters and correspondents are the public face and voice of the BBC, they can have a significant impact on the perceptions of our impartiality.”

According to the guidelines, the correspondents must show a balance of views over time and provide an opportunity for others to respond if the subject is a controversial one. But are BBC correspondents almost becoming pundits in today’s modern media? Do they have a dangerous ability to influence public opinion?

As I stated the other day, a recent article published in the Daily Mail has claimed that Peston’s partiality has even begun to penetrate Panorama, a programme once prized on its’ objectivity.

The question is then raised – can the BBC really protest to be impartial? Several websites on the internet have been set up to undermine the BBC’s claims. Sites such as BBC Watch and Biased BBC dedicate their time to picking out flaws in the channel’s declarations of objectivity.

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A Freedom of Information row is also still ongoing between the BBC and a London solicitor, Steven Sugar concerning the contraversial Balen report. The Balen report was an internal BBC document assessing the channel’s coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict back in 2004. The BBC have now spent over £200,000 in their bid to keep the report out of the public eye and Mr Sugar is expected to take his case to the House of Lords after it was recently rejected by the Court of Appeal.  What does this say for the BBC’s claims of impartiality and accountability?

But it seems the BBC has been trying to address its critics. Back in 2005 when Michael Grade was BBC Chairman he gave a lecture on the future of impartiality and last year the BBC Trust, the regulatory body of the BBC published a thorough report on ‘Safeguarding Impartiality in the 21st Century’.

The Guardian website outlined the 12 principles of the report when it was published. They focus on greater recognition of the needs of the audience, the need for more transparency and the difference in the way impartiality is regulated in different genres.

Interestingly, the report raised the issue that the need for impartiality should not become an excuse for bland, dull programming. Therefore this raises the question whether strict regulation of impartiality could actually stifle creativity and free speech?

In my next blogs I want to look further at examples of when the media has been accused of bias and of failing to be impartial. In the mean time I’d like to know what YOU think…

Do you see the BBC as impartial? Or do you think they have a bias towards certain political parties, religions or countries?

What about other media sources? What other examples do you know of bias and the failure of impartiality in news reporting? I look forward to your comments.

Ali

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. tomallan28 permalink*
    January 3, 2009 6:30 AM

    Hi Ali. After a quick look at the websites criticising BBC impartiality, it seems that both “Biased BBC” and “BBC Watch” have the same axe to grind – namely that BBC coverage of the Israeli-Palestine conflict is biased. They “grind” in very different ways though.

    BBC Watch author Trevor Asserson is a UK solicitor and member of the Israeli bar living in Israel. His web page says that “bbcwatch was established in 2000 to conduct objective, statistical studies of the BBC’s news coverage of events in the Middle East.”

    David Vance’s blog, “Biased BBC”, makes no effort at objective criticism. Much of it appears to be an extended rant. For example;

    “I just had the misfortune to listen to the BBC’S PM news programme whilst cleaning my car. What an absolute disgrace! Did anyone else hear it? Not sure where to start. We were treated to a BBC reporter stating that although Hamas rockets now looked like they could target many more parts of Israel than has previously been the case (Cue applause?) we had to remember that “only four” Israelis had died so far. Only four. Meanwhile, as he briskly moved on, HUNDREDS of Palestinians have been killed. Once again the preferred BBC tactic of lumping Hamas terrorists and any innocent by-standers in one easy media bite-sized number being used for maximum impact. Then, just in case your sympathies with the Jihadists in Gazan had not been fully engaged, cue Red Ken! Yes, Livingstone was wheeled on to demonstrate his unrelenting and stomach-churning hatred of Israel, mouthing every pro-Palestinian cliche you could imagine. At no point was any other point of view allowed. Why? Can’t PM find anyone who thinks Israel may have a case worth making? The BBC – giving you all the news Hamas want you to hear.” David Vance, Biased BBC.

    It’s interesting that those who make accusations of BBC partiality so clearly have a special interest or a polemic point of view to push.

  2. January 3, 2009 11:51 AM

    Hi Tom,

    Thank you for your comment. I think it’s a really good point to raise across our presentation that those who criticise the impartiality of news output are often partial themselves, and wielding a particular view. Mary raised this point in her comment to my post on Ofcom.

    (https://mediaonthefence.wordpress.com/2008/12/18/ofcom-and-the-regulation-of-impartiality/)

    Also it seems to be that people often only respond to things they feel unhappy about. For example, you would be more likely to respond to a news channel that you felt wasn’t covering your point of view than to create a website praising the channels’ fair and balanced output. So does this in itself present a skewered view of the way the public feel about partiality in the media?

    Interesting thoughts. I look forward to reading your posts.

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