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Summing up – Regulating impartiality

February 22, 2009

With a just a few days to go before our presentation I wanted to look back on my research over the last couple of months and to see if I could answer the question posed to us:

‘How realistic is it to expect news and current affairs broadcasters to commit to due impartiality?’


Regulators particularly Ofcom do attempt to force news broadcasters to commit to due impartiality but they also seem to recognise that broadcasters cannot be completely impartial all of the time. That is why the concept of due impartiality is so important, it is fluid, flexible and not absolute.  It is part of the British tradition of fairness, which is not always repeated across the globe.

Impartiality is a goal that must be achieved, but within reason. You don’t have to give 10 minutes coverage to Israel and 10 minutes to Palestine for example to achieve balance in a news report but both sides really should be covered in some way,  or there must be balance for example over a series of programmes or reports.

And of course the news channels don’t always get it right. The BBC has been under a lot of criticism lately for its pro-Palestinian approach to the Gaza conflict. And in particular because of the contraversial decision taken by the BBC and Sky News not to air a charity appeal by the Disasters Emergency Commission.

The BBC say they choose not to show the appeal because they need to try and stay impartial in their broadcasts. But many have argued that a humanitarian appeal is outside the realms of when impartiality is an issue, and in response the BBC was then accused of being pro-Israeli. Questions of BBC bias have been asked for years, and a freedom of information battle is still ongoing over the Balen report, an internal BBC report on their coverage of the 2004 Israeli/Palestine conflict.

But when the issues are as contentious as these, with people so clearly being on one side of the fence or the other, can a broadcaster ever get things right? Won’t they always offend someone?

Compared to the little regulation of the press, the expectations on broadcasters are much higher but the ideal of impartiality is hard to obtain. It is not easy for correspondents and reporters to stay distanced and aloof in their coverage of humanitarian crisis or war when they see so much suffering. And the audience almost wants to hear the emotion they feel, so that they can relate to the images of distant lands of their screens. However, there is a fine line between emotive journalism and the blame game and that is why I think regulation, in particular light touch regulation is so important.

We need the regulators, Ofcom and the BBC Editorial Guidelines to keep a close eye on media output and to make sure that it is not biased, but at the same time, it is not always realistic to expect broadcasters to achieve due impartiality of every hour of every day and maybe they shouldn’t.

 As long as impartiality problems are regulated when they are needed to be, then light touch regulation works because it allows the broadcast media freedom, in a similar way to the long-established freedom of the press. As with the old cliché the media is the watchdog of the people, and important in a democratic society where the powerful must be held to account for their actions.

By being rigid in their approach to impartiality and giving equal airtime to each opinion, each side, broadcasters stand the risk of being dull and of failing to get to the actual truth of the story.

That is why the concept of ‘due impartiality’ is so important and more realistic than the idea of complete impartiality in news reporting. As the BBC Editorial Guidelines state, due impartiality means being:

“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.”

There are times when the broadcast media will slip up, when stereotypes will be reinforced rather than quashed and when one side may be given more air time than another. But as long as mistakes are acknowledged and the viewer keeps telling the media where they slip up, then things can’t be so bad.

Broadcasters are only human after all, they will get things wrong. But when they have been partial they can learn from their mistakes. Sometimes the lines are blurred between impartiality and morality, between neutrality and empathy but this is what makes the news so addictive because of our desire to know what is going on in the world around us.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 3, 2009 9:34 PM

    Hi Ali, you mention the BBC’s stance on the Gaza charity appeal but what I think the BBC failed to call on and what a lot of people seemed to miss was that the BBC is not just a news broadcaster like ITV, Channel 4 and 5. It is a news producer. What goes out on any BBC channel at any time is inextricably linked to their news coverage – very different from the other terrestrial channels. This seems to tie their hands with impartiality all the time. You can be impartial in a bulletin or across a series but across a multi-platform multi-channel network seems like a huge ask.

  2. hannahmashford permalink
    March 6, 2009 3:53 PM

    Ali, you mention that a mixture of empathy and neutrality is what makes news interesting and addictive. I agree. I think it is also important to remember that essentially we are telling news stories. Just regurgitating facts is not a story; a story says something; it makes people think. Sometimes in order to do that we have to get off the fence.

    Hannah Mashford

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