The fate of the BBC’s impartiality

Peter Horrocks, the head of TV news for the BBC, gave a thoughtful and groundbreaking speech at Oxford trying to update the corporation’s ethic of impartiality. Just as we in the U.S. are challenging our sacred cow of journalistic objectivity, they at the BBC appear finally to be ready to question their own holy write of impartiality.

But the responses are different. In the U.S., many are starting to see transparency as the new ethic and the antidote to the old, outmoded creed of objectivity. Some are coming to embrace the British newspaper model, or at least to recognize that this is how blogs also naturally operate: They state their worldviews and then ask to be judged on the fairness, completeness, and intellectual honesty of what they say. In the U.K., Horrocks is not trying to follow that model from his own backyard, but instead trying to expand impartiality to take in more voices. Here is the nut graph in his speech:

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 Taliban interviews, more BNP interviews – of course put on air with due consideration – and the full range of moderate opinions. . . . So get used to hearing more views that you dislike on our airwaves. This wider range of opinion is a worthwhile price to pay to maintain a national forum where all can feel they are represented and respected. . . .

A more wide ranging and radical definition of impartiality may help persuade those of strong views who are already engaged with the news to trust us more.

I don’t think that transparency and openness are either/or’s. They are, together, legitimate responses to tearing down the castle walls that separate journalism from the community it serves. But Horrocks is not adopting transparency as his answer; he is holding onto impartiality and trying to update it. He is responding to the internet age by trying to open the megaphone wider to more voices — to mimic, indeed, the internet itself. This springs from the BBC’s license-fee-supported mission to supply “a universal news service” even in what Horrocks says is “a fragmented and segregated society,” in which fewer people believe they are being heard or served. So he will endeavor to have them be heard. Done one way — with many new targeted products, which he also proposes — this potentially only makes more echo chambers; done another way — with equal time for all — it becomes an unbearable cacaphony. What stands in the way of either definition of chaos is still editorial judgment (which, I believe, still mandates editorial transparency).

The underlying precept of the BBC that Horrocks chooses not to challenge — because he cannot, or he jeopardizes the very mission and support of his organization — is universality. I think it requires challenge. Can one news organization possibly serve everyone? Should it? I have complained that American newspapers must abandon their one-size-fits-all myth and I say that the internet is imposing on American journalism that British newspaper model of many viewpoints; it is in the debate that democracy emerges. So it’s ironic that the BBC is necessarily stuck with the American monopolistic model; universality breeds impartiality but both are anachronistic. So what Horrocks attempts to do, I think, is simulate within the BBC a more open marketplace not only with more viewpoints expressed in existing products but also with more products to serve more audiences, many of whom he admits have left the BBC and news, which itself challenges the notion of universality.

Thus Horrocks attempts to rebuild universality by building new products to serve various constituencies and he recognizes, face-on, the challenge of doing so without “dumbing down” the news to attract more people to it. He says:

Recent research we have done shows how different the perspective of this audience is from our traditional approach to news. For instance, they find the professional detachment of BBC presenters and reporters, in the face of human tragedy, baffling. They want our presenters to say things like “your heart goes out to them”.

Well, you could just switch to CNN or hire Ann Curry away from the Today Show.

Our research concluded “Whilst much of university-based education is focussed on teaching the ability to divorce emotion from intellect and argue “both sides of the toss”, to this audience such equivocation would seem not just alien but perverse.”

So should we respond to this and other insights into this audience? I can already hear the anti-dumbing down brigade limbering up for the charge. And I’m fully aware of how resistant our current audience is, for instance, to over-emotional reporting. But isn’t it vital, for instance, to encourage all audiences to be interested in global news stories? If parts of the audience find our approach off-putting don’t we have an obligation to change that approach? Isn’t it more important for a public service news service to try hard to get tough stories to audiences that might otherwise turn away from them?

At the start of his speech, Horrocks rejects the journalism of the lecture, which he confesses he was a part of:

If you scratch some broadcast journalists of my generation you’ll discover, barely skin deep, that the reason some of them went into broadcasting was to tell the audience what to think.

Yet he may be replacing that with a journalism of begging: Please come see our news (else we won’t be universal). American news organizations have long been accused of such pandering for the sake of market forces: audience size and advertising. The BBC was supposedly above that because it was supported by government license fees and the near-monopoly it once held in distribution. But if it is to maintain its call to be universal, the BBC must have the audience to prove it. So Horrocks wants to go get that audience where they live. And done properly, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s called service:

But, above all, this audience wants an agenda that speaks to its concerns. . . . The BBC needs to have a reputation for excellence in its domestic journalism that it rightly has for its foreign, economic, business and political journalism. And that means an unembarrassed embrace of subject areas that have too often been looked down on as too pavement-level or parish-pump. . . . Less frequent rubbish collections that leave unsanitary garbage in the streets, gun crimes that terrorise black communities, rising unemployment partly caused by new immigrants. These stories are real, not sensationalist and we need to tell them with the same vividness we have brought to our foreign reporting. And they need to be told in the accents and through the personalities of reporters that this audience recognises as being closer to their own interests. The days of the BBC talking down to them and trying to tell this audience what to think are over because they can simply switch off or ignore us if we don’t speak to them in their voice.

He must tiptoe on a line between pandering to and ignoring audiences: “We need to make these shifts in tone without, as far as possible, offending our traditional audiences who find the style of BBC News appealing,” he says. In one breath, he apologizes to those he will shock with new programming and to those who ignored his old programming. Hard job.

But I believe it is even harder to try to maintain the myth of the single, shared national experience of media and news: the great same page we’re all to be on. In the U.S., I have said, this allegedly grand, shared experience lasted only from the mid-50s — when network TV killed competitive metro newspapers — to the mid-80s — when the remote control, VCR, and cable box restored choice to media. And the grand experience is shown to be rather a lie by the great openness of the internet, which returns us to what I believe is the natural state of media in a democracy: a square for many voices. Horrocks clearly is trying to create the square via the BBC. He believes in a “society in which there can be common ground. Common ground in information, views and a shared understanding of how to interpret the world.” I see that wish as a vestige of the days when media, public or private, could dominate the debate. The debate is again ours.

What Horrocks wants to build is an ethic of openness not in media so much as in the public. He says that this common ground he wants “cannot now be based on a single set of views about the world. It has to be a shared set of approaches to understanding the world – a willingness to receive information that challenges assumptions, of hearing views with which one disagrees and the ability to debate and interact to form a variety of views about a diverse society.”

So we need to ask what is the best approach to the great democratization of media. Horrocks comes at it, naturally, by trying to open the BBC up. As an American without a BBC and with a prejudice toward independence, I believe the open marketplace of media and ideas will better do that. Yet, of course, over here, the comparable dinosaurs, the private media moguls, are contorting themselves rather like Horrocks to try to stay in the square. They, too, fear they will lose their standing as leaders in the debate. And I say that is good.

But at the same time, all these media machers fear that society will end up poorer for it, poorer in information, news, investigation, and service. And their fears are not wrong. If the BBC and American news organizations mismanage the assets they have — talent, resources, experience, brand, trust — then we will suffer. But the only reason they will do that is if they assume that we do not value what they should value: a watchful eye on the powerful, a voice for the silent, service for our lives.

I believe there is still a market demand for journalism. If you don’t believe that, then you might as well throw in the towel on both media and democracy.

So Horrocks is trying to answer that demand with the tool he has: the BBC. American editors are doing likewise with their assets. But I think they must find new ways to open themselves up, not just to new programs they control but to supporting the efforts the people control — with promotion, training, revenue help — for that is the way to include more voices and viewpoints and serve more communities.

I don’t think Horrocks will disagree. He says at the start of his speech:

Regulators, politicians and lobby groups are often united in just one thing – their desire to tell the public what to think and their determination to make the BBC and other public service broadcasters deliver their messages accordingly. But these interest groups, and those of us who once thought we could shape the views of our audience, are being rapidly out-flanked and indeed ignored by the audiences those groups control.

In this lecture I hope to demonstrate the depth and spread of this anti-elitist revolution but I will show there is still space for journalism that seeks to inform all, even-handedly. But to achieve this new purpose we need to leave behind the desire some broadcasters previously held – to tell the public what to think. Instead we should seize a new purpose – giving the public the information and greater space to think through democratic debate and interaction.

And I will argue that to respond adequately to these audience challenges there must be a far greater range of approaches and agendas in our journalism. BBC TV News will need to adapt massively. “BBC News” may need to become “BBC Newses”.

The question remains: How? Yes, one must open up the BBC, but not just to new interviews from the edges and new programs aimed at the disengaged but to new creators at the center. The BBC, like American news organizations, must find ways to encourage and enable not just debate but also journalism and not just within their organizations but without. The BBC should be helping many “Newses,” not just its own.

* * *

I can’t resist also sharing with you the BBC’s execution of the idea of impartiality, which was even more absurd than American media’s current practices in what they think of as balance:

And what of the journalism that we delivered? How did we interpret the BBC’s key value – impartiality? Well, on arrival we were soon taught how to handle that. In an era of neatly polarised Left/Right views – both domestically and internationally – it was easy to make sure that you delivered impartiality – simply by balancing interviews. A Tory minister balanced by a Labour spokesman. An industrialist with a union leader. An American foreign affairs expert with a CND activist.

And 25 years ago we used to measure impartiality to ensure we were delivering. During election campaigns one producer had the unenviable job of running the stop watches on every political discussion. He’d have three stop watches (because at election times the Liberals or Social Democrats would be allowed on, to make up the panel). The watches would be stopped and started as each speaker began and ended. Towards the end of a discussion he’d issue instructions through the presenter’s ear-piece. “Labour needs another 45 seconds”. The presenter would seek to give the spokesman that time. Uninterrupted. After each interview the minutage would be compiled into magnificent tables that would show incontrovertibly if we were, or weren’t, being impartial. There was healthy internal editorial debate, but little examination of content and agendas from the audience’s perspective. And, apart from the relatively confined programme areas of Question Time and radio phone-ins, there was little audience involvement in our journalism.

: Here is an earlier Guardian column I wrote on the BBC’s role in the landscape of media and journalism.

See also Adrian Monck (no relation) of the City University of London (no relation) on Horrocks’ speech — at first snarking, then considering and then comparing.

  • Some good points, Jeff, now your approach towards transparency becomes more concrete.

    However, one point caught my eye:
    “As an American without a BBC and with a prejudice toward independence, I believe the open marketplace of media and ideas will better do that.”

    Hmm. Are open markets always the answer? Depends on how ‘open’ you want them to be. Without any mechanisms to prevent extrme media conglomeration, you might end up with a situation where one giant corporation controls nearly all channels (See Italy) or where there’s really no diversification of views and opinions (Russia). In the case of Venezuela, don’t you think that state owned TV is actually a good think, when all privately owned TV corporations are exclusively spreading the opposition’s view?

  • ronbo

    Jeff: As a state actor, isn’t universality a mandate, not a choice, for the BBC? I would think that NPR has the same obligation. As a taxpayer I would object if NPR came out and announced that it was basically Pacifica with better clothes and hygiene and that if we wanted other viewpoints we were welcome to find them elsewhere. They are using my money, and I can’t exactly cancel my subscription.

    Gray: This is the first time I have seen the argument that state-owned media is a desirable counterweight to private media outlets that don’t hew to the official line. Consumers of media in Cuba and North Korea must be relieved.

  • “This is the first time I have seen the argument that state-owned media is a desirable counterweight to private media outlets that don’t hew to the official line.”
    I’m always good for some surprises. :)
    “Consumers of media in Cuba and North Korea must be relieved.”
    That’s a lousy argument because the situation in those nations isn’t comparable to my examples. There is no privately owned media in those nations, so what’s gonna be counterweighed there???

  • I think the idea that the US media had (has?) some vision of impartiality is overstated. The original media barons like Hearst and Luce had well-known agendas that they used their publications to promote. Perhaps they tried to cover this up a bit to attract a wider audience, but there are many stories about the conflicts at Time magazine between leftist staff and what Luce wanted to see in print.

    I think the objectivity theme is the result of just three cases: Paley at CBS, Sarnoff at NBC and the controlling dynasty at the NY Times. Since all basically owned the outlets they could set the tone. They chose a vaguely socially liberal, but pro-business outlook. Then they mostly kept their hands off the news operation. There may have been (and may still be) biases from individuals doing the reporting, but it was not the same sort of effort as imposed by Hearst and Luce.

    Now that Paley and Sarnoff are gone and the networks are owned by giant industrial firms the news is regarded as another profit center. In fact GE makes sure that nothing appears which will reflect badly on their role as a major beneficiary of the military sector that it profits from.

    This leaves the NY Times. It seems to me that there is more opinion slipping into straight news than thirty years ago, but perhaps we are just getting better at recognizing it.

    There is a difference between bias by individuals and an explicit agenda as at Fox or the Daily Worker. Did anyone ever read the Daily Worker to get an impartial view of the news? It was biased and therefore of almost no value as a source of real news. Is this what we want – explicitly biased media which states its objectives, or “impartial” media which is imperfect but is trying at least?

    As to the BBC they are starting to use the web more and thus may be able to appeal to diverse audiences which the limits on broadcast time don’t allow. So maybe they will have the touchy-feely news feed and the school marmish feed. Viewers online will be able to chose.

  • “The original media barons like Hearst and Luce had well-known agendas that they used their publications to promote.”
    And today, Murdoch isn’t really without an agenda, too…

    “This leaves the NY Times.” Right. WaPo doesn’t count anymore since Don Graham is at the helm. When you’re visiting a WaPo office and you hear a whizzing sound, that Kate Graham rotating in her grave.

    “Is this what we want – explicitly biased media which states its objectives, or “impartial” media which is imperfect but is trying at least?”

    Exactly. This leaves the Question: Is it possible to stop the trend towards even more biased media enterprises? :-(

  • Brian O’Connell

    More interviews with the Taliban? I get the sense that one of the “radical impartialities” is that the BBC will be impartial regarding who wins in Afghanistan- the UK or the Taliban. Many would say however that the BBC has already achieved this.

    That’s the problem with universality- it’s the view from nowhere, as Jay Rosen often says. That’s a particular problem for an org like the BBC, which, because of its funding, has to have some sort of national mission. It’s not possible to do both.

  • Pingback: » Blog Archive » The fate of the BBC’s impartiality()

  • jazzone

    In some ways Peter Horrocks’ speech is a tyically London-centric view of the BBC – fair enough Horrocks lives and works there and he’s mainly concerned with Network news output.

    But there are a whole bunch of services which have embraced those pavement-level or parish-pump issues – they’re the BBC services in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions. Listen to some of their radio output – it is ultra-granular – detailed discussions of things like bus routes are not uncommon.

    In the part of the UK where I live the BBC Radio 4 (which hosts the flagship Today programme) has a tiny audience with the rolling news service of BBC Radio 5 is not much further ahead. Meanwhile the local radio station gets an enormous share of listening.

    There are lots people in the BBC already doing what Horrocks is talking about – why isn’t he aware of them?

  • Ben Bagdikian’s observation that “objectivity is bullshit” is as true now as it was when he uttered those famous words more than thirty years ago.

    If a media outlet has a consistent, understandable editorial persona, and its reporting is fair, then objectivity is irrelevant. Knowing an outlet’s biases enable a user to get accurate news in spite of them.

    The BBC’s challenge is that it has to report the news as a public institution partially funded by a compulsory tax. It has to select and report the events of the day while avoiding any position that could be construed as even remotely political; denying or downplaying that it has any institutional viewpoint at all. What a nightmare.

  • “Knowing an outlet’s biases enable a user to get accurate news in spite of them.”

    I very much doubt that. That would only be true it by ‘fair reporting’ you mean the outlet really reports ALL relevant news, whether they support their agenda or not. Then the reader can get a clear picture when he takes the known bias into account.

    But that’s NOT the ‘fair’ reporting that Fox conducts. They very often simply don’t report about news that doesn’t fit into their worldview. That the reader/viewer knows about their bias is useless when he doesn’t even get to know the information. That’s the real problem with biased outlets.

  • Guy Love

    Unlike Byron Calame of the NY Times, who claims,

    … reporters and editors in the newsrooms of major newspapers are not motivated by a devotion to any political party or cause. It just isn’t in their DNA.

    Peter Horrocks actually admits the obvious,

    If you scratch some broadcast journalists of my generation you’ll discover, barely skin deep, that the reason some of them went into broadcasting was to tell the audience what to think.

    He then follows this up with,

    But, above all, this audience wants an agenda that speaks to its concerns …

    Why is it that journalists always have to frame information transfer into an agenda? Why can’t they just get all the relevant facts they can find by digging into the story and talking to the people involved in the story? At that point they just pass on the information they have gathered to the public in an intelligent concise manner. A story will then grow or disappear based on its relevance to both the public and the media as all the facts get sorted out.

    As soon as an agenda becomes the basis for composing their story, certain items are maximized, certain items are minimized, and some items are omitted. Completely presenting the information for the public to examine seems to be what the public is now requesting from them.

  • Delia

    re: “Knowing an outlet’s biases enable a user to get accurate news in spite of them.”

    I agree with Gray… it’s hard enough to attain a high level of objectivity even when you are *really* trying… I don’t see how you could look at a blatantly biased source of information and somehow get accurate news. I mean… what is the user supposed to do? Go do his/her own reporting to get to the issues you purposefully avoided? (so she could have a chance to then put it all together and get a balanced view of what’s going on?)


  • Delia

    re: “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.”

    Right! We got all day and all night… not only to “hear” fragmentary parts of the story (at different times, I presume) but to somehow remember them all and pull them all together, do the analysis and come-up with the balanced whole we were supposed to get in the first place… What are these people *thinking*?

  • It’s a great deal more honest to have a bias–and admit it–than it is to be biased and deny it.

    Fox News is pretty open about its conservative bias, and CNN is becoming more open about its liberal bias. They’re both reliable.

    BBC? I honestly don’t watch it enough to judge. But its status as a public institution funded by an earmarked tax means that it must also assume the public posture that it is impartial. This has to be a bald-faced lie due to the very nature of journalism — bias is inherent in having a viewpoint or evaluating the relative importance of the events of the day.

    If the BBC valued its integrity, it would jettison its relationship with the British government. But then again, the BBC is more about money than about integrity. Their tax funding makes them the richest broadcasting organization in the world; and there is NO WAY they are going to give it up for some annoying concerns about integrity.

  • Pingback: BuzzMachine » Blog Archive » The god impartiality()