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.

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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.