The god impartiality

The BBC just released a report on its own impartiality. As I’ve said before, the irony of British media is that the BBC and TV must, by law, be impartial while the press is transparent about its perspectives; in the U.S. the opposite is occurring: the press thinks it is objective while TV is headed in the opposite direction (see FoxNews, Lou Dobbs on CNN, Keith Olberman on MSNBC). Here’s Media Guardian’s coverage; the BBC’s own coverage; and the complete report with its 12 principles of impartiality (my emphases):

1. Impartiality is and should remain the hallmark of the BBC as the leading provider of information and entertainment in the United Kingdom, and as a pre-eminent broadcaster internationally. It is a legal requirement, but it should also be a source of pride.

2. Impartiality is an essential part of the BBC’s contract with its audience, which owns and funds the BBC. Because of that, the audience itself will often be a factor in determining impartiality.

3. Impartiality must continue to be applied to matters of party political or industrial controversy. But in today’s more diverse political, social and cultural landscape, it requires a wider and deeper application.

4. Impartiality involves breadth of view, and can be breached by omission. It is not necessarily to be found on the centre ground.

5. Impartiality is no excuse for insipid programming. It allows room for fair-minded, evidence-based judgments by senior journalists and documentary makers, and for controversial, passionate and polemical arguments by contributors and writers.

6. Impartiality applies across all BBC platforms and all types of programme. No genre is exempt. But the way it is applied and assessed will vary in different genres.

7. Impartiality is most obviously at risk in areas of sharp public controversy. But there is a less visible risk, demanding particular vigilance, when programmes purport to reflect a consensus for “the common good”, or become involved with campaigns.

8. Impartiality is often not easy. There is no template of wisdom which will eliminate fierce internal debate over difficult dilemmas. But the BBC’s journalistic expertise is an invaluable resource for all departments to draw on.

9. Impartiality can often be affected by the stance and experience of programme makers, who need constantly to examine and challenge their own assumptions.

10. Impartiality requires the BBC to examine its own institutional values, and to assess the effect they have on its audiences.

11. Impartiality is a process, about which the BBC should be honest and transparent with its audience: this should permit greater boldness in its programming decisions. But impartiality can never be fully achieved to everyone’s satisfaction: the BBC should not be defensive about this but ready to acknowledge and correct significant breaches as and when they occur.

12. Impartiality is required of everyone involved in output. It applies as much to the most junior researcher as it does to the director general. But editors and executive producers must give a strong lead to their teams. They must ensure that the impartiality process begins at the conception of a programme and lasts throughout production: if left until the approval stage, it is usually too late.

I hear a note of protesting too much. The notion of impartiality comes from monopoly: the need to be one-size-fits-all, except one size doesn’t fit all. What’s impartial, objective, true to one person or community may well not be to the next.

I think a better exploration of this comes from the head of BBC TV news, Peter Horrocks, who in December 2006 gave a speech exploring the fate of the BBC and impartiality in a niche media society: If you make a show or network aimed at one segment of society it is no longer one-size-fits-all; it now has a perspective and so is it impartial? Horrocks’ rhetorical pas de deux was to call for radical impartiality: more voices, more opinions, more perespectives. But this still begs the question: Is impartiality possible? Is objectivity possible?

I always find it necessary in this discussion to say that I’m not advocating that all news be opinionated — that we all become the aforementioned cable newsers — but I do say that we all have perspectives and as hard as we may work to be — cough — fair and balanced, it is still necessary to reveal those vantage points: the ethic of transparency over the god objectivity.

(I think I may be on PBS Newshour tonight discussing this. It has been rescheduled three times, so who knows.)

  • There are no impartial media sources on this or any other planet.

  • Jabba the Tutt

    Okay, if the BBC is just another channel in a world of niche channels, then privatize it. Stop the taxation to support the BBC and stop its special privileged position. They can’t have it both ways. They can’t have a perspective AND be publically-owned and chartered to be an impartial channel of information. Do you think Mr Perspective Peter Horrocks supports this idea?

  • We Americans owe just about everything to our British heritage, and our cultures continue to be very much alike. But, the fact that the British public acquiesces to news dominated by a government-type entity like the BBC represents a large and fundamental between our two countries. Our founders thought of the press as a “fence” to keep government from encroaching on individual rights, which is impossible to accomplish if the government essentially controls the press. (Steve Boriss, The Future of News)

  • On the face of it, your argumentive question “Can true Objectivity/Impartiality actually EXIST?” (slightly paraphrased) essentially has the answer of ‘sure – news without commentary.’ Raw video footage with no one explaining what is going on. Which is, of course, chaos. Even then, one could easily make the argument that WHERE the camera is POINTED indicates a degree of bias on the videographer’s part.

    The BBC strives for this objectivity as much as any subjective medium possibly can, and that, perhaps, makes its quest a somewhat noble one – however ultimately impossible it may be…but it at least exemplifies the fundamental tenet of journalism, which is reporting sans opinion.

    A far cry, as you point out, from the current directions American Television has been taking – and the main reason my television news watching is confined solely to The News Hour on PBS…

  • chico haas

    The Weather Channel: It’s raining in Washington.
    CNN: A June rain in Washington is further evidence of global warming.
    FOX: If the rain in Washington causes floods, the Admnistration is prepared to act.
    BBC: Even with a deluge in Washington, Mr. Blair has been summoned to the White House and will comply.
    ESPN: The Senators are in a rain delay.

  • I just got this email:

    June 18, 2007

    For more than a century, “objectivity” — the dispassionate presentation of events and facts — has been considered an ideal in American journalism. But in print, over the airwaves, and through the Internet, the line that separates objective journalism with opinion journalism may be blurring.

    In particular, cable television has offered more and more programs melding news with opinion. The cable ratings leader, The Fox News Channel, has built much of its success through an opinionated evening lineup. Hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity leave little doubt to where they stand when discussing the news of the day.

    CNN and MSNBC have also incorporated more opinion into their evening shows. Over time, CNN’s evening news host, Lou Dobbs, has put more of his own views into his newscast, most notably in his recent coverage of immigration. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann regularly makes clear his disdain for the Bush Administration, particularly in its handling of the Iraq War.

    Tonight, Senior Correspondent Jeffrey Brown discusses the increasing mix of news and opinion in journalism with Callie Crossley, regular contributor to the media criticism program “Beat the Press” on Boston’s WGBH and former award-winning television producer at ABC News, and Jeff Jarvis, author of the weblog and associate professor and director of the Interactive Journalism program at the City University of New York.

    Visit after 9 p.m. Eastern time for more information on this segment.

    EDITOR’S NOTE: Segments highlighted on Media Watch Alert are scheduled to air but subject to change.

  • Austin

    Of course, the BBC’s effort to remain impartial is one of the big reasons why it’s one of the only news outlets that’s worth a damn anymore. American news media is total crap. If it’s not obviously biased, it’s wasting our time with non-news (i.e. Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, and Paris Hilton) or advertorials (i.e. check out the new tech-gadgets!). Big monolithic news organizations like the BBC may have their faults but I have more respect for the BBC as a news source than anything in this country save for NPR and PBS.

  • Is the BBC really as impartial as some claim it is?

  • sorry about double post…check out this link:

  • Jeff:
    It’s not just about the BBC as I write in this article for, it is about all of us under pressure of time and resources – all the more reason to think through the advantages of networked journalism:

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  • Nick Reynolds (BBC)

    The trouble is that the BBC is required by law and by its royal charter to be impartial. All broadcasters are required to do this in the UK. UK newspapers are not. Until this changes (I don’t think it will) the BBC will strive to be impartial.

    The BBC Trust’s report said the BBC’s audiences have a good understanding of what impartiality is, and want the BBC to be impartial.

  • T. Rex Bean

    Question: should journalists be allowed to donate to political candidates? Should (actually, you can’t prevent them) be allowed to vote? If they vote, should their political affiliations be published (ie, dem/repub/independent). should they be asked for whom they voted? Also, be advised that some organizations — such as Fox News — allow editors and reporters to contribute to political candidates. Others — Post, NYT, CNN — do not.
    Disclosure: I have a horse in this race. I am a “journalist” — no, really, I am, those quotes are a bit of postmodern irony — and I’ve made a donation to a political candidate.

    Fire away.

  • The BBC’s impartiality was stretched a bit over the coverage of Alan Johnstone’s abduction – especially when compared with the coverage given to other abductees…