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.)