BBC's Complete Report on its Bias: ‘Safeguarding Impartiality in the 21st Century'

NewsBusters reported Sunday that the BBC completed a year-long internal investigation of its policies and procedures concluding that it “has failed to promote proper debate on major political issues because of the inherent liberal culture of its staff.”

The complete 81-page study has now been made available (h/t Benny Peiser), and should be required reading for media organizations here in America that clearly have similar bias problems.

What follows are some of the important highlights of this fabulous, must-read analysis.

After an introduction and forward, the Report set out twelve editorial guidelines, with the most compelling being (emphasis added throughout):

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. page 33

Today’s political and cultural landscape has changed dramatically. Voter turnout has been in decline, party politics seem much less sharply defined, and the UK Parliament competes with other centres of democratic expression. The internet, blogs and online petitions demonstrate that contemporary political activity may have moved away from the party political arena. Impartiality today needs to embrace a broader range of opinion.

[…]

It is an essential part of the BBC’s journalistic role to hold those with power and responsibility to account, and in politics that includes the opposing as well as the governing parties. But it should never arrogate to itself the role of ‘the Opposition’. There are those in the international media who regard themselves as the sole bastions of freedom and justice against (as they see it) the overweening follies of Washington. There is not a shred of impartiality in such a position, and the BBC has no place in such company.

Fascinating point, wouldn’t you agree? Didn’t American media after the 2000 elections largely take an opposition position, seeing themselves as the sole bastions of freedom and justice against the new White House and the Republican Congress?

How would you like to ask James Risen, Eric Lichtblau, Seymour Hersh, Keith Olbermann, Bill Maher, Dana Priest, Frank Rich, or many of America's activist journalists that question?

The Report continued:

4. Impartiality involves breadth of view, and can be breached by omission. It is not necessarily to be found on the centre ground. page 37

The continuing changes in British society mean that the parameters of ‘normality’ and ‘extremism’ have shifted. Reporting from the centre ground is often the wrong place to be. Impartiality does not entail equal space for every attitude, but it should involve some space provided that points of view are rationally and honestly held, and all of them are subject to equal scrutiny. It is not the BBC’s role to close down debate.

[…]

The BBC and its rivals make many successful efforts to think ‘outside the box’. Channel 4, after all, was set up to experiment with the form and content of programmes, and its refreshing alternative approach has spread to other channels. But a pattern of simple iconoclasm, mixed with revisionist history for the sake of it, has sometimes resulted in a new conformity.

In America, we would call that “group-think,” correct? The Report continued:

The centre is often the wrong place to be. It can be a danger zone. There may be some issues of simply-polarised argument – ‘all those in favour, all those against’ – where impartial programme-makers and presenters may legitimately sit in the middle of the seesaw (as long as they really are in the middle), as neutral arbiters and observers. But far more often the centre ground is the most populated area of debate, and in impartiality there is no safety in numbers.

Centrists can be people of muddled views or of none. But they can also be people making a definite statement, opposed to the extremes of the argument, or attracted by elements from both or all sides. So programme-makers who favour the centre can be just as partial as if they were out on a wing. The centre is not even a good place from which to view the wings – they can seem a long way off, and craning the neck to see them can result in a distorted picture. The impartial programme-maker should be on the move, travelling to different wings of the argument (and there will be more than two) as well as the centre – not to stay there, but to be able to observe people square on and close up, and see the world from over their shoulders.

Fascinating perspective, wouldn’t you agree? After all, regardless of how many people might be in this so-called “middle,” this by no means guarantees their veracity or correctness, and reporting only from this position might actually be erroneous and a disservice.

The Report continued:

An open-minded search for completeness does not entail equal space for every shade of argument or attitude. But it should involve some space, provided that the points of view are rationally and honestly held, and all of them are subject to equal scrutiny. Sometimes they may be disagreeable or distasteful to the programme-maker, but that should not be evident in the output.

Hence, when people like Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews only interview liberals, they are doing the public a disservice. Furthermore, when there is not a single conservative involved in a panel discussion, something is seriously wrong with the programming.

Taking this a step further, the Report is actually recommending a model closer to Fox News than any of the major American television news outlets, for a liberal commentator is virtually always a participant in panel discussions on FNC. By contrast, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and MSNBC cannot claim to always have a conservative involved in their panels. In fact, this is more than often not the case.

The Report continued:

Climate change is another subject where dissenters can be unpopular. There may be now a broad scientific consensus that climate change is definitely happening, and that it is at least predominantly man-made. But the second part of that consensus still has some intelligent and articulate opponents, even if a small minority.

The BBC has held a high-level seminar with some of the best scientific experts, and has come to the view that the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus. But these dissenters (or even sceptics) will still be heard, as they should, because it is not the BBC’s role to close down this debate. They cannot be simply dismissed as ‘flat-earthers’ or ‘deniers’, who ‘should not be given a platform’ by the BBC. Impartiality always requires a breadth of view: for as long as minority opinions are coherently and honestly expressed, the BBC must give them appropriate space. ‘Bias by elimination’ is even more offensive today than it was in 1926. The BBC has many public purposes of both ambition and merit – but joining campaigns to save the planet is not one of them. The BBC’s best contribution is to increase public awareness of the issues and possible solutions through impartial and accurate programming. Acceptance of a basic scientific consensus only sharpens the need for hawk-eyed scrutiny of the arguments surrounding both causation and solution. It remains important that programme-makers relish the full range of debate that such a central and absorbing subject offers, scientifically, politically and ethically, and avoid being misrepresented as standard-bearers.

[…]

Recent history is littered with examples of where the mainstream has moved away from the prevailing consensus. Monetarism was regarded in the mid-1970s as an eccentric, impractical enthusiasm of right-wing economists – today it is a central feature of every British government’s economic policy. Euro-scepticism was once belittled as a small-minded, blinkered view of extremists on both left and right: today it is a powerful and influential force which has put pro-Europeans under unaccustomed pressure. Multiculturalism was for years seen by many in Britain as the only respectable policy for managing the problems posed by immigration – over the past two years it has been much harder to find people in public life who support it. Programme-makers need to treat areas of consensus with proper scepticism and rigour. So often those in the media who think they are in the mainstream find that the river of public discourse has cut a new channel, and left them stranded in ox-bow lakes.

Fascinating. So, this “the debate is over,” “scientific consensus” nonsense should be avoided. Obviously, I couldn’t agree more.

The Report continued:

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.

[…]

Too often impartiality is regarded as a shibboleth for News and Current Affairs. It does of course apply there. It extends to other factual areas: Science, Religion, Arts, History, Documentaries and Natural History. But it also applies in Drama, Children’s Programmes, Comedy, Light Entertainment, Sport, Live Events, Education and Music.

[…]

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.

When a subject provokes strong argument, the need for impartiality is obvious, even if the method of achieving it is difficult. When there seems to be consensus, impartiality may therefore seem redundant. Yet this is often where it is urgently needed – indeed, consensus can arguably pose a greater threat to impartiality than sharply-defined debate. As the Sparkler respondents said, impartiality should work towards the common good. But what appears to be the common good may not always work to the benefit of impartiality. Indeed, ‘the common good’ is frequently a sweet song from siren voices.

[…]

Investigations into campaigns will, by definition, entail an arm’s length relationship, and will not normally risk partiality towards a particular cause. But ‘softer’ observations of a campaign should be handled with caution, to avoid slipping into simple promotion. Programmes which, for reasons of topicality, run in parallel with a campaign require careful thought for the same reason. Those that use campaigns (in the sense of taking advantage of the expertise within them) should remember that campaigners have an agenda, and should not generally be regarded as objective observers of a situation.

Hmmm. So, when you’re interviewing someone like soon-to-be-Dr. Al Gore, who clearly is on a manmade global warming campaign, one should assume that he has an agenda and might not be objective? Wouldn’t it be marvelous if the sycophants in the American press made such assumptions rather than obviously agreeing with everything people whose opinions they share say?

The Report continued:

In every case, programme-makers and commissioners need to be sure whether they are following a campaign as detached observers or helping a campaign with its message. They should take stock of their own emotional attitude towards the campaign in question.

[…]

We must not campaign, or allow ourselves to be used to campaign.

We must ensure that our output does not embrace the agenda of any particular campaign groups and that we treat groups objectively and do not favour one above another.

We must retain our impartiality and independence when we cover charitable initiatives and report charity appeals.

We should not appear to endorse a charity or charitable initiative in our dramas.

Great guidelines, wouldn’t you agree? The Report continued:

Increasingly manipulative and media-savvy pressure groups are hungry for free airtime, and so are governments. They envy the BBC’s trusted position in Britain, and naturally turn to it as the surest standard-bearer for their latest cause. Frustrated by public disenchantment, some politicians seem to believe that the BBC, in a public service role, can be harnessed to a government agenda, whether on matters of climate change or social behaviour.

[…]

If our social action programmes or campaigns coincide with a government campaign or lobbying initiative it is important we retain an arm’s length position.

9. Impartiality can often be affected by the stance and experience of programme-makers, who need constantly to examine and challenge their own assumptions. page 64

Programme-makers need to check regularly how their own stance and beliefs relate to those of the audience. At the impartiality seminar there was debate about whether there was a set of shared assumptions among BBC programme makers. There can never be too much fresh, lateral or distinctive thinking, and it is up to programme editors and series producers to stimulate it.

[…]

If a comfort zone exists – a liberal view of the world which enables people in the institution to feel comfortable with each other – it risks stifling originality, and could lead to a Roneo mentality which would be inimical to the breadth of view required by impartiality. At present much of the criticism of the BBC has been driven by people on the Right, but those with longer memories will recall how frustrated those on the Left were in the past by what they perceived as a default centrism. Instead of being immediately defensive about these criticisms, which may of course sometimes be misplaced, programme-makers should contemplate the fresh perspectives they offer. Spot checks on their own shared assumptions – or, in some cases, blind spots – can be revealing, and the tenth bottle on the alchemist’s shelf, Self-Awareness, is an essential element of impartiality. But it is of course of no value to correct one sort of consensus by simply replacing it with another – or, in Dorothy Byrne’s phrase, to rush en masse from one side of the ship to the other. The ship will still list. Programme-makers should spread their collective weight to keep it on an even keel.

The BBC has come late to several important stories in recent years – particularly awkward when they turn out to have been catalysts for cultural turning-points. It missed the early stages of monetarism, Euroscepticism, and recent immigration – all three, as it happens, ‘off limits’ in terms of a liberal-minded comfort zone. But there have been other blind spots.

Fascinating. How many issues have the American press come late to as a result of their biases?

As the Report continued, the following gem appeared:

The gravitational pull towards the centre may not simply be the result of a dominating political culture – after all, the domination of the Right for ten years in the 1980s never resulted in Thatcherism becoming the default mode within the BBC – but there can never be too much fresh, lateral or distinctive thinking, and it is up to programme editors and series producers to stimulate it. The audience – and programme-makers themselves – can only benefit.

Fascinating, wouldn’t you agree? Basically, the authors were saying that the leanings of BBC programs actually didn’t change in the ’80s when the conservative Margaret Thatcher came to power. As such, one can’t blame a liberal or centrist bias on political shifts in the nation.

Clearly, America has demonstrated this premise for decades, as the press certainly didn’t move to the right when Reagan was elected, nor did they when George W. Bush took over the White House.

The Report offered a number of conclusions that American media should heed:

A. Transparency with the audience The days of blind trust in Auntie are over. In today’s world, the BBC has to keep on earning trust from increasingly savvy audiences. They understand the idea of impartiality: it matters to them – particularly on the BBC – and they regard the BBC as ‘generally impartial’. It is essential to keep track of audience attitudes in a fast-changing broadcasting environment and a more complex and diverse society.

(i) BBC executives and programme editors should be as open and transparent as possible with audiences about impartiality issues, dilemmas and decisions.

(ii) The BBC should regularly commission detailed audience research on impartiality.

(iii) The BBC should resist the commissioning of programmes from production companies which have a commercial or other separate interest in the subject matter of those programmes. If conflicts of interest arise within the BBC or with independent production companies, the BBC should handle them transparently.

Great concepts all. Yet, what is the likelihood of any major American media outlet going through this kind of self-examination, and reporting all of the findings in so comprehensive a fashion to the public?

Of course, the question still remains as to what the BBC and its employees will actually do with this information. Wouldn’t it be fabulous if this implemented a sea change at the BBC ushering in a new wave of impartial broadcasting here in America?

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.