The word ‘impartiality’ was used as the BBC’s excuse to take Gary Lineker off the air last week, and was then used as a stick to beat them, with good reason. But it’s worth considering what they think they’re talking about when they use the term, and why it could turn out to ultimately be the undoing of their leadership (if that’s what you could call it).
Most of us have a fair idea of what ‘impartiality’ means, but let’s briefly consider it on a purely linguistic level.
‘Impartial’ actually has two closely related meanings, depending on which dictionary you consult. The first is about “not supporting any of the sides involved in an argument” (as the Cambridge Dictionary defines it), and the second is “not [being] directly involved in a particular situation” (from the Collins English Dictionary), which is about your place, positioning or interests. About not having ‘skin in the game’, in other words.
The problem with ‘impartiality’ as a concept is that it sounds clear on paper, and works well as a soundbite or a statement of intent. But in the real world it can unravel or slip out of our hands pretty quickly, especially when it comes to the most contentious of issues. This is something the BBC has routinely struggled with over the years, and something their current director general Tim Davie evidently struggles with too.
Davie, who stood unsuccessfully as a Tory councillor in the 1990s (“decades ago” as he describes it), reportedly said on Friday that as “editor in chief of the BBC, I think one of our founding principles is impartiality and that’s what I’m delivering on”. Davie is actually a marketer by profession, and you suspect that if he’d been a journalist he might not have been so quick to make such a transparently meaningless statement of marketing-speak. But then he is the BBC D-G after all - it comes with the territory.
If he was a journalist he’d know that impartiality is actually a messy business. Every decision a journalist or editor makes on a daily basis is partial. All we can hope is that the accumulation of a thousand tiny decisions, from the story pitch or feature commission, through to the choice of which source to speak to, which line to emphasise, which image to choose or which headline to run with, ultimately brings the finished report as close to an ‘impartial’ truth as possible.
It’s one of the basic tenets of the trade that opinion should not contaminate a news story, and that a journalist’s views should only ever be discernible within the opinion section, if at all. But, like it or not, a journalist’s inherent bias can and does creep in, whether it’s in the stories we decide to tell or in the way we decide to tell them. Consider how most of the national media places such an emphasis on house prices and mortgages, and such little attention on the rental sector. Assumptions, often lazy ones, are unfortunately all too commonplace.
Journalists like to think they are perfectly impartial operators. But the reality is that most of us are just trying to do our best. To report the facts, explain the context, debunk the jargon and get to somewhere approaching the ‘truth’ of the matter, however hard that is to agree upon.
As an aside, it's also why the rise of data journalism, a discipline which NationalWorld prides itself on, is such a powerful tool: you can't dispute the numbers, when they've been rigorously sourced and checked.
But for the most part, if a scientist works purely in the realm of facts (or at least trying to prove hypotheses as facts) and artists work in the realm of the imagination, then journalists exist somewhere in the messy middle ground. The best reporters combine a dogged pursuit of facts that can’t be found elsewhere, with a creative ability to tell the story about these facts, to bring them to life or help a reader make sense of them, of why they matter. As the great Harold Evans put it: “Actions are always more complex and nuanced than they seem. We have to be willing to wrestle with paradox in pursuing understanding.”
The senior management at the BBC apparently believes the myth of impartiality. It’s arguable whether the mantra of balance at the national broadcaster has taken on any more nuance in recent years, but in the past it has certainly tended to result in journalism that bent over backwards to present both sides of an argument, no matter how wacky or unproven one of them happened to be. It was only five years ago that the corporation finally advised staff that, on the subject of climate change, "you do not need a ‘denier’ to balance the debate”.
It’s presumably for similar reasons that the BBC continues to invite commentators with far-right views on to shows like Question Time week in, week out. This is where an unquestioning focus on impartiality can get you: false balance, which takes everyone further away from any sense of truth. On the aforementioned discussion show, it even led to Fiona Bruce defending Boris Johnson’s father Stanley last week over allegations of domestic violence made by panellist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, because it “was a one-off” - taking right of reply to the extreme, and becoming ‘partial’ in the process.
Turning back to the original dual meaning of ‘impartiality’, the BBC is failing on both counts.
It cannot claim to be operating from a position of impartiality while its chairman Richard Sharp, a Tory donor, is tainted by his alleged financial association with Boris Johnson (him again), or that one of its board members, Robbie Gibb, is a former Director of Communications for the Conservatives under Theresa May (and a former advisor to GB News). Can you imagine working for the BBC and having to listen to either of them pontificate on the subject of impartiality? It’s amazing there hasn’t been a full-scale revolt by this point, although there are reports that Davie has “lost the dressing room”, to borrow a quote from Match of the Day.
And when it comes to the other sense of impartiality, the more subtle one about not taking sides, this ambition appears increasingly implausible - not to say misguided - in 2023. In the era of social media algorithms amplifying hate, of rampant disinformation, of powerful government and corporate PR machines spinning out lie after lie, a more healthy starting point is one of scepticism.
The starting point should be to find the truth, rather than to find the balance. It’s the job of journalists to interrogate what we’re told by those in power, and not just take their pronouncements at face value, then counter it with another view. In actual fact, the better journalists unconsciously take a side: the side of the powerless, the underrepresented, the downtrodden.
Look out for the BBC’s “review” of its social media guidelines. There will be plenty of tortuous W1A jargon about “impartiality”, as it tries to stave off further attacks from the right-wing press and Tory backbenchers. But if the BBC fails to see that its real issue with impartiality lies in its boardroom, not its newsroom or sports studios, then its next crisis will be just around the corner.