Archive for the ‘impartiality’ tag

Impartiality – from whose perspective?

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National newspapers yesterday reported that the BBC Trust is going to conduct a review into the impartiality of BBC coverage of the four nations. Most papers did it with a very straight bat. ‘BBC to examine post-devolution news coverage’ was the Guardian’s take – and headlines in other UK papers were similar.

But take a look at newspapers in the nations and you get rather a different story. ‘Is Wales losing out to a BBC pro-England news bias?’ the Western Mail asked on Saturday, and followed this with a story yesterday that focused on the idea that Wales was being ignored by the BBC, and that this was the primary motivation for the review. In the article former Welsh secretary Ron Davies is quoted as saying “I think the quality of BBC regional broadcasting is very good but unfortunately quantity is very, very limited”.

And this is surely the problem with the whole review. How exactly will the BBC Trust (or in this case Cardiff School of Journalism which is carrying out the study) judge partiality or impartiality?

Are they planning to do a simple geographic story count? Presumbably not, since this would bring editorial values into question. Or are they going to look at the approach to political stories – particularly during the election in Scotland, for example? If so, surely the Scottish perception of impartial coverage of the election is going to be quite different from the English.

It is very true to say that Wales is starved of news, but an awful lot of that is not the fault of the BBC. There are big ‘news blackspots’ in Wales where commercial news organisations have decided it is not profitable to send reporters. This is market failure but is it the job of the BBC to fill the gap? And, if it does, will this not be favouring Welsh news to the detriment of other areas of the country?

Ah, the perils of judging impartiality.

Written by Martin Moore

November 20th, 2007 at 3:56 pm

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The contradictions of impartiality

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I’m finding it more and more tricky to work out what people mean by ‘impartiality’ in news.

In the responses to OFCOM’s consultation document, ‘New News, Future News – Responses’ - released yesterday – almost all the respondents argued strongly that impartiality rules should remain in place for all broadcasters (i.e. not just for the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Five and S4C).

ITV even said that:

“[regarding] loosening impartiality rules on some more niche or specialist news providers, ITV believes this would undermine the tradition of impartial broadcast news and act against the public interest. This could have a knock-on effect to the overall perception and confidence in broadcast news across the board”

Yet at the same time, both ITV and Five are pushing hard on integrating ‘citizen media’ to news – the first through its Uploaded service and ITV local, and the second both on its website, in partnership with Friction TV, and on its TV news.

Neither Uploaded nor Friction are ‘impartial’ – you’re encouraged to be as partial as you like, that’s the point. Friction TV’s tag is ‘spark the debate’ and ITV asks people to ‘send us your views’. And it’s not restricted to the web; ‘The very best clips’ ITV says, ‘will be broadcast on our ITV News bulletins’.

Equally, it’s pretty difficult to know if a report sent in by a member of the public (text, audio, video or still pictures) would conform to ‘impartiality guidelines’ – especially since at no point are these mentioned – yet the public are invited to send in whatever they can (for the princely sum of at least £100 at Five).

In his thoughtful piece for Prospect, ‘Impartiality Imperilled’, David Cox wrote that ‘Impartiality involves no more than the attempt to regard different ideas, opinions, interests or individuals with detachment’. But isn’t what ITV and Five (and others) are doing the opposite? Aren’t they asking their audience not to be detached but to be involved, to be quite literally partial? And if so, isn’t the end point a news which encourages partiality?

Written by Martin Moore

October 23rd, 2007 at 4:17 pm

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The Unbearable Surplus of Space

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Is it any coincidence that the BBC’s definition of impartiality is shifting from a seesaw to a wagon wheel at the same time as the space to publish has shifted from finite to infinite?

That there is now the technical opportunity to air many different views must have been as important in changing the BBC’s philosophy as political or cultural factors.The author, John Bridcut, acknowledges this implicitly in an aside. ‘Impartiality’ he writes, ‘today requires a greater subtlety in covering and counterpointing the varied shades of opinion – and arguably always should have done’ (my italics).

But promoting complexity over simplicity brings its own dangers. In a world with no edges and no limits it’s very hard to find your way.

Take the BBC’s Have Your Say. You could argue this is a perfect illustration of diversity – hundreds if not thousands of voices being aired. Debates on everything from why the Afghan conflict is deteriorating (1,994 comments and counting) to the way forward for the EU Treaty (1,556 and rising).

But it’s just noise. It’s impossible to follow. It lacks narrative and relevance. If you don’t believe me take a look at a debate which began on Monday about whether the US and EU were right to renew ties with the Palestinians. In just over 24 hours there were over a thousand comments (closed at 1,716 comments, only 319 of which were published). Many begin ‘I think’ or ‘It’s interesting that’ or ‘In fact’.. But who is ‘I’? Interesting to who? Whose facts? Try reading them and you quickly drown in a morass of interruptions, interjections, digressions, and insults. These might as well be people shouting in outer space, whose words disappear almost as soon as they’re spoken.

Have your Say is performing a service, but not as a forum for discussion. It’s letting people vent. It’s no good if you want to listen.

We the audience need filters, channels, signposts, editorial judgement. We want people to tell the story, make it relevant, emphasise the important bits, explain why this person is worth listening to, challenge that person to back up what they’re saying.

The impartiality report talks about ‘twelve bottles on the alchemists shelf’; ‘Accuracy, Balance, Context, Distance, Evenhandedness, Fairness, Objectivity, Open Mindedness, Rigour, Self-Awareness, Transparency and Truth’. Missing from this divine dozen are relevance and story-telling. We’re told that ‘impartiality can no longer be served from on high, along with dollops of nectar and ambrosia’. But is editorial judgment so elitist? Aren’t we prepared to allow that a journalist expert on Russian politics is better able to decide how to tell a story about President Putin and pick out what is relevant than you or me?

The world is complex, but within our newfound surplus of media space, the BBC must be careful not to lose its editorial judgment.

Written by Martin Moore

June 22nd, 2007 at 12:40 pm

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BBC does the business

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How can the BBC overcome the perception that it’s biased against business? Sir Alan Budd’s report, ‘On Impartiality of BBC Coverage’, published last Friday, made it clear that this perception wasn’t accurate. The BBC’s coverage ‘meets the required standards of impartiality’ Sir Alan said, and the BBC takes the genre seriously.
His only two substantive criticisms were that when the BBC interviewed ‘doyens of industry’ it tended to veer from scathing to sycophantic, and that BBC news coverage was too prone to present business stories only from the view of the consumer (rather than the employee, the shareholder, the investor etc.).
However, if you look at the submissions from industry a different picture emerges. The British Retail Consortium, for example, accuses the BBC of bias against large retailers, of a failure to balance stories, of a willingness to accept NGO claims as fact, and in some cases of deliberate misrepresentation (they cite a piece on Countryfile last December). C John Brady submits that the BBC sees business as ‘big, bad and nasty’. And the CBI suggests the BBC has an ‘in-built bias against business’.
Why should business think this, especially since Sir Alan’s report found it to be untrue?
Well, the BBC partly has itself to blame. When it first appointed Jeff Randall as business editor it told people in industry that the BBC was reversing its previously hostile attitude. Profits would no longer be reported ‘as if a murder has been committed’ (according to the British Retail Consortium). Having confessed to being ‘anti-business’ the BBC dug itself a hole which it’s been climbing out of ever since.
Indeed, there is just as convincing an argument that the BBC is now not ‘anti-business’ enough, and that, given its non-commercial status, it is one of the only UK organisations that can scrutinise commerce free from conflict of interest. Especially since in this country, as John Cole remarks in a later submission, ‘regulation of business, including competitiveness rules’ seems much less rigorous than in the US.

Written by Martin Moore

May 29th, 2007 at 3:30 pm

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