Now more than ever, the BBC must stand by its core value of impartiality

Anne Mcelvoy
Bad morning: presenter Naga Munchetty was disciplined then undisciplined by the BBC after she made comments about Donald Trump on the Breakfast show: BBC Pictures

"Have you been here every day since Brexit?” a new anchor sent from the Arabic network in the media tent asked as we prepared for the next thrilling bout of yes-but-no-but Brexit coverage on the soggy Westminster Green. No, it just feels like it.

Television and radio coverage works reliably to tropes and tones: the measured inquiry of the Today Programme between the gushy artsy bits, the newly frenetic timbre of Newsnight, keeping us alarmed enough not to head for bed, or Robert Peston’s languid “God only knows what’s happening” eye-wink with the frustrations of the audience.

Behind the glitzy sets and trusty formats a new wave of quarrels has fizzed around the BBC, in particular (given its licence fee funding), crystallised by the strains of Brexit and how to report it. The tricky bit is not simply dividing attention between two opposing positions, it is how to navigate what is hidden in the undergrowth. Does Number 10 want to “get Brexit done” because it fears scrutiny of its deal? For sure. And do some of those arguing for more time to debate it hope it will end up detonating a second referendum by laying tripwires? You bet. Reflecting on the balance of those views and how to handle them will inevitably irk a large number of people.

Brexit has galvanised trends in which the spectrum of agreed debate has narrowed as views diverge about the role and competence of the nation’s main broadcaster. Some of this is dissected by Emily Bell — head of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University in New York — in the Guardian this week. It raises charges against BBC senior management (which in effect means Lord Hall) and his designates and it is a useful checklist of up-to-date grievances.

The first is Brexit coverage, where Bell finds the BBC to have “struggled to be serious and consistent enough to meet the complex gravity of the moment”. But is this really an elegant way of expressing that she doesn’t think the impartiality criteria is entirely appropriate to Brexit? A lot of people, including many inside the Corporation, hankered for it to more decidedly anti-Brexit in the first place and thought analysis was scanty, especially on the economic impacts.

There is truth in that retrospectively but it still leaves me at a loss as to how the “complex gravity” of today could be addressed — other than by interrogating key players on each step of the process, which is what broadcaster journalists try to do in the face of much obfuscation.

Anne McElvoy

So, next on the charge sheet — the BBC is incompetently run. Let me confess to moments of agreeing, not least when I hear speeches about the importance of arts programming (I present one, so feel free to apply a discount to this point) — only to find the teams who provide it being thinned out and broad cultural discussion shrunk to a few crowned heads on the TV. Meanwhile, money flows to new iterations of management and the undergrowth of bureaucracy goes unpruned. Most of all, I’d object that the BBC is too comfortable appointing from within, so the tendency to groupthink deepens over time.

Like politics, it needs more of a revolving door with the outside world and less of the tendency to simply swap around cadres — and, frankly, a lot of jobs-for-life. It is also hard to innovate quickly, which puts the “jewel in the crown” at a disadvantage when competitors in TV streaming or podcasting can move fast.

Yes, there are sorry areas of outright failure — one being gaps in pay for female on-air journalists, which also persisted when women were in charge of some of the large internal divisions and networks. My hunch has long been that BBC management were so happy with a roster of vaguely social democratic males in the main authoritative presenting roles that the other progressive bits about gender and racial diversity slipped down the to-do list.

The other area causing grief is the line between opinion and impartiality, which boiled over in the Naga Munchetty case. As a presenter on BBC Breakfast she answered a question about whether Donald Trump’s comments enjoining political opponents of colour to “go home” was racist (answer, pretty clearly, yes) and replied, as asked by her co-host, with a personal reflection to that effect.

We then entered a world of W1A pain, in which Munchetty was disciplined then undisciplined as Hall abruptly overruled his own complaints unit, largely because of discomfort among BBC staff and a poor press reaction.

The stand-off also threw up a challenge which is still simmering, over whether the regulator, Ofcom, had the right to investigate a BBC programme for breaches of content standards. Here is another minefield in impartiality decisions — who should decide what it is and how it is enforced, when the very concept is so slippery?

Regulators come with their biases, aversions and backgrounds (in this case, Ofcom’s head of content and media is a former BBC executive, which only adds to the sense of an in-crowd making decisions for the rest of us). The regulator also decides in opaque fashion which kind of diversity it champions and which it neglects (it seems quiet on diversity of opinion, for example).

If we are to break vicious circles of blame, the BBC needs to open up the debate on how tricky decisions are made and invidious choices decided, rather than hiding them away in the better-carpeted areas of New Broadcasting House. Many more civilians have strong views on what the old network of “professional media” does and how we do it. So by all means open up the battle of ideas about what fairness can mean in times when so many arguments rage and splutter in the blaze of one-sided self-regard.

If we want to see our news and current affairs landscape fragment into feared Fox-ification on the one hand and an inward-looking Left-liberal media on the other, the quickest route to that end would be to ditch the notion that impartiality remains a value worth aspiring to. Not because it is easy to attain in unruly times — but precisely because it is not.

Anne McElvoy is senior editor at The Economist and a frequent broadcaster on the BBC

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