Tips for BBC news presenters and production staff

BBC news presenters, reporters and production staff often express surprise at criticism of the BBC’s attempts at political impartiality and they appear to not know what the problem is and how to improve.  

As a fan of the BBC, I offer a few simple tips that I think might help the news staff to operate within the guidelines that govern BBC news.

JohnCraven

Think-tanks
Every current affairs think-tank has a political stance that informs its output.  This can be left-wing, in the centre or right-wing.  It is very easy to determine the political position of a think-tank via a quick perusal of its literature and/or the previous contributions to the media by its members.  

For any think-tank, once its position on the political spectrum is known then it is imperative that this information is imparted to the viewers and/or listeners by the presenter, newsreader or interviewer prior to a quote from or a contribution by one of the think-tank’s members.  At the end of an extended contribution by a think-tank representative its political position should be re-stated clearly.  This simple imparting of information will avoid the scenario where viewers or listeners could believe they may have been misled into thinking that the think-tank provided an independent opinion or expert analysis.

Some right-wing think-tanks are very keen to keep the identity of their major financial donors secret.  The BBC should never use secretive think-tanks.

Independent news sites
There are many online independent news sites.  For the BBC, they can be useful as an initial source of a story.  Clearly, any information provided by such a news site should be checked thoroughly for accuracy before the BBC passes it on to its viewers or listeners.  If a news site has a clear political bias then that bias should be mentioned as part of the BBC’s discussion or reporting of any story from the news site.

“Balanced” debate
Sometimes – not always – it is necessary to have different views expressed in a debate on a particular issue.  This breadth of viewpoints is not the same as ensuring that there is always a voice that is diametrically opposed to the view of another guest.  Some issues encourage a variety of perspectives than can be engaged together to provide informed debate; however, other issues have only opposing voices that are nonsense.  The news staff at the BBC should possess sufficient intelligence to know the difference between an issue that benefits from debate and one where the only opposite voices are idiotic and insulting.

Overton Window and accusations of political bias
The BBC should make its own decisions regarding the left and right extents of the Overton Window and where it thinks the centre resides.  It should not be persuaded by self-ascribed political positions of others that are intentionally deceptive.

The BBC knows which accusations of political bias against them have some validity and which are deliberately false.  It must avoid equating valid criticism with organised pile-ons from paid critics.

Government press releases and interviews
The government will try continuously to direct the news output.  It tries to direct the content of news and to decide which news stories should dominate. 

There must be rigorous scrutiny of any government press release before its content is passed onto the public by the BBC.  Every claim should be checked beyond doubt and, if doubt persists, it should not be broadcast.  The investigation of the veracity of claims made by the government should not outsourced to a third-party with a political agenda.

Prior to an interview with a representative of or a spokesperson for the government, the interviewer and the production staff should check the facts and acquire accurate statistics related to the topic that will be discussed.  The interviewer knows what the topic is because she or he will be asking the questions.  Armed with sufficient information the interviewer will be able to respond immediately with a full rebuttal whenever a government spokesperson lies or invents statistics.

The BBC should not allow the government to direct airtime.  A statement, press release or speech by a representative of the government has no more right to be the lead news item than any other news.  Its merit as an important piece of news should be assessed carefully and the BBC should always be vigilant about government attempts to obscure inconvenient news by deliberately promoting vacuous news to overwhelm it.  Equally, if the government attempts to hide negative news (for itself) via issue of press releases outside prime time then the BBC should ensure the news receives full exposure during the next available prime time slot.

NOTES

The following British think-tanks provide no information about their financial donors and, thus, they should be avoided by the BBC.  (Details by Transparify)

  • Policy Exchange
  • Institute of Economic Affairs
  • Civitas
  • Centre for Policy Studies
  • Adam Smith Institute
  • International Institute for Strategic Studies

Far-right news sites Breitbart and Guido Fawkes are notoriously unreliable regarding the accuracy of any information they provide, they indulge in practices that are of interest to criminal investigation and the comment sections/messageboards of the sites are packed full of extreme bigotry, prejudice and racism.  It would be inappropriate for the BBC to use these sites as sources and no-one from either site should ever be invited to express an opinion on the BBC.

A few hypothetical examples of what would NOT be “balanced” debate are

  • Inviting a highly paid executive in the fossil fuel industry to a debate about climate change
  • Inviting a member of the flat earth society to a discussion about the space station orbiting the earth
  • Inviting an evangelical who believes the earth is 6000 years old to a discussion about dinosaurs
  • Inviting Douglas Murray to a discussion on race relations or colonialism
  • Inviting a user of aggressive tax avoidance to a debate about funding of public services
  • Inviting a representative of the arms industry, or a recipient of financial donations from said industry, to a discussion about whether military action should be taken by the British government

All the examples above fail the criteria for a balanced debate because the hypothetical invitee is incapable of a useful contribution to each respective debate and has only distraction, lies and purposeful idiocy to offer.  Another example of what would not be a balanced debate is using a reading of an old speech by a dim-witted racist rabble-rouser as the preamble to a discussion about whether racism is acceptable.

The Science Media Centre, a biased lobby group with a history of unreliable information,  should not be used by the BBC to check claims in government press releases and it should not be used as a source for the acquisition or veracity of information on any topic.

Related blogs
BBC News: Balance and bias
Good riddance to James Harding

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Tips for BBC news presenters and production staff

5 thoughts on “Tips for BBC news presenters and production staff

  1. Simon Wood says:

    This essay, whilst well-meaning, is a little naive. The idea that the BBC does not thoroughly check its sources is simply wrong. All journalists in the quality mainstream media do this on a minute-by-minute basis and the BBC is particularly rigorous about this because it is a public broadcasting service financed by the taxpayer and so rightly regards itself as being held to a higher standard than other media outlets.

    The problem here lies not with bias on the part of the BBC but with viewers’ and listeners’ perception of bias. Psychologists tell us that we view television and listen to radio through the lens of our own prejudices. Most of the time we are unaware of our inherent biases. As one Professor of Psychology told me: “It would be deeply disturbing if we were constantly aware that every decision we made was influenced by subconscious prejudices…it’s one of the tricks of the brain to keep that from us.”

    So how do respectable journalists keep themselves from introducing bias into their reporting? Well, firstly, it’s part of the culture. From the day you start at an organisation like the BBC you’re told: ‘Leave your opinions at the door’. The BBC is not a newspaper. It’s not pandering to its narrow demographic of loyal readers. Newspapers know their audience and they’re edited to serve that audience. That’s how they stay in business. The BBC is required by Charter to serve every man, woman and child in the country regardless of race, religion, colour, income or opinion, political or otherwise. That’s challenging and BBC employees know that.

    Secondly, your job is to communicate the story fairly and accurately and the truth is that’s all you focus on. When one potential contributor says something to you on the phone you’re immediately thinking of other potential contributors who might say something different. Why? Because you know that both are biased and Truth inevitably lies somewhere between the two. Of course, some things are true and others are not but your job as a Broadcaster is not to make that decision – your job is to provide the two diverse positions and allow the viewer or listener to make up their own minds. You know that some viewers will lean one way and others will lean the other. That’s the reality of providing a service for the whole country.

    When you work for a Broadcaster you’re also working within the strict confines of regulations that do not apply to newspapers. Paragraph 5.12 of the OFCOM Broadcasting Code says: ‘In dealing with matters of major political and industrial controversy and major matters relating to current public policy an appropriately wide range of significant views must be included and given due weight in each programme or in clearly linked and timely programmes. Views and facts must not be misrepresented.’ The Code is not some esoteric theory that you simply pay lip-service to, it’s a rigorously enforced set of regulations that, if breached, can cost the Broadcaster dearly.

    The BBC takes the Code even further. In its editorial guidelines it says: “Presenters, reporters and correspondents are the public face and voice of the BBC – they can have a significant impact on perceptions of whether due impartiality has been achieved. Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal prejudices of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area. They may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence, but may not express personal views in BBC output, including online, on such matters.” Again, this policy is rigorously enforced and every BBC employee is aware of it.

    So why do so many people think they can discern bias in programmes and from individual presenters? Unfortunately it’s almost always to do with the inherent prejudices of the viewers or listeners themselves. When an interviewer lays into Jeremy Corbyn, his supporters scream ‘bias’. When the same presenter lays into Theresa May they say: ‘fair enough’. And vice-versa. Everyone wants to see and hear what they want to hear. They become incensed when they hear something they don’t want to hear and become deaf and blind to everything they do want to hear. They sit in their living rooms, bedrooms or cars, they walk along the street listening to their podcasts and they’re thinking: ‘But this is the question you need to ask’ or ‘but that’s not true, why don’t you challenge it?’ They forget that its not all about them. It’s also about the millions of people who don’t agree with them, who don’t think the way they do, who have different opinions and see the world in a different way.

    It’s not just me saying this. This is thoroughly researched and well-documented psychological theory. You can read it for yourself.

    They also forget that, by its very nature, broadcasting has time constraints. Sometimes you need to let things go so you can move onto something equally pertinent. Viewers and listeners become editors in their own heads and they forget that being an Editor in the world of broadcasting means taking account of a hundred things that aren’t instantly apparent to the consumer. The reality is that you have to work in broadcasting to understand it. And that’s not a casual comment. Throughout a thirty year career I have been almost daily reminded of and duly amazed by the lack of knowledge of the realities of production amongst intelligent people who have watched television and listened to radio all of their lives.

    The truth is the BBC cannot win simply because it has to serve all people of all opinions. The regulations require that. So what’s the alternative? Well, we could abolish the regulations as the USA did in 1987 under Republican president Ronald Reagan. We could put paid to attempts to reinstate them as did Republican President George W.H. Bush in 1991. But, of course, what we’d be doing is opening our airwaves to propaganda channels like Fox News that focus on pushing conspiracy theories designed to divide society in the pursuit of profit. Is that what we want?

    Under our current regulations we’re simply going to have to accept that all of us are, from time to time, going to see and hear opinions that we don’t like. We’re going to see and hear them presented in ways we don’t approve of and, occasionally, given emphasis we thoroughly oppose. Why? Because they’re opinions, presentations and emphases that other people do like. Isn’t that what democracy is all about?

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