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.
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.
2) 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.
3) “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.
4) 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.
5) 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.
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
- 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.