Last week (March 2019) director-general of the BBC Tony Hall restated the BBC’s abject lack of understanding of balance in broadcasting. In the BBC’s ‘Annual Plan’ Hall said
“[The BBC] needs to stand up for impartiality. Making sure all sides of a debate are heard – all different views and voices – is fundamental to our mission. We must stand up for it and defend our role like never before. It is essential if we are to continue to be the place people know they can trust to get to grips with what is truly happening in the world, and to hear the broadest range of views.” Quotes taken from Guardian report.
Hall’s comments above may appear to be banal platitudes but they were much worse than that.
To practice “impartiality” a broadcaster is supposed to remain neutral in a political disagreement and to interrogate both sides of a disagreement. “Impartiality” in broadcasting does not mean that falsehoods should have the same exposure as facts and it does not mean that every statement that is broadcast requires a contrary statement to be broadcast in response.
The BBC has demonstrated frequently that it does not understand what “impartiality” means. It is normal for the BBC to allow charlatans airtime to spout drivel in response to reasoned argument. For example, any report on racism is always “balanced” with a voice from the cantankerous right to argue against whatever intelligent human opinions are being expressed. Offensive screaming heads such as Douglas Murray, Toby Young, Isabel Oakeshott and David Starkey pop up like foul-smelling weeds on BBC news shows whenever bigotry is being discussed.
Of course, the BBC is selective with which news reports require the application of its definition of “impartiality” and which do not. Reports on Venezuela, Yemen and Israel seem to require significantly less adherence to any “impartiality” directive. Press releases from Downing Street, normally packed full of lies and misrepresentation, are passed onto the viewers and listeners without inspection or fact-checking.
All sides of a debate
The problem with “making sure all sides of a debate are heard” is that some opinions are trash and insincere.
A debate about climate change does not benefit from the opinion of someone employed by the fossil fuel industry; a debate about healthcare provision does not benefit from the opinion of someone employed by an exploitative health insurance provider or the pharma industry; a debate about military action does not benefit from the opinion of someone who is employed by the arms industry; a debate about racism does not benefit from the opinion of a racist.
Allowing “all sides of a debate” is lazy and cowardly and is a ruse to cause destruction of a debate via the inclusion of disruptive voices. The intent of the BBC, for some issues, is to stifle facts and reason with agenda-driven PR. Secretly funded right-wing think-tanks are presented frequently by the BBC as legitimate voices in debates on any topic; the financial backers of the think-tanks are never revealed by the BBC.
The broadest range of views
What is gained by allowing the “broadest range of views” in a debate? For a debate to work parameters of the extent of the discussion need to be agreed; otherwise, it is just a succession of disparate views spoken in turn with no progress made.
Hall’s claim to offer the “broadest range of views” was an admittance of a lack of understanding of basic facets of high quality political broadcasting. Effectively, Hall claimed that the BBC is too fearful to make any decisions itself regarding usefulness, sincerity or veracity of any opinion. It was another display of laziness and cowardice.
And, again, his claim was selective. The BBC’s “broadest range of views” is set within restrictions. Politically, the BBC positions the centre well to the right of where it should be. Often on BBC news programmes the “broadest range of views” is very narrow; for example, when Nicholas Witchell is gushing about the royal family.
BBC misunderstands balance and is dishonest about how it applies balance
Hall’s summary of balance at the BBC showed how inept he and his colleagues are regarding the role of news broadcasters. Equally, his analysis was a lie; evidence contradicts his assertions.
Radical change is needed at BBC news to rectify errors of recent decades and a complete revamp of recruitment policy is vital. Otherwise, it will descend further into farce.