The BBC started its compulsory impartiality training last week and I’m concerned not to have been asked along. Is that a bad sign about my career or do I not qualify for a more benign reason? As someone who quite often features on the BBC’s TV or radio stations, I still find it hard to work out whether I’m officially part of it. Or, indeed, who is.
Everyone seems to talk about “the BBC” – usually complaining, about anything from how it’s biased against Brexit, to how it hates Jeremy Corbyn, to how it ruined The Archers, to how it won’t let you have a kettle in your office any more, to, since Monday, how it makes you go on impartiality courses – but nobody seems to own up to actually being it. Even Tim Davie, the director general, mainly talks about what “the BBC” got wrong under his predecessors. So even he’s moaning about it not being it.
All in all, I’m probably better off not being the BBC and avoiding the impartiality training. Though it would be nice to get out of the house! That’s not an anti-lockdown jibe, by the way. I’m not displaying bias. It’s just chit-chat, not dangerous, virus-denying conspiracy theorising! This is like walking on eggshells! If I can say that without triggering a vegan.
I suspect I’m excused impartiality lessons because, when I’m on the BBC, I’m usually working for an independent company that has sold the corporation its programmes. So there’s less pressure to demonstrate disinterest, just as there is for people who make other things the BBC purchases, such as sandwiches, electricity and furniture. So, fingers crossed, I’ve neither been cancelled without knowing it, nor will have to go and be taught how to think what I think less noticeably.
I’m not a fan of this impartiality drive. I think it’s unnecessary and damaging. You’re probably not surprised to hear that and please feel free to dismiss my opinion as the unfettered self-interest and bias of a media centre-lefty who hasn’t even had the benefit of an impartiality course. But I really do think it – I’ve literally just checked.
Interest groups see bias everywhere. The perception of balance has never been harder to acquire
To my mind, the BBC’s reporting is pretty much as reliable and impartial as you can expect from such a large organisation. The notion that it’s fundamentally biased has been concocted by the political right and its vast media assets (which are themselves horrendously biased), purely because those people, braced by an invigorating cocktail of ideological and commercial motives, want the BBC and the licence fee that funds it to be abolished. This narrative of bias has then been bought into by credulous factions on the left (though, of course, they accuse it of the opposite bias), who somehow haven’t twigged what carnage would be wreaked on their political hopes if the media battlefield were surrendered to the Murdochs and Rothermeres.
Tim Davie also seems to have bought into it. He’s instituted this training programme, made new rules about what BBC employees can do or say in places that may be noticed (the internet, political marches, corporate events and the like) and warned last year: “If you want to be an opinionated columnist or a partisan campaigner on social media then that is a valid choice, but you should not be working at the BBC.” Way to tell David Icke he’s not getting the snooker gig back! But I’m hoping that me and all the sandwich and furniture makers are in the clear.
Of course, Davie may just be pretending he thinks the bias issue needs to be dealt with, for the understandable reason that it’s become a political necessity to address it. Sometimes, if you’re forced to do something, it can feel like it helps to pretend you wanted to anyway, like when people narrowly miss buses and try to make it look like they weren’t trying to catch them in the first place. Perhaps Tim is just styling it out: “Yeah, we totally want to look at the whole impartiality thing. We were going to anyway! This isn’t a desperate sop to our detractors!”
While I understand this emotionally, it’s a colossal tactical misstep. It means the organisation appears to concede that its most savage critics were right: that, in recent years, it hasn’t been desperately trying to serve its audience and maintain the quality and integrity of its output under unprecedentedly hostile political pressure. Oh no, it’s just been indulging itself in lefty, anti-Brexit and tediously “woke” propaganda. It needs to take a long hard look at itself and teach itself a lesson. After years of its critics and competitors picking away at anything it got wrong, and resolutely turning a blind eye to the enormous amount it contributed, the director general himself is now acquiescing in their version of events.
I can’t see how this can end well. The BBC must now somehow demonstrate lots of impartiality. But that’s impossible. Bias is easy to demonstrate, or to appear to demonstrate, because you can do it anecdotally – you can cite one statement, moment or report; you take things out of context to reinforce what the people listening to you already believe. And, for a broadcaster with the BBC’s enormous output, there will always be isolated instances of bias, whatever you do.
But how can you ever prove that there’s a generally fair, impartial and accurate output over hundreds of hours of broadcasting week after week? What’s the clip? In my view, the BBC has almost always been trustworthy and balanced, but now, to stake a claim to those qualities, it must demonstrate first penitence, then reform. It must show that it has changed in order to prove that it’s still doing what it has always done.
If such reputational acrobatics were ever possible, they certainly aren’t today. Opinions nowadays are held with seemingly unprecedented ferocity. There’s not much agreeing to differ. Interest groups view any denial of their beliefs or opinions as obscenities: not merely contrary views to be argued against, but heresies that should never have been uttered. They see bias everywhere. The perception of balance has never been harder to acquire.
This is the context in which the director general seeks to certify the BBC’s impartiality anew, to the satisfaction of its enemies’ newspapers.