Michael Lyons: We have a duty to uphold impartiality
The BBC is stronger for recognising that it takes complaints seriously
Friday 17 April 2009
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Providing independent journalism of the highest quality is at the heart of what the BBC does and what the BBC is. That's why it is one of the main aims set for the BBC by the BBC Trust. The BBC's journalists, reporting from all corners of the globe, deliver this day in, day out.
The Trust's decision, published yesterday, that the BBC's Middle East Editor, Jeremy Bowen, breached accuracy and impartiality guidelines related to two isolated news items. It was not a judgement on his role and responsibilities as Middle East Editor, for which he rightly has a high reputation and has received widespread respect. And it was not a finding against BBC journalists in general.
So the idea that the BBC Trust is seeking to undermine the credibility of BBC news, as reported in yesterday's Independent, is not just utterly false, but also baffling. I am puzzled by what possible motivation the BBC Trust – which is there to strengthen the BBC on behalf of those who pay for it – would have in doing this.
The BBC Trust absolutely recognises that BBC journalism needs to be courageous and willing to tackle the most controversial subjects. But it also needs a clear structure underpinning its very valuable work; not least so that it can defend the editorial decisions it takes. The day the BBC accepts reporting that is mostly true is the day we no longer deserve the licence fee.
This decision demonstrates that where complaints are made, the BBC Trust will treat them seriously and investigate where appropriate, however distinguished the individuals or sensitive the issues involved. In this instance it isn't the case that everything reported in the items was inaccurate and partial – far from it. But there were some breaches of guidelines and we had a duty to the licence fee payer to investigate the complaints and report our findings.
The Middle East is, as The Independent has rightly pointed out, one of, if not the most sensitive news story there is. And it is inevitable that in such a polarised debate, the BBC, with its huge reach and influence, becomes a focus for interventions from both sides. The Trust's job is to help the BBC chart a course though this and ensure that – as with all news output – we are scrupulously careful about standards of accuracy and impartiality. And we in the Trust have seen no evidence that demonstrates systematic bias in the BBC's reporting of the conflict.
Of course the Trust's decisions will inevitably make some people unhappy some of the time, whether they are inside or outside the BBC. But I believe there is a significantly higher proportion of people who recognise that the BBC is stronger for demonstrating that it takes complaints seriously and will be diligent about its standards of accuracy and impartiality.
The setting up of the Trust has been a big shift for the BBC. It has brought about a tightening of the BBC's complaints procedures, addressing past anxieties from some quarters that complaints were too quickly brushed off. And it is delivering a strengthening of editorial control at the BBC, which is absolutely crucial to its reputation for fairness and impartiality. That's not something we should apologise for. In fact it's something we owe to licence fee payers who rightly expect the very highest standards from the BBC at all times.
Sir Michael Lyons is chairman of the BBC Trust
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