the week on radio
There's been a lot of loose talk about balance and impartiality floating around lately. Even before the current unpleasantness - or "General Election", to give it its official title - Martin Bell, who has dodged bullets for the BBC on every major battleground of the last 25 years, found himself under fire back home for saying that news reporting shouldn't be impartial.

In fact, this isn't quite what he thinks. In Truth Is Our Currency (Radio 4, Friday), a series of four talks on the ethics of television news, Bell has been given the chance to expand and, up to a point, clarify his argument. And it turns out that, of course, he is not arguing in favour of bias; impartiality and respect for the facts are utterly essential to his conception of news. What he does believe is that impartiality should not mean detachment or mere "phoney balance", "the lazy shuffling of thesis and antithesis" - the "on the one hand ... on the other hand" school of journalism which thinks that objectivity means balancing every negative with a positive, every truth with its denial. He suggested a reductio ad absurdum of this style of reporting: "On the one hand, Hitler persecuted the Jews; but on the other, didn't he just revive the German economy?"

Well, on the one hand Bell's absolutely right, such empty-headed equivocation is irresponsible and may even be dangerous (sit on the fence too long and you're liable to do yourself a mischief). Like him, we surely want reporters to be neutral in the way that the Red Cross is neutral, not morally passive like Swiss bankers, cheerfully stowing away the lucre and no questions asked. On the other hand, where do you draw the line between the passionate, morally informed reporting Bell advocates and plain old bias? Bell offers an attractive air of moral certainty, but it isn't entirely clear what it is he's so certain of.

Having weighed up all the pros and cons, though, one can't help feeling he's got a point: there's a powerful sense these days that news coverage on TV and elsewhere is being run by the bankers, sometimes literally. News needs to be driven by some notion of right and wrong, not merely a false ethic of "professionalism" or a desire to corner the market. And a morality that doesn't admit of blurred lines and uncertainties isn't much use to anybody. Rather than carping at Bell, as some have done even within the BBC, we should be grateful for his ramrod-straight eloquence, his honesty and his willingness to confront the possibility that he is wrong.

Meanwhile impartiality has become a particularly heavy issue in the world of light entertainment, where the looming horrors have led to the postponement of two series on Radio 4. Trust, Wendy Lee's crashing satire on the NHS, made it through two episodes before having the plug pulled; Mammon, a marginally more subtle take on contemporary corporate practice, went into liquidation before transmission. Both series are certainly anti-Conservative, but both are also happy to preach to the converted; so the postponements are understandable but, except from the point of view of public relations, pointless. (If Radio 4 were really worried about political bias, it shouldn't have allowed the recent series of "Jeremy Hardy Speaks to the Nation" to be broadcast in the same decade as a general election, since lovely Jeremy is actually clever and funny enough to have an effect.)

By contrast, it's interesting to see the ever-innocuous Week Ending (Radio 4, Friday) staying on air throughout the campaign. Now that the BBC has implicitly recognised that it's a toothless dog which no longer barks, shouldn't they think about putting it humanely to sleep?

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