The BBC should shed the myth of impartiality

There is no harm in a political commentator talking in committed terms about a government policy

Philip Hensher@PhilipHensher
Friday 19 December 2003 01:00

The BBC has decided that a curb must be placed on the work of its public faces, and in particular that those presenters who now moonlight as celebrity columnists must stop. The corporation considers that the practice is incompatible with its obligation to be politically neutral, and so from now on some of its best known journalists will be restricted to working for the BBC itself.

The boundaries of the ordinance are not very clear, and are going to lead to trouble. For instance, it's said that BBC employees can continue to write for newspapers on non-contentious topics; for instance, they can write in general terms about culture. The example given was that someone could say that an opera was enjoyable, but could not say that an opera house's productions were suffering because of Government underfunding. It doesn't take much thought to realise that this is a completely unworkable distinction, and that many points about the most innocuous cultural matter carry political implications. Effectively, this prevents a writer from moving from a particular instance to a general conclusion, and would in practice reduce him to idle gossip.

And where does this stop? If a BBC employee may not write about matters of public concern in the newspapers, why should he be permitted to do so between hard covers? Jeremy Paxman's excellent and enjoyable books on a series of public issues have reached a wide audience, and they contain some very forcefully-argued convictions. What is to be done about that? Surely even the BBC can see that it would be disgraceful to prevent employees writing books, or to place restrictions on what they may say, or even to demand sight of the manuscript in advance?

The point is that if the BBC wants to maintain its authority and its standing in the wider world of opinion, it has to accept that its employees cannot exist solely within its walls. Nor would it be right to think that the imprimatur of the BBC in itself is enough to guarantee the standing of its presenters. Such figures as Jeremy Paxman, John Humphrys and Andrew Marr are not awarded their authority solely because they appear on the BBC. In large part, the BBC has an air of authority which derives from the fact that these people have a voice outside the corporation, and the popular success of Jeremy Paxman's books, however controversial they may be, has conferred some value on the BBC which someone who was nothing but a presenter could never achieve.

It seems to me, too, that this whole dispute rests on a misunderstanding of the notion of impartiality. Political parties, large and small, are always very hot on the question of impartiality; I am reliably informed, and indeed have observed on a couple of occasions, that many Government ministers as a matter of routine affect to lose their temper once an interview has come to an end, and noisily complain about unfairness.

It would be a great shame if the BBC ever came to accept that idea of impartiality; the idea that every presenter, every interviewer, should be entirely neutral and uncritical. The point of the corporation's impartiality is that it should not, as a body, support particular parties or indeed individual political policies. What that means, however, is that it should give a voice to a wide spread of opinion.

There is no reason why the corporation's impartiality should not encompass presenters who themselves, within the BBC or outside, give voice to decided opinions. Naturally, there are limits; I don't think we would want a chief political correspondent who openly supported one party or another. But nor would you want a newspaper columnist who was an abject supporter of one party's policies, rather than a sceptical interrogator, wherever his ultimate loyalties lay.

There are already a large number of restrictions on what political commentators and news reporters may say on the BBC's own broadcasts. Personally, I think these already go too far. There is no real reason why a BBC journalist should not be able to argue a case, so long as everyone understands that what they are listening to is comment. It would be worrying, admittedly, if producers took to pursuing an argument through the means of news, but there is no harm in a political commentator talking in very committed terms about a particular government policy, and it need have no impact on the BBC's overall impartiality. If that is true even on the BBC's own programmes, it is certainly the case when employees write for newspapers.

Viewers are not stupid. They certainly understand when an argument is being frustrated by rules; they certainly understand when a false notion of impartiality results in government policy going unchallenged, a disaster of public administration being reported rather than attacked. And it's important that the BBC's most voluble figures be given free rein to express themselves wherever seems most appropriate.

If that alters, it can only result in a diminishment of the BBC's own authority, and will not serve the end of impartiality which this claims to address. In the end, all we will have are a lot of people dressing up in monkey costumes to advertise Freeview, which is not worth very much; the reduction of people who, after all, are politically engaged and energetically sceptical to the status everyone seems to occupy these days, mere showbiz "personalities".

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