Sunday, October 22, 2006

Leaked BBC minutes on impartiality

This is London takes up this story about the BBC's 'impartiality summit'. The paper's spin is that the summit was an admission that the BBC is 'biased'. In particular, "the BBC is dominated by trendy, Left-leaning liberals who are biased against Christianity and in favour of multiculturalism".

If the minutes of the meeting are accurate, and if the quotes reported are correct, and if they are given in their correct context (and some of them are not - Andrew Marr's quote about the BBC being a liberal institution is meant in a philosophical or epistemological sense, not a political one), then what are we to make of it?
  1. the fact that the BBC is dominated by left-wing people should not surprise: journalists across the world are more likely to support left-wing parties than right-wing parties, and journalists in the UK One 1996 study by Tony Delano found that 55% of UK journalists were Labour voters, and only 6% Conservative voters;
  2. ... but this is irrelevant because journalists' values don't matter that much. People who've spent time studying the production of the media have emphasised how journalists' output is often conditioned more by the organisation they work in than their own personal beliefs. Change the organisation, and you start to learn the ropes there; eventually, what you write changes;
  3. If an excessively politically-correct mindset is now pervasive in management and the structures they create, this is more worrying. In particular, the write-up of the article suggests that the beast has a life of its own. Why in God's name should Mark Byford, Head of News, have to secretly agree to help Justin Webb shore up the BBC's coverage of America instead of calling a meeting to discuss the issue?
  4. This 'problem' concerns cultural issues more than (party-)political ones. The BBC has had decades of negotiating between positions on the left and right of politics. It has become adept at assuaging the fears of both sides. These points, although not fixed, have established reference points (Labour and the Conservatives). Cultural issues are much more difficult. Cultural viewpoints rarely have authoritative spokespeople who enjoy the kind of substantial rapport with their base to mute criticism. Additionally, cultural issues are much more heterogeneous, and difficult to satisfy all at once. If the BBC lets its news-readers wear 'whatever they want', is it being pro-Muslim (by allowing news presenters to wear veils), pro-Christian (by allowing news presenters to wear crucifixes), or merely liberal (by allowing them to wear whatever they like)?
  5. This bias, however, is not 'sinister'. Those people who comment on Biased BBC often write in what Richard Hofstadter called the 'paranoid style' - they assume that, behind every manifestation of bias or impartiality, there is a conspiracy which created the impartiality, which desires to further some aim. This seems unlikely at the BBC - and the very fact of calling an impartiality summit should help critics to recognise this. (Which is, of course, why the BBC is doing it).

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