Thursday, November 23, 2006

Five ways to get the right answer from your independent review of coverage

The BBC announced today a review of its coverage of business. The review - which follows previous reviews of coverage of the European Union and the Middle East - will be conducted by a panel of six of the 'great and the good', and forms part of the new Trust's ongoing Impartiality Project.
These reviews are an invaluable source of data, and, assuming their investigative reach is great enough, may contribute to a more sophisticated understanding amongst BBC content producers of the nature of impartiality across a number of fields.
However, I suspect that the use of these reviews is as much symbolic as actual. In other words: the review process is structured so that clear-cut findings of partiality will be avoided and positive-sum findings of insufficient understanding emphasised. Influenced greatly from a presentation by John Downey and Dominic Wring at a recent conference, here are five ways in which you, the humble public service broadcaster, can structure your inquiry.
  1. Issues that the BBC is already confident about, or which have already been the subject of some previous enquiry, are chosen. In the case of the BBC's review of its coverage of Israel-Palestine, the Governors' review followed a much harsher review conducted by BBC Management (the Balen report). The Governors therefore already had an idea that BBC Management was trying to improve its coverage, and was therefore not concerned that a potential blind-spot might be unearthed. The review of EU coverage had already been fore-shadowed by numerous content analyses by a strange Eurosceptic outfit called Global Britain, which generally arrived at rather tendentious conclusions, but signalled the issue quite clearly.
  2. Panels are 'representative'. In other words, where the issue is x, pick one or two representatives who will be portrayed as pro-x, one or two representatives who will be portrayed as anti-x, and the remaining representatives from unconnected areas of public life who will be perceived as having no axe to grind in any contest between pro-s and anti-s. The Europe review included two Europhiles (Stephen Wall and Lucy Armstrong), and two Euro-sceptics (Rodney Leach, Nigel Smith). The business report includes two notionally pro-business members (Alan Budd; Chris Bones) and two notional skeptics (Barbara Stocking; John Naughton).
  3. Quantitative research is commissioned. All reviews so far have carried out content analysis: one by John Morrison (former BBC Television news editor) on the EU; one by Loughborough University on Israel-Palestine; and one now by Leeds University.
  4. ... and then deprecated. The Loughborough report found that the BBC tended to give more screen-time over to Israeli representatives than Palestinian representatives; due, argue the authors, to the weaker development of Palestinian civil society and its correspondingly lower capacity to provide vox-pops. This finding of a 'direction' of partiality was smoothed over in the report.
  5. 'Greater understanding' emerges as a common solution. Both EU and Israel-Palestine reports found fault, not with the direction of partiality, but the problems for impartiality of insufficiently deep coverage. In other words, a verdict that any side can interpret as favouring its position, since, ultimately, the historical record, as interpreted by the dogmatic reader, tends to favour the dogmatic reader.

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