When I was a news editor, I was accused of being a Tory, a Labour supporter, a Lib Dem, and a Green.
And I was happy with that, particularly around election time.
My rule of thumb has always been that if everyone thinks you’re biased, you’re probably doing a reasonable job.
Of course it’s impossible for journalists to be 100 per cent impartial. Each of us is shaped by experiences, upbringing, and prejudices – and each of us is looking for an engaging or unusual angle.
As Peter Stewart and Ray Alexander say in their book Broadcast Journalism:
“Complete impartiality is like perfection; an ideal for which many will strive but none will wholly attain.”
But that shouldn’t stop us trying. Especially if we’re the BBC, one of this country’s most trusted institutions, and bound by Ofcom and its own guidelines to have impartiality written as the lettering in its own very British stick of rock.
Each new decade has brought fresh assaults on the Beeb and its claims of complete political neutrality – from the Falklands to weapons of mass destruction and from the Middle East to Ulster.
Right now the clamour has reached a new peak. And this time, it’s not traditional Tories bemoaning the long-haired liberalism of the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation. Nor is it Canary Corbynistas sweeping the BBC into their mainstream media dustbin.
This is the centre-left – from media commentators to frontline campaigners, and all of them people for whom I have a reasonable amount of time. They accuse the corporation of institutional prejudice against a body of thought which once unassailably dominated political thinking: the case for Britain remaining in the EU.
BBC CRISIS: No 10’s Director of Communications is Robbie Gibb, ardent Brexiter, recruited by Mrs May straight from top of BBC where he was Andrew Neil’s right-hand man on Daily & Sunday Politics. Join the dots of the Brexiters’ control of the #BrexitBroadcastingCorporation
— Andrew Adonis (@Andrew_Adonis) April 2, 2018
As so often on a Sunday morning, @BBCNews takes its lead from Sunday papers. Goes for the anti-Labour stories rather than the spoilt for choice grim economic news on Brexit, perish the thought – they are destroying their own reputation. sad to watch
— Alastair Campbell (@campbellclaret) April 1, 2018
People say “oh, the BBC gets attacked by both sides so they must be doing something right.” But they are attacking for different reasons. The right attack because they know through experience that bullying the Beeb works. The left because they don’t. https://t.co/oiQO2YHOBk
— Matt Kelly (@mk1969) March 27, 2018
A great pity the BBC doesn’t accept advertising. If it did, we could appeal to advertisers to insist that it covers the Brexit story properly, just in the way commercial media outlets are now exposed to this pressure https://t.co/epHdIi9swA
— henry porter #FBPE (@HenryCPorter) April 2, 2018
The accusation is consistent: that the BBC is failing to hold the Government and Brexiteers to account on the biggest political issue for at least a generation, that it is indulging ministers’ cake-and-eat-it fantasies and that it is giving disproportionate air time to unelected rent-a-gobs such as Nigel Farage.
There has been little in the way of high profile response from BBC leaders, other than an interview with UK news editor Richard Burgess.
One former senior manager, Richard Sambrook, now head of the Cardiff University School of Journalism, has waded in, saying it is indefensible for individual editors to be targeted.
Adonis fans -just to point out I wasn’t arguing about Brexit (I’m strongly remain) or even alleged BBC bias in either direction – it was about a public figure trying to stoke up public political bullying of a member of BBC staff (not senior leadership). That leads to a bad place.
— Richard Sambrook (@sambrook) April 1, 2018
Newspaper columnist Gary Bainbridge also made some very telling points about the BBC’s alleged lack of interest in pro-Remain protests.
The thing is, rallies and marches aren’t interesting. What do you want the BBC to say? “People who didn’t support Brexit yesterday still don’t support it today. And now the news and weather where you are?” DO SOMETHING INTERESTING.
— Gary Bainbridge (@Gary_Bainbridge) March 25, 2018
And there was this persuasive remark by educationalist Sam Freedman.
One of the iron rules of British politics – if you’re complaining about BBC bias you’ve already lost the argument.
— Sam Freedman (@Samfr) April 1, 2018
Another newspaper writer, Chris Deerin, has written a passionate defence of the BBC’s impartiality, arguing that its critics are playing into the hands of those who would wish to muzzle its journalism.
Appropriately enough, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.
The result of the EU referendum two years ago was a massive wake-up call for the BBC, as it was for many elements of British journalism. I can still remember a young reporter posting a shocked – but in its own way, frightening – comment on Facebook on June 24, 2016: ‘I don’t know a single person who voted Leave.’
I know there has been huge soul-searching – over the idea that mainstream journalism was complacently out of touch with its audience, but also over a very different worry: that false balance allowed lies on buses to hold sway.
It is perhaps illuminating to think that it took a German journalist to ask Theresa May the most pertinent question about Brexit: Is it worth it? Needless to say she didn’t answer it.
So, I think individual reporters and producers may at times be conflicted in their thinking. How do they ask the questions that the audience wants answering when that audience is itself so divided, so confused?
But it’s a big leap from that to the concept of an organisation of 21,000 people being institutionally and consciously biased.
There’s a reason the BBC is so cherished.
It does a range of things that virtually no other broadcaster in the world is capable of doing. And it mostly does them very well, with a dedication to the pursuit of truth largely unmatched on these shores.
By all means challenge individual programme-making decisions to keep it on its toes.
But let’s not waste time – ours or the BBC’s – on conspiracy theories.