My 'biased' view of the Biased BBC blog - part seven
Over the last couple of weeks I have been writing about my experiences of visiting the Biased BBC blog, with my view, as I've already mentioned, no doubt tinted by the fact that I am wearing ex-BBC spectacles. I wanted to bring the series to a conclusion by looking at my own personal experience of bringing impartiality to the services I worked on, and to look more generally at the future of an impartial BBC
I know from personal experience at the BBC that it is not so much a case of not being able to keep all of the happy happy all of the time, it is more a case of never being able to keep all the people happy at all.
A classic example for me was when I was part of a project to introduce a one-off re-design of the BBC's homepage to promote the end of season finale for the first series of the newly revived Doctor Who.
It got a mixed reception.
Some people praised the new design because it had more visual impact, was less cluttered, and was a step towards a more modern website.
Others emailed to ask if there was nothing the BBC wouldn't "dumb down", complain that the links they usually used were now missing, and to comment not on the new layout but just to offer their views on whether Doctor Who was a good thing or not.
The next day, when the design reverted to the usual homepage, the emails carried on rolling in.
Some people thanked the BBC for listening to their complaint from the day before and reverting to the old design. Which the BBC hadn't - but they may have felt that they had influenced the decision.
Some castigated the BBC for caving in to "people who always complain about change" and for not sticking to their guns and permanently adopting the new design. Which hadn't been the case either - it had always been planned as a one-off.
And some people emailed to ask why the BBC was even asking the audience's opinions - after all, with all that money, couldn't the BBC just employ people who knew what they were doing?
[You can insert your own punchline about me there if you'd like]
Although those visitng and writing the Biased BBC blog would no doubt scoff, internally the BBC's commitment to impartiality extends tentacles throughout the organisation. All staff, for example, are obliged to declare a conflict of interest form.
Ongoing projects are scrutinised for their impartiality. When I first joined the BBC, my job involved marketing and submitting BBC Online content to search engines, back when web indexes weren't so huge and Google wasn't quite so dominant.
Before the 2001 General Election, I had to submit my marketing plan for the BBC's web content to the editorial team in charge of the election coverage. This was to ensure that my plan balanced my efforts not just between promoting content about the three main political parties, but also to ensure that I was promoting the BBC's coverage and profiles of parties like the SNP, Plaid Cymru, UKIP, and the parties contesting elections in Northern Ireland.
Even the software used by the BBC can be designed to have impartiality built into it, as happened in another area I worked on for some time at the BBC, online voting.
When I was carrying out the requirements gathering around the BBC for the feature-set for a new online voting system, there were frequent requests for a functionality that would allow producers to set initial levels on a vote. These requests stemmed from a desire either to take a poll from another part of bbc.co.uk, or elsewhere in the media, and clone it with the correct starting percentages. Or people were worried they would accidentally delete an entire poll, and wanted to be able to restart it pre-filled with the correct amounts.
I never allowed these features to make it into the software. As far as I was concerned, even making them available to producers in a well-intentioned fashion, would have compromised the integrity of the end-to-end voting system, where only the audience should be allowed to intervene in the outcome.
Now, more generally, the BBC expects to be criticised from all sides on contentious issues. There is a section of the BBC's Editorial Guideline which defines the type of controversial subject covered by the rules, and which states that:
We must ensure a wide range of significant views and perspectives are given due weight in the period during which a controversial subject is active. Opinion should be clearly distinguished from fact. When the issues involved are highly controversial and/or a decisive moment in the controversy is expected we will sometimes need to ensure that all of the main views are reflected in our output. This may mean featuring them in a single programme, or even a single item.
And people do attack the BBC from "the left". However, that does seem to be much more on individual issues - it isn't green enough, isn't diverse enough, it is too pro-Israel or gives too much coverage to American foreign policy and not enough on the developing world. There is seldom a consistent attack that the BBC is too "right-wing", and that, if nothing else, ought to make the BBC think about not just the tone of presentation, but about the spread of voices that are broadcast on the airwaves.
It is, of course, difficult for some modern commentators to remember back to a time when the BBC was the small-'c' conservative embodiment of the establishment. The launch of commercial television in 1955 was a major slap-in-the-face to the complacency of the corporation, which saw, by any measure of audience volume and appreciation, their staid offering trounced by the new advertising driven up-start. Having to put eyeballs in front of the screen in order to pay the bills is a powerful driver to making popular content, and before ITV was introduced, the BBC had been under no such pressure to compete. They believed the number of people watching them was the size of the television market.
Even so, at a time when the BBC was seen as old-fashioned and was earning the "Auntie" moniker, there was still deep disquiet in political circles about the reporting of the BBC. It was no more popular with the Government during the time of Suez as it was during the time of the Falklands, or of the Hutton Report for that matter.
In my view it is right that politicians should be suspicious of an independent fourth estate, whether it is funded by commercial means or by the Licence Fee, or is in print, online, on tv or on radio. The moment that Government is not disapproving of the BBC's news broadcasting is surely the moment when it ceases to become anything other than a government mouthpiece and the day that the spin doctors have finally won.
In one of the earlier posts in this series I mentioned Jeremy Paxman's quote about the BBC having abandoned the pretence of impartiality in coverage of global warming. Another quote by one of the faces of the BBC's political coverage adorns the Biased BBC sidebar
"The BBC is not impartial or neutral. It's a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias", Andrew Marr, the Daily Mail, Oct 21st, 2006
The Biased BBC site links it to a report originally by Simon Walters in the Mail on Sunday, claiming that:
A leaked account of an 'impartiality summit' called by BBC chairman Michael Grade, is certain to lead to a new row about the BBC and its reporting on key issues, especially concerning Muslims and the war on terror.
At the secret meeting in London last month, which was hosted by veteran broadcaster Sue Lawley, BBC executives admitted the corporation is dominated by homosexuals and people from ethnic minorities, deliberately promotes multiculturalism, is anti-American, anti-countryside and more sensitive to the feelings of Muslims than Christians.
As Helen Boaden explained on the Editor's Blog, there was no such thing as a "secret meeting" which needed to be "leaked":
Well I was one of the people who was at the "secret" meeting. and I have to say the reality was somewhat different to the way the press are reporting it.
For a start, this wasn’t a secret meeting... it was streamed live on the web. The meeting was made up of executives, governors and lots of non-BBC people like John Lloyd from the FT and Janet Daley from the Daily Telegraph. It was planned as a serious seminar to investigate and understand better the BBC’s commitment to impartiality in an age in which spin and opinion riddle much of the world’s journalism. The seminar was part of a bigger project kicked off by Michael Grade earlier this year to re-examine the underlying principles of impartiality in the digital age when boundaries between conventional broadcasting and the new platforms will increasingly disappear.
I have to refer again to Lloyd Shepherd's assessment of Paul Dacre's accusation that the BBC, as part of a subsidirat that also included The Times and The Guardian, is skewing Britain away from traditional small 'c' conservative values. Judging by the sales of The Sun and the Daily Mail, the opinion poll ratings for the Conservatives, and widely reported public disquiet on anything from Muslim veils, to being soft on crime, to Polish road signs, the BBC 'monoculture' Dacre despises can't be doing a very effective job.
The issue of scrutiny of BBC bias is an important one though, because it highlights what is beginning to cause a crisis of faith in modern journalism. Namely that the interconnected voices on the internet have enabled groups like the Biased BBC blog, or Medialens to band together to look at the accountability of media outlets, and it enables people individually to expose the inaccurate spin and dodgy fact-checking that plagues the reporting of specialised areas in the mainstream media.
The BBC remains one of Britain's biggest and most trusted brands. That alone would tend to suggest that the views expressed on the Biased BBC blog are not as widely held as they themselves would like to think.
But the BBC needs to tread carefully. As the recent Blue Peter voting fiasco demonstrated, public trust in a brand can be fickle. Under increasing internet enabled scrutiny, I believe the BBC has to work harder than at any other time in the corporations history in order not just to be impartial, but to be seen to be impartial, by the majority of Licence Fee payers in the UK.