At the BBC, impartiality remains an unshakeable policy

Its impartiality/no point of view standard stands in marked contrast to critiques aimed at objectivity in the U.S.

July 6, 2020
Category: Ethics & Trust

It’s getting harder to find anyone with a kind word these days for objectivity in the many recent critiques of the practice. In the U.S. that is. The U.K. is a different story, as I found out last week in a chat with Mary Wilkinson, editorial director at BBC Global News.

Objectivity, neutrality, fairness — call it what you will — informs all of the broadcaster’s and its digital site’s reporting, Wilkinson said, and “has been there since the outset” when the BBC was formed in 1922.

“We tend to use the word ‘impartial,’” she said. “It comes with the territory if you work at the BBC.”

Wilkinson is aware of the turmoil in the U.S. around appropriate coverage of President Donald Trump and the tone and content of coverage of protests and minorities. But she sees zero chance of the BBC swinging to a different standard. It is all but engraved in stone.

The organization has in recent years begun using the term “due impartiality” — stepping away from a both-sides standard on certain issues.

“We were slow coming to that view on climate change,” Wilkinson conceded, but, after study, decided in the fall of 2018 “that the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion was that climate change (at least in part) is man-made.” Deniers were no longer given space.

The BBC sees commercial brand building as well as journalistic value to sticking with objectivity, communications director Christopher Chafin told me.

The annual report last month on digital news from the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford found a strong reader preference for an objective approach, especially in the U.K. but in the U.S. as well.

The survey asked if readers preferred news from a source that shared their point of view, challenged it, or had no point of view. In the U.K., 76% opted for no point of view, compared to 13% seeking a compatible point of view.

In the U.S., readers were warmer to a shared point of view — 30% — but twice that many preferred no viewpoint.

The report found the BBC to be the most trusted global brand. It also has been measured in one ranking as the top in worldwide traffic — 1.5 billion pageviews and 179 million unique visitors in March.

The impartiality/no point of view standard stands in marked contrast to the waves of derision aimed at objectivity in this country. Academic Jay Rosen and many others mock objectivity as “the view from nowhere” or “both-sidesism.” They are particularly insistent that it is the wrong way to cover President Trump and the stream of exaggerations and falsehoods when he speaks.

Wilkinson isn’t buying. “When we cover any politician — Theresa May, Boris Johnson, or Trump — you get to hear what is said. But we have an informed correspondent (ready to talk about) what is actually true … and in as close to a real-time frame as possible.”

She also wants to avoid any flavor of advocacy covering Black Lives Matter. “We are unequivocally opposed to racism. (But) Black Lives Matter is a campaign, and we don’t endorse campaigns.”

Though the organization continually reviews its policies, Wilkinson said that for now the BBC was choosing not to make an exception, even for a morally just campaign.

Editorial guidelines on the topic have been updated within the last month.

Conversely the related question of representative numbers and roles for minorities in producing the news “is a hot topic of debate” internally, Wilkinson said. “Part of objectivity is to build in diversity of all ethnic groups so you don’t end up with groupthink … We haven’t yet cracked the issue of having as diverse a workforce as we should.”

Wilkinson reminded me that with the BBC’s broadcast roots, like PBS or mainstream U.S. networks like CBS and ABC, it doesn’t run editorials. And there is a sparing presence of opinion articles labeled as “Viewpoint,” all of those written by scholars or other outside commentators, not by BBC journalists.

So the donnybrook over Sen. Tom Cotton’s op-ed in The New York Times that led to editorial page editor James Bennet’s dismissal could not happen.

The BBC, while proudly independent in its news operations, is established by the government and regulated by a government review board. (The British are required to pay a fee, roughly $175, if they own a TV. That generates the bulk of funding for BBC programming, though the global news service is commercial with most of its support from licensing and advertising.)

To put the impartiality standard to the test I checked out coverage last week of the wealthy St. Louis couple waving firearms at marching protesters. It consisted of a five-paragraph summary of the context and a 45-second video clip.

Also its story on Trump’s speech at Mount Rushmore played it straight with no mention of divisiveness or racism as in The Washington Post and New York Times headlines.

On the site, “Black” remains lowercase for now.

I don’t mean to caricature the BBC process as mindlessly starchy. For instance, Wilkinson said, “something can be factually true, but that’s not enough. We want to get at the truth of it in an open-minded way.”

I asked whether the news service has journalistic aphorisms painted on walls as The Washington Post does in its offices.

Not exactly, Chafin said. However a statue of George Orwell (who worked as a radio producer during World War II) was placed in front of its Broadcasting House headquarters in 2017.

The statue’s inscription reads, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

A George Orwell statue casting a shadow in the bright sun outside the BBC (Twocoms/Shutterstock)

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.

This article was updated to clarify the BBC’s stance on racism. It originally quoted a BBC editorial director who said the BBC had taken a “took a long look over the last year at (taking) a stand against racism.” That referred to the BBC’s editorial coverage policy. The BBC has anti-racism language in its operating principles.