Three-D Issue 28: Time to take sides on impartiality?

If rampant editorialising is in the DNA of the print press, then ‘due impartiality’ – not taking sides in matters of public controversy – is allegedly at the heart of UK broadcasting. Broadcasters themselves are required to abide by the Ofcom code and many journalists speak about their professional commitment to ‘balanced’ and ‘fair’ reporting. Fearful of a deregulated environment, such as that in the US, powerful voices in government, journalism and academia have long seen impartiality regulations as the last line of defence against the kind of partisan demagoguery epitomised by Fox News.

Increasingly, however, broadcasters have come under fire for failing to deliver impartial journalism and for reproducing elite agendas and dominant voices in the coverage of, for example, the Scottish and EU referenda, the financial crisis and the coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. A number of academic surveys have backed up these assertions and called for a more informed discussion of the conditions necessary to foster a truly impartial broadcast news culture. It was in this spirit that the MeCCSA AGM earlier this year passed a motion expressing concerns about the impartiality of news coverage and pledging to organise an event to highlight academic research in this area.

That event took place at Goldsmiths in May and was all the more timely given the notice of an impending general election in which broadcaster performance would be scrutinised by all sides. The event was structured around short presentations of academic findings followed by industry responses and a concluding round table to discuss more general issues concerning the need for, and future of, impartiality.

Presentations provided ample evidence that broadcasters are failing to deliver impartial coverage of public affairs:

  • Mike Berry’s analysis of BBC coverage of the financial crisis concluded that the Corporation presented a partial account of the scale of the deficit, naturalised austerity as a solution whilst marginalising other options, and relied on a narrow range of pro-business sources.
  • Justin Schlosberg presented research from the Media Reform Coalition that found that twice as much airtime during the second Labour leadership election was given to critical rather than supportive voices on the main BBC news bulletins. This lack of balance was intensified by the routine description of Corbyn and his supporters as ‘hostile’ and ‘hard core’ and of his opponents as ‘moderate’.
  • Ivor Gaber attributed this bias to the existence of the ‘Westminster bubble’ and of a tendency to follow the parameters of elite debate thus reproducing a consensus (which in other aspects is increasingly fractured).
  • Sue Clayton discussed her own broadcast reporting of the refugee crisis in the context of a dominant approach that more often focuses on refugees as security threats and as culturally ‘other’. Opportunities for sympathetic coverage of refugees are limited by broadcasters’ inclination to focus only on human interest angles and by a lack of sensitivity towards refugees in the context of the extremely difficult circumstances many of them face.
  • Jake Lynch presented his research on BBC coverage of the terror attacks on Paris in November 2015 where the ‘blowback’ thesis, accepted by many security experts and academics, was almost entirely absent from BBC coverage with 63 seconds out of total coverage of over twelve hours.
  • Justin Lewis argued that broadcasters privileged right-wing voices on both sides of the argument during the 2016 EU referendum with Conservative and Ukip politicians receiving more than four times as much coverage as all the other parties combined. Lewis noted that coverage was marked by ‘tit-for-tat’ claims and counter claims that failed to provide sufficient scrutiny of the core issues.
  • Emily Harmer and James Stanyer followed this up by noting the very narrow and heavily gendered issue agenda, once again dominated by Conservative voices, of the Brexit debate.
  • Marina Dekavalla argued that while coverage of the Scottish referendum in 2014 was formally ‘balanced’ between the two ‘camps’, news bulletins failed to convey the complexity of the debate and to allow a diversity of voices onto the air.

This final point was picked up the round table where broadcasters and academics reflected on the meaning of impartiality at a time when established political parties and sources of authority are under huge stress and when social media has destabilised the technological conditions underpinning traditional conceptions of impartiality.

For Sue Inglish, the former head of political programmes at the BBC, impartiality remains ‘part of the structure of the way political journalists work’. Even though it remains ‘horribly difficult to define and even more difficult to achieve’, journalists are ‘absolutely committed’ to delivering it. Glenda Cooper, a former broadcast journalist and now lecturer at City, University of London, spoke of how the pressures exerted on journalists by a lack of time and resources meant that they often missed the opportunity to fully engage with a diversity of sources and voices – without necessarily undermining the basis of impartiality. Steven Barnett, a long-time advocate of impartiality regulations, addressed the institutional challenges facing us today if these rules are to continue to be effective. These include the need for academics to more creatively engage with anthropological research into newsroom cultures, for the left to take the mainstream media more seriously, for broadcasters to resist groupthink and the lure of tabloid agendas, for the BBC to invest in ‘slow journalism’ that offers more than an instant response to fast-changing events, and, finally, for Ofcom to reevaluate the whole notion of impartiality.

This is precisely what the writer and filmmaker Paul Mason attempted to do in his short contribution at the event. For Mason, ‘impartiality is not an imperative of journalism’ but ‘a subset of truth’ which is the overarching imperative. Mason, after all, left both Newsnight and Channel 4 News because he felt that impartiality regulations were restricting his ability to tell the truth. Conventional definitions of impartiality may have made sense when there was a relatively stable two-party system but not when there is immense political volatility and phenemona like the rise (and fall) of Ukip and the shift to the left in the Labour Party. Impartiality – as it is currently practised – is flawed for two main reasons: first, because ‘impartiality rules do not have a theory of ideology’ that will allow them adequately to reflect on how society works; and second because ‘broadcasters have no theory of the state’. This means that they are both ill-equipped to deal with the growing attempt by the state to manipulate and massage journalism, and to hire the kind of diverse newsrooms that will allow them to resist state pressure.

We may have exquisitely drafted impartiality rules but if they are unable to account for the structural inequalities in and flaws of journalism – its intimacy with powerful elites, its appetite for immediate reaction as opposed to more careful reflection, and its reluctance to depart from a narrow consensus – then we may feel smug that we do not have the regulatory wasteland of US broadcast news but we do not have the critical and fearless journalism that many of its proponents think we do.

It is true that coverage of the current general election appears to be ‘impartial’ in the sense that equal time is being devoted to both of the main parties. But this says nothing about the tone of the coverage, the questions posed, the issues ignored and the agendas endlessly repeated. There may have been ‘equal time’ allotted to both camps in the Scottish referendum but that did not stop the BBC, as Paul Mason argued, ‘straying into Iraq-style propaganda’ where ‘it amplified and became a vehicle for the government’s narrative’. We now see a general election campaign where the media’s entrenched hostility towards and dismissal of Jeremy Corbyn threatens to overwhelm their formal attachment to a quantitative balance of coverage.

It is also true that impartiality rules are welcome if the only other option is a news landscape in which outlets run by billionaires and corporations are free to impose their views on audiences who do not have equal recourse to countervailing views. Nevertheless, we need to challenge the interpretation of ‘due impartiality’ if it simply involves a policing by broadcasters of the boundaries of acceptable and legitimate debate. If ‘due impartiality’ remains as the broadcast counterpart of the Advertising Standards Authority’s requirement for marketing communications to respect ‘prevailing standards’, then it will simply shackle journalists at a time when we need truth-telling and investigation more than ever.

Indeed, impartiality rules have not prevented a situation in which, because of the state’s ability to shape the news cycle, journalists end up, as Paul Mason claimed at the event, ‘doing stenography for the state’. We need to develop conditions in which broadcast journalists are not constrained by a regulation that seeks to impose an out-of-date consensus but motivated to follow stories that, as Richard Hoggart once wrote, ‘reflect the quarrel of society with itself.’

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