What should an impartial BBC look like?

Published: 20 March 2014

Impartiality has long been a quality we've come to expect from the BBC. But why is it so important for us that broadcasters give us both sides of the story? Surely, objectivity should be the name of the game, rather than ratio.

Where there is a weight of scientific evidence or public opinion for a particular viewpoint, maybe it’s ok for the broadcaster to tip the scales in favour of spokespeople championing those opinions.

Maybe it’s just me, but criticism of the BBC for a lack of impartiality seems to be increasing. Whether it’s coverage of the Scottish and EU independence referendums, stories relating to climate change or the screening of programmes related to charity campaigns, many people seem to believe the BBC is failing to live up to its commitment to be impartial.

But what do we really mean by impartiality, and what should that look like for the BBC and other public broadcasters?

Many of the BBC’s critics provide evidence of bias in the form of ratios, citing the number of spokespeople interviewed for or against their pet issue. So a professor in media politics from the University of the West of Scotland recently highlighted data showing the BBC’s main evening news broadcasts in Scotland have a 3:2 ratio of statements supportive of independence versus those supportive of the union.

This argument suggests the BBC should be aiming for a 1:1 ratio of pro and anti statements on all issues. But while we may think that sounds fair, imagine what it would look like in reality.

For every debate on immigration the views of the BNP and EDL would need to be represented alongside those of the more mainstream parties. For every story about floods in the UK, the views of those like David Silvester who believe they are a consequence of allowing gay marriage would be given equal weight to scientists talking about climate change or lack of dredging. And campaigners in favour of creationism being taught in school science lessons would be given as much prominence as those promoting the theory of evolution.

As the BBC’s guidelines state, impartiality does not require absolute neutrality. Where there is a weight of scientific evidence or public opinion for a particular viewpoint, maybe it’s ok for the broadcaster to tip the scales in favour of spokespeople championing those opinions.

Yes, it’s vital that minority views are not ignored and that those with opinions that differ from the norm are not brushed aside by the press, but let’s cut the BBC some slack and remember that objectivity is about more than a just a ratio.

Jo Nussbaum

Senior Consultant 

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Jo has worked in the education, local government, charity and financial services sectors. She has a Prince2 Foundation qualification.

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