The View From Nowhere: Impartiality, Objectivity, Bias, and the BBC

tvThere has been an important debate in Scotland about bias and impartiality in the media, and especially directed towards the BBC’s longstanding, insistent claim to impartiality, which has come under scrutiny following the broadcaster’s handling of the Referendum campaign. The debate itself has been hampered by a lack of balance in wider media reporting, perhaps because the defenders of BBC ‘impartiality’ have dominated the ‘mainstream’ broadcast and press outlets, and the critics of BBC ‘impartiality’ have mounted their attack principally from the alternative (independent website or ‘social’) media; a source which is noticeably absent as a standard reference point for public discussion in ‘mainstream’ press and broadcast media.

This distortion in the debate takes place in spite of the fact that mainstream media as a public source of information (measured by circulation, audience and more ominously ‘credibility’) is in long-term, significant (and in some cases precipitous) decline, while alternative media are in a period of high-use (often exponential) public growth and participation, with no end to its progress in sight. The critical difference between the two forms of media is notably most exposed in what may be termed the structured passivity of the old-mainstream (corporate) media’s relationship with the public: through which the media does not seek to reflect public opinion, but rather to offer its own opinion on public attitudes; to describe public opinion; to shape public opinion, but always to manage it.

This essential passivity in the public’s relationship with the old-media is in contrast with the ‘activity’ implicit in the public’s exchange with the new-alternative media; which makes no claim to impartiality but offers spontaneous access, instant public commentary, free public dialogue, immediate open debate; and most important of all, through these freewheeling interactions, a facility and experience of the process of public dialogue that has empowered each and every individual member of the public who has engaged with it, and enhanced their conception of the nature of a participatory polity, a genuine rather than abstract – albeit somewhat rough-and-ready – ‘open society’; and thus in remarkably short-order has produced a public that is newly empowered and motivated to induce political change, and challenge the presumptions of power.

The critical examination of the BBC’s claim to impartiality has been led over many months by such commentators as GA Ponsonby (‘London Calling’; Ponsonby Post); the media academic Professor James Robertson (UWS); Christopher Silver (producer/writer; ‘The Case for a Scottish Media’); Derek Bateman (ex-BBC), and has been discussed by Stuart Cosgrove (Channel4 and BBC), and even Paul Mason (BBC, now Channel4, whose memorable published ex-post referendum view of the BBC’s performance was that he was glad to have left the institution, and who recently described the BBC as a “Unionist institution” [Daily Record, 31st August, 2015]). For a focused, often quasi-insider broadcast media analysis of BBC impartiality in action I would direct readers to these critics.

Here, I intend to pursue the BBC claim to impartiality one step further back; is it possible to offer the public any assurance that impartiality as currently understood, which we may call the View from Nowhere, provides a credible stance that can actually be sustained, in principle? I do not believe such an assurance can be given.

First I shall present, as transparently as I can in limited space, the BBC’s own statement of Impartiality, which is provided in the BBC Editorial Guidelines; but it is worth remembering here that the BBC claim to impartiality is not a function of a libertarian philosophy or indeed any philosophical appeal, whatever the origins of Reithian rhetoric; but of a very plain monopoly grant of spectrum awarded by Parliament to the BBC in 1922. Reith’s BBC could scarcely claim anything other than ‘impartiality’ to a new public, however improbable the thesis, for it could scarcely propose to the British people that it was going to operate a publicly funded monopoly and this required it to operate as a creature of Government or even of Parliament, in a country that staunchly claimed to have a free press. This monopoly (later extended to TV) became a “duopoly” shared with ITV following the arbitrary grant of more spectrum for a fee and an advertising profits supertax in the 1950s, and of gradual loosening of spectrum rationing that was driven originally by privately (advertising) funded offshore radio-broadcast piracy.

Impartiality in the BBC is thus not a product of libertarianism or of an ‘open society’ philosophy, but of spectrum management, politics and changing technology. The control over broadcast content by spectrum rationing, and the setting of strict editorial rules over a narrow range of outlets has thus slowly been undermined by DBS or by the internet, i.e., by innovative technology (and the fact that British Government spectrum control is no longer a dominant power in an age of globalised mass communications) and is the consequence of nothing else.

Openness follows access, access follows technology; and the interplay between technological innovation and access are the only real guarantors of an open society in such a vast and complex arena as modern mass communications. Supposed rules of editorial impartiality have been imbued with a significance they do not possess. Given the technological revolution we are living through the broadcast theory of impartiality perpetuated by the BBC is redundant. Nevertheless, it persists as a peculiar anachronism in the BBC Guidelines:

“Impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences. It applies to all our output and services – television, radio, online, and in our international services and commercial magazines. We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected.
The Agreement accompanying the BBC Charter requires us to do all we can to ensure controversial subjects are treated with due impartiality in our news and other output dealing with matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy. But we go further than that, applying due impartiality to all subjects. However, its requirements will vary.
The term ‘due’ means that the impartiality must be adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content, the likely audience expectation and any signposting that may influence that expectation.
Due impartiality is often more than a simple matter of ‘balance’ between opposing viewpoints. Equally, it does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic principles.” ( Editorial Guidelines, Section 4; Impartiality, Introduction)

While ‘impartiality’ is claimed to lie at the heart of the whole BBC Service, the case for it is loose, tired and vague. It is not even clear in the Guidelines what ‘impartiality’ is, or the precise nature of its attributes. No definition is offered, and it is presented almost as if the concept is self-evident, which of course it isn’t.

The BBC explains ‘Impartiality’ in the Introduction to its Editorial Guidelines principally either through negatives (what it isn’t), or vague obfuscation (“its requirements will vary”), or elucidation that is unhelpful (“impartiality must be adequate and appropriate to the output”); what precisely are we to make of ‘inadequate impartiality’? Following one of the Guidelines threads, we might think ‘impartiality’ is “balance” but the Guidelines claim it is “more than” balance; but then offers a dissembling explanation (it isn’t just balance), without saying what it is. We slowly discover however that complete “balance” is not actually necessary to impartiality; in a single programme, in a series, or even across the output as a whole. What precisely is left of “balance” as a criterion?

We are also supplied with a special form of qualified impartiality that is termed, equally mysteriously, “due impartiality”. Is there an “undue” impartiality, or alternatively an “impartiality proper”? Then we have a late and decisive addendum; impartiality “does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic principles”. This is a much bigger and more important statement than anything else in the Introduction, but it offers much less than it delivers: democratic principles are introduced suddenly, with neither advertisement nor explanation, as if from nowhere: perhaps there is some form of supererogation at play here, directing us toward ‘democratic principles’, but this will scarcely do as explanation, for there is none: what precisely is the nature of these fundamental democratic principles? And why only ‘democratic principles’, or is there a list of other fundamental principles? Are such principles all that separates impartiality from “absolute neutrality”? There is a raft of connected terms here; neutrality, disinterestedness, objectivity, open-mindedness, detachment, indifference that could and probably should have been teased out in the Guidelines: that they weren’t merely add to the sense that the Guidelines lack rigour, depth or adequate analysis.

Moving on from the Introduction, the ‘Principles’ of BBC impartiality consist of five points (4.2.1-4.2.5). The first two refer to “due impartiality” in the context of ‘news’, in which a new concept, “due weight” should also be given to “events, opinion, and main strands of argument”. The most important statement regarding “Due Weight” (4.4.2), appears effectively to give this new idea practical equality with Impartiality; but of course ‘due weight’ cannot be impartiality, and the word “due” does rather suggest that there may be another (suppressed?) test that sets the exact calibration that allows us to apply the appropriate “due weight” in any given case.

“Impartiality does not necessarily require the range of perspectives or opinions to be covered in equal proportions either across our output as a whole, or within a single programme, web page or item. Instead, we should seek to achieve ‘due weight’. For example, minority views should not necessarily be given equal weight to the prevailing consensus. Nevertheless, the omission of an important perspective, in a particular context, may jeopardise perceptions of the BBC’s impartiality. Decisions over whether to include or omit perspectives should be reasonable and carefully reached, with consistently applied editorial judgement across an appropriate range of output”. ( Editorial Guidelines, Section 4.4.2; Due Weight)

What is the benchmark for “due weight”? Indeed how is such a benchmark produced, and how precisely is it measured? How do we “weigh” what is “important”? These are strange questions because this is a strange process; or perhaps it is a process intended only for public inspection. Indeed how are the Guidelines used; how are ‘balance’, ‘due weight’ actually calibrated in, for example, controversial cases. There is a section on ‘Controversial Subjects’ (4.4.5-4.4.9) but “advice” on what counts as “controversial” is “available from Editorial Policy”. The only reference to Editorial Policy I could find is to Editorial Policy Meetings within the BBC, which rather takes us outside the scope of the Guidelines, or indeed out of public scrutiny.

I shall now turn to the understanding of ‘impartiality’ that has developed in our intellectual tradition; a tradition that the BBC has scrupulously avoided exploring or referencing directly (but has clearly relied on) in drafting its Guidelines. ‘The View From Nowhere’ is an idea drawn from a book of the same name, published in 1986 by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, and which has been used forensically to explore standards in journalism by the American media academic Jay Rosen. He extracts from Nagel’s thesis the capacity of an agent to transcend a single viewpoint, a stepping-back that produces a fuller perspective – the View from Nowhere.

Rosen describes the View from Nowhere through the metaphor of the cinematic technique of the motion of a camera on a film set, pulling back to reveal where a character is standing, to provide the audience with a bigger, more revealing picture. Nevertheless Rosen cautions against supreme confidence:

“But there are limits to this motion. We can’t transcend all our starting points. No matter how far it pulls back the camera is still occupying a position. We can’t actually take the “view from nowhere,” but this doesn’t mean that objectivity is a lie or an illusion.” (Jay Rosen, PressThink, 10th November, 2010)

The View from Nowhere cannot replace the view from somewhere. We may aspire to imagine the view from nowhere, but we cannot choose to inhabit it. Rosen constructs a powerful argument, but although his use of terms is more robust than the intellectually rather woolly BBC’s bland, shuffling ambiguities of meaning and purpose in its defence of an overarching ‘impartiality’ or the recondite arbitration of “due weight”, even Rosen at times uses the term ‘objectivity’ as an apparent synonym for ‘impartiality’.

An alternative to Rosen is found in John Rawls’ account of Impartiality in ‘A Theory of Justice’ (TOJ). Rawls begins with what he calls the “classical view”, rooted in the thought of David Hume and Adam Smith, which proposes “an ideally rational and impartial spectator” who would approve of something, “from a general point of view should he possess all the relevant knowledge of the circumstances.” (Rawls,TOJ, 1999: Ch.II, S.30, p.161). Rawls preliminary description of the ‘Impartial Spectator’ leaves “sympathy” out of the account, but sympathy is central to that capacity for impartiality that requires more than objectivity or disinterestedness to place a spectator in the critical position to make a judgement. Rawls selectively refers to Hume’s account (who was not a rationalist), but curiously at the expense of Smith’s account, which developed a much fuller explanation of the ‘impartial spectator’.

In the ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ (TMS), Smith opens with a chapter ‘Of sympathy’, which explores the idea of a natural, universally held feeling of human sympathy, however restricted or qualified it may be, that also illustrates the capacity this feeling has to exercise judgement of events through the introduction of a sympathetic ‘spectator’, who finds some natural correspondence of sentiments with the principal person observed to be in some form of distress:

“the spectator must first of all, endeavour, as much as he can, to put himself in the situation of the other, and to bring home to himself every little circumstance of distress which can possibly occur to the sufferer” (Adam Smith, TMS [1801]: 9th edition; Vol.I, Part I, Sect.I, Ch.IV, p.30-1)

The spectator possesses sufficiently intimate knowledge of the culture and person involved (the sufferer) to sympathise, but at the same time has sufficient detachment not to be swept away by the partiality of those most directly and intimately involved. Smith thus develops the idea of a sympathetic ‘impartial spectator’; a spectator who is informed and sympathetic, but retains objectivity. It should be noted that in creating this classical view of impartiality Smith nowhere suggests that an impartial spectator could be a reporter of news; that the role could be appropriately assumed by a newspaper or pamphleteer (or in the 20th/21st century a broadcaster); contemporary roles which Smith would not have associated with ‘impartiality’ but would have recognised have other purposes or ends to serve.

We cannot know what Smith would have made of such a proposal; but given the potential conflicts of interest and the added complexity conflicts of interest bring to a delicate predicament; prima facie the idea that journalism can assume the mantle of the ‘impartial spectator’ seems merely perverse. For Smith the impartial spectator solely provides a very closely observed and sympathetic judgement, which would be of interest and value to the interested parties, and because this judgement also applies to all human situations it is theoretically universalisable; in this sense it is quasi-judicial, and hence the close interest of Rawls. It is thus also usually assumed that Smith’s impartial spectator is a sympathetic third party, someone necessarily close to the culture and issues at stake, but who achieves a difficult but quasi-disinterested capacity to arbitrate; perhaps a better-self, a judicious and judicial Adam Smith functioning at his very best. I wish to propose that this is not what Smith is doing.

Smith undertakes a much bolder and innovative intellectual adventure with his Impartial Spectator. We should remember first that the TMS is a contribution towards what Smith, Hume, Reid, Ferguson, Hutcheson et. al., would take for granted as the central ambition of the Scottish Enlightenment; to create a science of man. Smith understood that this project created a special problem that the science of man would not share with the literati’s contemporary paradigm of science, natural philosophy (physics): this is simply stated – the subject observing the phenomena is also the object of the enquiry; man. This creates special problems of objectivity that Smith explores throughout the TMS, and his solution is carefully constrained by the title of his work, a “Theory of Moral Sentiments”.

In creating the ‘impartial spectator’ Smith uses certain terms to describe how this spectator carries out the task. He uses the word “imagination” to describe both the operation and the limitations of sympathy: “it is by the imagination only” that we can form any conception of another man’s sensations”. Notice his use of the word “only”. Smith goes on to describe the process in this way;

“By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his fascinations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.” (Smith, TMS: Vol.I, Part I, Sect.I, Ch.I; p.2-3).

In the first two Chapters of TMS Smith deploys the word “imagination” no less than twenty times to describe his method. In Volume I of TMS (9th edition), he uses this word thirty-six times. He uses the word “imagine” thirty-one times, for example “we imagine ourselves in the situation of the sufferers” (Smith, TMS: Vol.I, Part I, Sect.II, Ch.I; p.45), and he uses the word “imaginary” five times. In describing the demands that are required of the spectator attempting both to understand and sympathise, Smith writes:

“[The spectator] must adopt the whole case of his companion with all its minutest incidents; and strive to render as perfect as possible that imaginary change of situation upon which his sympathy is founded.” (Smith, TMS: Vol.I, Part I, Sect.I, Ch.IV; p.31)

Smith develops a theme that turns the sympathetic spectator from the mere recounting of a predicament to which every individual can relate from common experience, by a process of modification (in part because finally the spectator cannot ever enter into the original feeling, but must inevitably remain detached), into something with wider moral force:

“What [the spectators feel], will indeed always be, in some respects, different from what [the person principally concerned] feels, and compassion can never be exactly the same with original sorrow ; because the secret consciousness that the change of situations, from which the sympathetic sentiment arises, is but imaginary, not only lowers it in degree, but, in some measure, varies it in kind, and gives it a quite different modification. These two sentiments, however, may, it is evident, have such a correspondence with one another, as is sufficient for the harmony of society.” (Smith, TMS: Vol.I, Part I, Sect.I, Ch.IV; p.32).

In creating the impartial spectator as an act of imagination I believe that Smith is acknowledging this spectator is not real, but only ideal. Smith’s impartial spectator is a thought-experiment: his spectator does not exist, and probably cannot exist.

The thought experiment has been deployed perhaps most powerfully in physics, and especially from the 19th century when James Clerk Maxwell (and Ludwig Boltzmann) developed a new methodology, statistical mechanics; which carried the consequence for the contemporary science of the unobservable (matter as particles or atoms in motion), that it was recognised to be impossible to observe or experiment directly (and critically to predict) in dynamics; Maxwell deployed the thought-experiment to illuminate otherwise intractable problems or paradoxes in dynamics. Thought experiments of the kind Maxwell created could not be replicated in the real world. Smith’s Impartial spectator may be a thought experiment of a similar intractable kind.

There is an inherent, profound tension in the ‘impartial spectator’ between the demands of sympathy, the need to “render as perfect as possible” the imaginary change of situation, but at the same time to remain disinterested, neutral and objective; between subjectivity and objectivity. Even Smith finds it difficult to establish the balance of perfect impartiality; his development of the idea in TMS requires a very intimate understanding and sympathy for all the circumstances, yet in a letter to Gilbert Elliott defending his thesis from attack, he stresses the required “indifference” of the spectator. It is difficult to see how an approach based fundamentally on feeling and sympathy can inhabit indifference with equal effect, or indeed to register whether they are really compatible. The reference to a sympathetic feeling ‘lower in degree’ than the original is then not just an observation, but a compromise. Smith’s thesis works most convincingly if impartiality is recognised not as something attainable but as an ideal, a remote aspiration which requires us to settle in the real world for something of a lower order that will pass a more basic but important practical standard: and Smith supplies this lower test, it is “sufficient for the harmony of society”. Notice also that Smith uses the word “sufficient”, but not the term “necessary”.

As we saw from Rawls above he also acknowledged that the classical view was of an “ideal” rational and impartial spectator. This difficulty of impartiality, as being ideal but not real, is also to be found in Iris Young, ‘Justice and the Politics of Difference’ (JPT) who refers to “the ideal of impartiality”, and later presents a sustained argument for “The Impossibility of Impartiality” (Young, JPT: Ch.1, p.10; Ch.4, p.102-7). James Konow has linked the impartial spectator theory to the thought-experiment, but in a “quasi-spectator method” which acknowledges that: “the ideal conditions of impartial spectatorship are probably never realized in the real world.” (Konow, ‘Is Fairness in the Eye of the Beholder? An Impartial Spectator Analysis of Justice’, 2007: p.5).

Konow has also used a systematic and extensive research survey (1,383 respondents); concluding that an interpretation of impartiality utilising a ‘quasi-spectator method’ produces a reduced variance in the moral judgements made – “consensus” in Konow’s terms – which perhaps provides a modern echo of ‘harmony’ in Smith’s theory. Konow also suggests the results do not fit well using Rawls’ alternative normative approach to the quasi-spectator method (Konow, 2007: p.20). Konow’s findings are arresting because he provides evidence that Smith’s method (which appears subjective) produces more uniform practical results than a method that appears to be rationally more objective.

There is a powerful body of opinion that impartiality is ideal rather than real, or perhaps even impossible. At the same time the ‘View from Nowhere’ does not serve the harmony of society; as perhaps the BBC is discovering in Scotland as it attempts to come to terms with the post-referendum damage to its credibility, and much worse, its authority with the public. Jay Rosen disdains the View from Nowhere. He suggests it encourages bad habits in journalism, like this over-used argument: “criticism from both sides is a sign that you’re doing something right”, when in Rosen’s words “you could be doing everything wrong” (Rosen, Q&A on the View from Nowhere): and that sounds just like the BBC.

Where stands impartiality? I have argued that impartiality is an unattainable ideal, but as Konow suggests a quasi-spectator method is usable to achieve a more realistic goal of consensus (social harmony). Nevertheless impartiality is an ideal that it is especially inappropriate to claim in journalism. Other ways of countering bias, or hidden partiality will be more effective, and will command greater public credibility in our age of burgeoning, open communication access. Objectivity or neutrality are not enough, and are not easy either to verify or falsify. Transparency and (even more difficult to achieve) the acknowledgement of honest partiality provide the best, albeit more modest aspirations for journalism than a claim to impartiality; provided transparency and candid partiality are accompanied by the widest, open, freely accessible public participatory media and these conditions function within a large, interactive communications network. Meanwhile traditional broadcast or press media cannot in principle meet the minimum requirements for impartiality. Rosen, following Weinberger, said this in a Q&A session on the View from Nowhere:

“I think we are in the midst of shift in the system by which trust is sustained in professional journalism: ‘transparency is the new objectivity’ (Weinberger). It’s easier to trust in ‘here’s where I’m coming from’ than the View from Nowhere. These are two different ways of bidding for the confidence of the users. In the old way, one says: “I don’t have a horse in this race. I don’t have a view of the world that I’m defending. I’m just telling you the way it is, and you should accept it because I’ve done the work and I don’t have a stake in the outcome…” In the newer way, the logic is different. “Look, I’m not going to pretend that I have no view. Instead, I am going to level with you about where I’m coming from on this. So factor that in when you evaluate my report. Because I’ve done the work and this is what I’ve concluded…””

I wish to close by allowing impartiality to reveal something of its strange, tortuous and chilling nature if it sets out to claim it has achieved the unattainable impartiality ideal (the standard BBC assumption), through two examples from history; one ancient one modern, but disturbingly close in character. First is the biblical account of the Judgement of Solomon (1, Kings 3:16–28), which absorbed the attention of Francis Bacon, the “patron saint of objectivity” in the icy hyperbole of Lorraine Daston (as reported by Kathryn Murphy).

Here is a synopsis of the biblical Judgement: two harlots require a judgement from King Solomon on the custody of a baby. One woman’s baby has died; the other’s baby lives. Both women claim to be the mother of the living baby. Solomon passes judgement by commanding a sword be brought, and orders that the baby be cut in two, and half given to each mother. One woman immediately acquiesces in the judgement; the other suddenly claims that the child is not hers. Solomon therefore restores the child to the woman who renounced her claim to be the mother; an act that, taken together with the other woman’s acquiescence in his ruling, Solomon presumably interpreted as unintentionally revealing the identity of the true mother.

According to Kathryn Murphy, ‘The Lord Chancellor’s Foot’ (2014), for Bacon this judgement offers a contrast between impartiality and justice. Solomon offers impartiality but his judgement seeks justice. Both women have a critical interest in the outcome, but the woman who accepts the impartiality of the judgement is revealed in a lie; the woman who reveals her partiality (to save the baby) receives justice.

The second story is a stark, very modern, dark, dystopian and disturbing inversion of Solomon’s judgement. Jay Rosen exposes to view the dangers in humans seeking to claim impartiality in a dangerous world, and the dehumanising risk carried by those who claim disinterestedness, objectivity, neutrality or detachment in seeking to adopt the View from Nowhere (see Rosen’s 5-minute video-lecture on the View From Nowhere).

There, he describes the dilemma of journalists operating (trapped) in Sarajevo during the siege (around 1996). It was dangerous to walk openly in the streets of the city, because Serbian snipers in the hills surrounding the besieged city were turning its streets into a killing field. Rosen describes a foreign journalist in the city arranging with the Serbian forces to be smuggled out of the city in order to cover the siege from the Serbian besiegers’ perspective. At last the journalist found himself among the snipers, only for one among them to call him over to look through the ‘scope of his rifle. This revealed two Sarajevans standing in a street in the city, unaware of their sudden predicament. The sniper asks the journalist which one should he shoot? The journalist recoils and protests he is not there for such a purpose, but solely to observe and report. The sniper then shoots both Sarajevans, and tells the journalist he could have saved one.

Comments (29)

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  1. sheila says:

    The BBC may not be technically lying when it claims to be impartial, and it perhaps genuinely believes it represents the breadth of views. But the ‘breadth’ it represents is very narrow. It’s like Tesco (or other large supermarket) saying they ‘represent’ the breadth of fruit and veg, but they ‘represent’ only those types of fruit&veg that they chose to sell, only those types that are grown by compliant farmers, and only those types that are (in their terms) cost-efficient. There is no ‘representation’ of home-grown food, of local varieties suited to particular places or types of soil, no more than the standard three types of apples available all year round tasting and looking the same. No representation of other ways of organising the tenure and management of land for more than short-term economic advantage.

    We don’t expect Tesco and the like to ‘represent’ all of food to all of the people. The BBC (and all mainstream media) is like Tesco. It provides products that it can make for the least effort and which makes the most returns (content on shelves, profit, viewing figures, awards).

    It may not technically be a ‘state broadcaster’ (like Russia Today for example) but it is a ‘status quo broadcaster’. It’s people may be different colours and genders and have different accents, but they are mostly all internally white middle aged (small c) conservative men, who endorse control and stability and consistency; and who fear chaos or unpredictability or loss of control of the output. If the BBC truly wanted to show impartiality, then they need to let others have control of some of the content and accept that they might sometimes offend or upset or annoy someone.

    1. David Milligan. says:

      I tend to agree with Sheila, the BBC is like an old monopolistic Imperial company which is set in it’s way’s. Change does not come easily to anachronistic institutions with inbuilt bias. The analogy with the big supermarkets is valid , the BBC won’t change course just because there is a new idea or fad around at the moment , nor do the big food chains. The big food stores pay lip service to organic food , low fat food ect, but they still sell high cholesterol food , cigarettes and booze. The BBC give a small acknowledgement that there is an alternative to the Status Quo and that is about it .

  2. Alexander Grant says:

    I am happy with this analysis and I believe broadcasters and newspapers if they chose to address this issue simply employed ‘reporters’ who came at issues from opposing perspectives but were given equal ‘airtime’. As I understand it the best European Universities employ, for example, two History Professors who put forward different perspectives and students hear ‘thesis’ and ‘antithesis’ and are encouraged to analysize, critique and reach intelligent ‘synthesis’.
    The biggest obstacle to this is predilection of the ‘owners’ be they plutocrats or governments who award licences. Perhaps a written constitution could at least help where public service broadcasting is concerned??

  3. John Mooney says:

    “The Impartial BBC.” I give you “Question Time” and it’s unbiased chairman! Enough said!

  4. Saor Alba says:

    I would think that it will now be important for anyone speaking to the BBC in relation to this topic, that they ask the BBC representative to define impartiality in the clearest of terms. Why exactly do they mean by impartiality?

    “Impartiality” is such a loaded word and simply stating that you are impartial is not enough. Can clear evidence be provided of ALWAYS being impartial. All it needs is the presentation of evidence to show it is not impartial to negate this assertion. There are, however, plenty of cases where there is evidence to show that the BBC is biased and not impartial. The BBC guidelines are deliberately unclear so that they can use the word ‘impartiality’ without anyone questioning what they actually mean by it.

    The BBC are not impartial and are dishonest for stating that they are.

    1. Saor Alba says:

      “What exactly do they mean by impartiality?” – not ‘why’.

  5. Graeme McCormick says:

    Slightly off point but not impressed with John Nicholson’s attempt during the SNP Conference to separate the employees of the BBC and the Corporation during the Referendum.

    There are countless individuals including journalists who have raised their heads above the parapet to declare publicly their support or sympathy for Independence at great potential sacrifice to their own businesses and more.

    If the BBC staff reflected the support of Indy in the Referendum they should have had the gumption to challenge the management. I don’t believe they all kept their sympathies from their colleagues.

    1. Donald McCormack says:

      Irony is, with one or two notable exceptions, I find the English presenters on bbc Scotland more impartial than their Scottish counterparts.

      I think this may in part be English presenters believe they need to be seen to be impartial where as many Scottish presenters believe they need to do what is expected, albeit unwritten, by their employer to get the London based job.

  6. Gordon says:

    Does incessant opinion in the form of vox pop and phone-in from one part of the country, namely the South East of England constitute an impartial view of the UK? Last Friday’s ‘Any Questions’ was from Aberdeen and covered a variety of topics, mostly of Scottish interest. ‘Any Answers’ latched on to education, just one of the topics. The most northerly call came from Manchester, and the discussion revolved exclusively around the English education system for the duration of the programme. Education is a devolved issue.

  7. Dougie says:

    It was with great interest I followed the case of a Church of England bishop accused of abuse
    It was revealed that prince Charles and cabinet ministers had introviened to stop the bishop from going to trial previously
    In fact charles had went so far as to give him shelter
    BBC news that night Bishop jailed prince Charles the ministers who allowed him to carry on his abuse nothing nada we get the news they want

  8. tartanfever says:

    Blimey John, what an article. Much appreciated.

    I’ve read it a few times now, and I’m beginning to get to grips with most of it. After ‘the view from Nowhere’ (is this still relevant? surely a view is always from somewhere ?) I get a bit lost but understand the discussion as to what impartiality actually constitutes.

    However, continually I found myself thinking there are very practical steps that the BBC can take to improve their news delivery which would deliver some public confidence.

    Impartiality is a term used by the BBC to define the argument of bias. It is deliberate. It tends to make the accusation of bias and the ensuing fight extremely black and white, and in this scenario, the establishment nearly always wins. There is no discussion, only shouting, and that becomes the defining factor. For every person you get to shout, I can get an equivalent to back my argument.

    So drop the impartiality act completely, instead, focus on what the BBC are – a public service broadcaster. If they still need a ‘grand narrative’ surely this is it ? They should deliver a substantial news service to enlighten and inform all the people of the UK. That news service should reflect the wide range of cultures and voices that all inhabit this land.

    However, the entire infrastructure of the corporation is set up to do the complete opposite. It is deliberately designed to be narrow, not broad. It is deliberately designed to be inhabited by South of England living, Oxbridge educated middle class white people. The news is deliberately programmed (by this I mean reported and edited) to give as little information as possible with no visible questions being asked set within a very defined time frame. This restricts the amount of information we can be given and is often exacerbated by revealing the same types of voices (usually white middle class, South of England living experts from a business or executive background)

    So how to change the BBC news. Here are some practical initial steps.

    Stop the limiting of every story to 2 minutes. If a story takes longer to explain because it is complex, then take that time.

    Ask questions on camera to the interviewer. When you hear a voice asking a question and the subsequent response you understand much more than if being read a standard press release, which is what you hear most of the time on the news.

    If an interviewee refuses an interview or doesn’t answer any questions, then report that, it is valid. Ponsonby chased Osbourne out the back door in Edinburgh asking why he wouldn’t take any questions, and that in itself is relevant news as it describes the position to answering questions.

    Lets hear from more third sector voices – charities, bloggers. If you keep seeing the same people on the news (John Curtice, then there is a problem)

    Actually looking at how the news is put together – (duration of stories, voice over descriptions, questions not asked, deceptive simplicity, too regular guests etc) will actually inform you on how to actually improve it.

    1. tartanfever says:

      Sorry i used ‘actually’ so much in my last sentence. Thats horrendous.

  9. john young says:

    these papers are sold in Scotland,the BBC has air time in Scotland why can,t our democratically elected government not take them to task,make them explain themselves if they can,t/won,t withdraw their right to publish or be listened to.

  10. C Rober says:

    Has no one ever noticed that both the BBC news and STV news seem to cover the exact same story in nightly news?

    IS this some kind of state controlled media bureau ,one dictating news policy?

    I watch several news channels every day , the supply of UK news is deliberate , it is nothing like the news I watch in Europe , it is instead heavily censored and dictated , but whom sets it , whom controls it?

    Is there no surprise that so many of Blairs labour had spouses in journalism , that Oxbridge people always seem to be in Charge of the BBC , why is there not a public selection process of a public entity? Simple , control the media , control the people.

    Also is it time for the TV News format itself to be reformed , split sports to its own late night?

    Giving 5 million people 6 or 7 news items per day , then 10 mins of Rangers and Celtic is sub standard is pathetic , but for those that must have sport news then surely they are better served with their own nightly sport news?

    I am no fan of the SNP , but the BBC during indy was biased , and when SKy and BBC london HQ is involved directly to defeat democracy , then the SNP should have directed a criminal investigation to private emails of the reporters involved.

    Anywhere else in the world the UN would have been calling it espionage from a foreign enemy.

    The BBC needs devolved , it really is that simple , not to Hollyrood , but to those that pay the licence fee.

    I , like others , have already mentioned that as long as we are subsidizing programming in England , with the whole licence fee not returned it really is that case , and is thus an illegal taxation on being Scottish. The SNP asking for another radio and tv station is a joke , if not an insult , Scotland deserves better than a token gesture for its tax suggested by the SNP.

    But has the SNP and Hollyrood the balls to do anything legally about it …. Like declaring the fee illegal until reformed , they still have legal powers to prevent it being paid , even if it isnt a devolved article , they can though prevent its collection as “unjust enrichment” and illegal tax.

    Other media.

    Creating harsher punishments for retractions from tomorrows chip wrappers , no more page 20 retractions for lies on the front page , but front page apologies for lying and a fine of a days circulation – as well as a censure on the reporter and editor. The set up of a Judicial review , paid for by the media themselves , where complaints are heard asap , as well as judgement enacted asap is far better then self governing at present with the PCC.

    But alas the SNP is playing the Psychological game on the electorate , its better to be hard done by , by the media , by Westminster , and to get the sympathy vote.

    But time is running out on that game , people arent daft , but to be fair it did take them a generation to clue up on SLAB , so there might be some time left for the SNP to line their pockets in the mean time.

  11. Will says:

    The BBC are biased have a look at Andrew Neil the guy with the shredded wheat on top of his head on the Sunday politics show watch him foaming at the mouth spouting Tory lies at Angus Robertson SNP and the Scottish Goverment. How come this ex Tory Andrew Neil gets paid his wages out of my licence fee and swans off to the South of France to to scoff Quail’s eggs washed done with fine wine at my expense for telling lies.

  12. Gordon Adam says:

    I find the discussion of BBC bias a bit problematic for a number of reasons. First, it’s impossible to be completely impartial and it’s absolutely reasonable that people raise concerns with the BBC whenever they feel a particular story/article is unfair. We have to separate unfair stories from mass brainwashing, however. The BBC is repeatedly guilty of the former, but the latter is extremely wide of the mark in my view.

    What seems to have happened is that some people have used the first problem (isolated unfair stories) to rally around a fairly unreasonable narrative (the idea that literally the entirety of the mainstream media is biased, you should ignore everything it says without exception and only read a select few blogs or campaigning websites you already agree with). I find that narrative to be pretty damaging all things considered. What’s more, it’s a convenient narrative for some people that have vested interests (e.g. people who produce alternative media content).

    What we really need is alternative mainstream media sources that are just as professional as the BBC (e.g. The National) not to all retreat into ideological bunkers and simply read Wings Over Scotland/Conservative Home (Conservative Home also thinks the BBC is biased against the Tories, incidentally). This is the so called ‘amplifying’ effect of the internet – it prompts people to simply reinforce their own beliefs and ignore everything anyone from outside of that movement says, which isn’t very healthy in a democracy where I tend to believe most people can usually compromise around the views of the centre when given a chance.

    So it’s fine to complain about BBC bias and I’d urge more people to do so, but it also has to be put into perspective. For instance, the idea that the No side only won because of BBC propaganda is pretty crude reasoning to put it mildly and doesn’t really help the Yes side form a better approach to winning a future referendum – any campaign that starts from “I know you’re a brainwashed simpleton, but…” isn’t going to get much traction (part of the tempting fantasy of believing that everyone you disagree with must be an idiot by default).

    1. John S Warren says:

      “It is impossible to be completely impartial” is precisely what I am arguing, no more no less. Nobody is or can be completely impartial (and to repeat, “impartial” is not a synonym for “objective”); and it is quite clear to the public that nobody either in the mainstream or alternative media is impartial. This is obvious. The BBC alone claims authoritative impartiality, and that is unsustainable – that is what makes the BBC’s position so difficult.

      It is openness and transparency that the public must rely on to understand the facts; not any institution’s claim to impartiality. Your argument about a “retreat into ideological bunkers” is a mere rhetorical flourish (and such generalised appeals as “all things considered”, or “pretty damaging” or “mass brainwashing” simply don’t cut it as analysis).

      Bias cannot be eliminated, which does not condemn what is produced to be “ignored” (another false trail you attempt to set); it merely means the bias should taken into account by the reader/listener/viewer), just as Rosen explicitly argues. Admit bias and state the case is an appropriate maxim.

      People can make up their own minds given all the relevant facts, which includes ‘where the journalist (or his/her editor) is coming from’. This is reality in a mature and open society. Everything else is ideology.

    2. Clydebuilt says:

      The NO side’s victory wasn’t entirely due to the BBC. In that you are correct. For example one of my real actives (two years before the 18th Sept) had a look at an atlas and decided Scotland was too small to be an independent country. This decision had nothing to do with the BBC. Having said this the person in question’s world view was developed by our media over decades.

  13. Simon Findlay says:

    “…Rosen describes a foreign journalist in the city arranging with the Serbian forces to be smuggled out of the city in order to cover the siege from the Serbian besiegers’ perspective. At last the journalist found himself among the snipers, only for one among them to call him over to look through the ‘scope of his rifle. This revealed two Sarajevans standing in a street in the city, unaware of their sudden predicament. The sniper asks the journalist which one should he shoot? The journalist recoils and protests he is not there for such a purpose, but solely to observe and report. The sniper then shoots both Sarajevans, and tells the journalist he could have saved one.”

    Is an interesting tale. An example of a story perhaps that could be used as a justification for action, something that might be spread all over our press before a vote on military action. A tale about the evil of (insert this weeks enemy). It might even work.

    Rosen does however say in 2005. “[T]hat’s the story I heard. As I said, I don’t know if it ever happened, or if it did, whether it happened that way. Maybe it’s a story told about journalists in every war, and only the details change. What I do know is that, treated as parable (not a truthful account of what went on in the hills above Sarajevo one night, but a fiction invented from shards of fact) this story, which I have not been able to verify or forget, is about something very real and alive today.”

    So a parable about the observer becoming involved/complicit in the activity he is observing ends up being quoted as a “tale from the front” by different journalists over the years. It doesn’t matter that some of them suggest that it is maybe not true, it becomes truth by the repetition.

    That is one of the biggest problems we face with our media. Every station/paper repeats the same thing not because it is true, but because it makes for a good story. Scandal/Outrage/Shock bugger the facts.

    As Mark Twain said (or did he?) “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story, unless you can’t think of anything better.”

    1. John S Warren says:

      Thank you for that comment. My article was already too long and so I cut a paragraph at the end in which I reflected on the authenticity of the Sarajevo story. For Rosen “evidence” is fundamental to journalism, and I was surprised and a little perplexed that there did not seem to be any sources offered in Rosen’s video; I too wondered if it was offered as a parable.

      1. John S Warren says:

        In fact our exchange here rather serves the larger point. “Every station/paper repeats the same thing not because it is true, but because it makes for a good story”. Or it serves a vested interest, or an ideology, or is simply assumed to be true; or through budget or time constraints, or the assumption earlier journalists have done the job properly, or sheer laziness; it is carried forward, and grows – what may be a false story is carried forward and expanded endlessly.

        It is open dialogue, the format of alternative media, the reliance on a vast pool of knowledge and information ‘out there’ (representing all and every interest or point of view) and on which the public can rely to intervene, that alone corrects this tendency.

        Here, you have presented the background to the Rosen story.

  14. Chic McGregor says:

    Good article.

    However one tries to be empathetic with and understand another’s perspective, being an imagined construct it is bound to lack the intensity of feeling experienced by that person. There is therefore no such thing as an imagined equivalent experience.

    This follows on from Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature.

    It is not a failing but rather a necessity to protect us, otherwise every imagined or dreamed scenario would be elevated to reality status and would become the equivalent of full blown hallucination.

    It is rather important that we can actually tell the difference between reality and imagination (most of the time 🙂 ).

    But the use of sympathy can at least reveal to us the logical perspective of an individual fairly clearly along with a watered down version of their emotional response.

    So a formal attempt at empathy e.g. de Bono’s ‘Logic Bubble’ should be part of any humanity based decision process.

    In regard to the media, it is not just a matter for internal consideration. There are international standards and rules often linked to human rights like the freedom of expression and enshrined in treaties like the ECHR.

    There is much debate on media plurality and freedom of expression in Europe. Its necessity for a healthy democracy.

    Self regulation (within ECHR rules) has been tolerated until recently, The UK being often cited as a success in that regard, but Since the phone hacking and Leveson the consensus would now seem to be that that approach needs revision. Most recent main analysis cites Leveson in the UK as an example of the failings of self regulation.

    There is also too, concern about the level of control exerted by business interest in the UK, through government and media ownership and the lack of plurality that offers the public.

    Of course in Scotland’s case, on the issue of independence, the lack of plurality in the MSM is almost complete.

    Anyway, here are a couple of links for those interested:


  15. Donald McCormack says:

    The bbc takes every opportunity to report evil cyber nats who have sworn at a millionaire celebrity online or other online infractions.

    BUT when conducting any Scottish related blog on its own site, the blog soon becomes filled up by hate filled comments by ill informed buffoons from south of the border. I’d quickly add these buffoons are small minority and absolutely not representative of the English people. BUT, neither is the celebrity being sworn at by someone of a Scottish nationalist persuasion representative of Scottish nationalism.

    Two additional thoughts spring to mind, how do we know that the abuse of these celebrities come from Scottish nationalists and not agent provocateurs? Secondly how do we know these celebrities are not placed in this position by others in the knowledge their new found love of Scotland and it remaining in the uk will attract attention from some that can be spun negatively against the independence cause? I think of a comedian being escorted Lund Glasgow during the general election by labour’s defeated ex leader in Scotland. Basically it looked staged!

    At end of day bbc promote british nationalism, it is becoming clearer this is incompatible with Scottish nationalism, this is the line of battle and it is pretty obvious broadcasting will never be devolved. The only way to defeat the bbc is to monitor its coverage (including its use of press and Labour Party research without validating the facts) and report on its bias and or impartiality to the people of Scotland. An informed electorate will make informed choices.

  16. C Rober says:

    One of the commentators stated that the BBC does not use brainwashing.

    It does and always has done.

    Its a last remnant of a Colonial Empire , hand in hand with a secret service , with programming policy controlled by Westminster , even to the point of appointing its head.

    Soaps , Eastenders in particular , are told story lines to which they have to either avoid or include , this is brainwashing of the masses though their heroin of choice.

    The same was said of every “youth” programming from those that produced it from the 80s to the noughties , by those that went onto other broadcasters.

    The protection of Saville , Prominent politicians etc , again brainwashing , “move along nothing here to see” is state control of the media , control and brainwashing go hand in hand.

    So why not brainwashing in the BBC news , it selects the content to show , whom to demonise or canonise , and as proven edits to suit its given directive , again that is brainwashing.

    But the other option , where independent UK news is showing the exact same news reels and live reports , station like SKY news , ITV , STV , you dont need a tin foil hat to notice it is controlled …. somehow , either deliberate or collusion , maybe for those that own or run it , if not at the political level then that of the wealthy.

    It is quite funny though that in these days of Non State Ownership , the prevention of market protection that both the EU and non Licence funded stations want , SKY , STV , havent taken the licence fee to the EU courts on competition rules. Open markets , aye right.

    As for cost cutting of the BBC.

    Were it to reduce the news rooms and back service of the BBC from the most expensive city in the uk , to another further North , it would cut its cost by a third , or increase the funding for more programming.

    In todays digital world , fat pipe internet , sat uplinks , 4g live links , there really is no true justification to not offshore labour and recording stages/studios when they are available …. in the case of BBC Scotland its used by BBC competitors for creating programming.

  17. Jim Williamson says:

    “Impartiality does not necessarily require the range of perspectives or opinions to be covered in equal proportions either across our output as a whole, or within a single programme, web page or item…”

    This statement seems to give carte blanche to the BBC to do anything it wants and still claim impartiality. It’s just a smart use of words.

  18. arthur thomson says:

    I found this article really insightful.

    It seems to me that the GE result was an indicator that fewer people in Scotland are accepting output from the media and British political parties as fact. The ‘biggest party gets first chance at forming a government’ argument would, I think, previously been swallowed hook line and sinker but not this time. Slab were amazed to find that many people didn’t even want to listen to their arguments and I think that was because more people were simply no longer prepared to believe anything they had to say. I don’t think people had necessarily found an alternative source of information, though many would have but rather that the credibility of Slab and the media was thoroughly undermined by their glaringly obvious spin, half-truths and outright lies.

    Despite that experience, the same suspects have continued their policy of grotesquely distorting information, I presume on the simplistic assumption that nothing succeeds like excess. Polling of the Scottish electorate since the GE seems to me to suggest that what they are actually achieving is confirming for the electorate that they were right to stop believing them.

    But where, then, are people to find reliable information?

    Perhaps the policy of the SNP to project themselves as the voice of calm and reasonableness is smart. They are cutting through the dim witted clamour that is being broadcast by their opponents. When NS speaks – when she is given the chance to speak- I think an increasing number of ears are listening and thinking ‘mm this all seems pretty sound to me. I think I’ll give her a chance and see what comes of it’. She has pinned her colours to the mast, she’s not claiming impartiality, she’s just making a case as she see’s it and leaving it to others to judge whether they should accept the case or not.

    Such a pity that the media and others won’t do likewise.

  19. Philip Maughan says:

    As has been noted here and elsewhere, the media’s perceived lack of ‘impartiality’ is often a result of reporting what the print media (who are anything but impartial) publish. Rather than simply ‘reporting’ news, the BBC and other broadcasters have a duty to forensically examine political statements. So when George Osborne gave his ‘sermon on the pound’, he should have been cross-examined as to why Scotland could not share Sterling while the newly independent Ireland was provided such a facility, as have a number of newly independent countries around the world. If the politician declines cross-examination (as in Osborne’s case), then more air time should be offered to opposition parties. Rather than seeking some illusive impartiality therefore, broadcasters should seek to be rigorous and allow the viewing/listening public to draw their own conclusions.

  20. Iain says:

    “Contrary to the claims, conventions and culture of television journalism, the news is not a neutral product. For television news is a cultural artefact; it is a sequence of socially manufactured messages, which carry many of the culturally dominant assumptions of our society. From the accents of the newscasters to the vocabulary of camera angles; from who gets on and what questions they are asked, via selection of news stories to presentation of bulletins, the news is a highly mediated product.” (Glasogw Media Group 1976)
    a good resource for anyone interested in the history of bad reporting

    1. John S Warren says:

      Thank you for that timely reminder of the prophetic work of Eldridge and Walton of the Glasgow University Media Group in the 1970s, but which continues today. It continues to produce an informative “Bad News” series on (unacknowledged) bias in broadcasting and journalism. Its latest appears to “Bad News for Refugees” (2011: Greg Philo, Emma Briant and Pauline Donald) which examines how refugees “have been stigmatised in political rhetoric and media coverage”.

      It is striking how The GUMG is routinely attacked for its scholarship (as is Professor Robertson: UWS), and with poisonous venom, by the same media, and in a manipulative and gratuitous way – with the apparent intention to silence – that universities are rarely attacked, or should be attacked, in a free society.

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