The View From Nowhere: Impartiality, Objectivity, Bias, and the BBC
There 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.” (bbc.co.uk: 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”. (bbc.co.uk: 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 : 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.