Impartiality in Broadcast Journalism

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Impartiality is a word which looms large in the world of British broadcast journalism: it is a doctrine which has long been praised as one of the greatest assets of our communications culture and a mainstay of our public discourse. Yet there are many signs that due impartiality across British broadcasting could soon vanish.

The concept of impartiality in broadcasting was born out of necessity rather than design. In the medium’s infancy, when transmission via the airwaves was rare and a monopoly therefore inevitable, the requirement that broadcasters remain dispassionate reporters of opinions and interests was needed as a safeguard against potential abuse of power. 

Amid the torrent of misinformation and conspiracy theories perpetuated online, though, the need for detached, fact-led, and impartial news is perhaps greater than ever.

Now, however, the world is far different. We can choose between hundreds of television channels, a multitude of radio stations, and are instantly exposed to almost any opinion across social media. In a more divided and individualistic age, meanwhile, the practice of impartiality is more difficult. People are less willing to accept the editorial decisions which set both the news agenda and the parameters of impartiality, while many are increasingly cynical about objective truths presented by broadcasters.

Amid the torrent of misinformation and conspiracy theories perpetuated online, though, the need for detached, fact-led, and impartial news is perhaps greater than ever. In the polarised media environment of the US, moreover, which abolished a 60-year-old impartiality law in 1987, democracy and social cohesion have deteriorated as Americans stop believing in a common set of truths and are only exposed to views which reinforce their pre-existing prejudices.

British audiences are also ‘increasingly avoiding spaces and programmes where their ideas are challenged’.

In contrast, impartial broadcasting in the UK has long balanced public discourse against the persuasive partisan press, exposing us to different perspectives and interpretations. But as the communications regulator Ofcom noted last year, British audiences are also “increasingly avoiding spaces and programmes where their ideas are challenged”.

Indeed, despite the audiences of impartial broadcast journalism, particularly BBC News, surging in the UK during the pandemic, the trend over time has been of people tuning out. Many viewers, it seems, find neutral news services too insipid and unengaging, often preferring emotional, opinion-based coverage to cool, objective analysis.

In this context, GB news emerged. At its inception, veteran journalist Andrew Neil, the face of the new broadcaster, asserted that this right of centre news channel would extend freedom of expression to those who feel marginalised by current broadcasters and help boost public engagement in politics. Noble goals, but goals which proved futile. Neil’s disconsolate departure from the channel came with the revelation that his dream had in fact been hijacked: “shock jocks” are now a regular feature on the airwaves, expressing extreme, often hateful views, while Nigel Farage now fronts the channel in sharp contrast to the incisive journalism which Neil promised.

The result is a broadcaster which bears little evidence of due impartiality and which in many ways mirrors Fox News, Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing US television network – an outcome which countless commentators had predicted. News UK, another opinionated television news channel to be launched by Murdoch in the UK next year, is similarly expected to push the boundaries of due impartiality in favour of provocative and sensationalist coverage. 

Ofcom, meanwhile, has for a long time signalled it may be in favour of releasing some news services from the commitment to impartiality, while some government advisors on the issue of broadcaster regulation hold the same belief.

Whatever happens surrounding the legal framework of impartiality obligations on broadcasters in the UK, though, it is clear that the BBC remains a devoted bastion of neutral-news coverage. Indeed, Tim Davie, the corporation’s Director General, recently spoke of the doctrine in sacred terms, affirming, “we have together to renew our vows on impartiality. It is the bedrock of who the BBC is.” 

However, it is surely the case that in order to succeed in this mission, the corporation must not only avoid a passive and unengaging approach to impartiality which risks ceding viewers to partisan, opinionated broadcasters in future, but also redouble efforts to win back a lost audience which takes issue with what they regard as a narrow and metropolitan editorial perspective on the news.

Against a backdrop of misinformation and social fragmentation, the battle for truth is already being waged in the sphere of broadcast journalism. The question is whether impartiality will remain viable as the struggle intensifies in the years ahead.

Image Credits: Fred Kearney via Unsplash

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