I used to say that I would be willing to take to the streets to fight for the continued existence of the talk-based radio channel, BBC Radio 4. Nowadays, like everyone else, I listen to a mixture of podcasts and YouTube talks. I enjoy LBC Talk Radio with James O’Brien where you can hear all manner of nonsense but also a lot of useful opinions.
But BBC News is another matter. I grew up trusting BBC news coverage. Friends around the world still report that if they want trustworthy journalism, they tune into the BBC World Service. By and large, we still trust BBC news reporting – not least because it’s the subject of accusations from the left of being ‘too conservative’ and from the right of being ‘leftist’!
But a reputation for impartiality comes at a price. An article in last Sunday’s Observer reported that the BBC’s Director General, Tim Davie, ‘has been enforcing stringent no-bias rules on its presenters, preventing them from expressing personal opinions on social media and in public’. If you’re a BBC journalist, you’re almost not allowed to have a personal opinion – and if you do, you’re certainly not allowed to say so.
For some distinguished BBC journalists, that regime is too much. It’s been announced in the last couple of months that three leading BBC news journalists and some of their producers and technicians are leaving the loving embace of ‘Auntie’ to work in other commercial news outlets. Many like BBC veteran journalist, Andrew Marr, formerly the anchor of his own Sunday morning BBC news show, seem to relish the opportunity to ‘get my own voice back’. James O’Brien, anchor of the most popular show on LBC where Marr and his erstwhile colleagues, Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel, are headed, describes the LBC freedom this way: ‘you want to be able to call somebody a liar if they’re lying. You don’t want to have to put another side of climate science if there isn’t one. At LBC, you’re allowed to say that the world’s gone mad. You’re not allowed to say that at the BBC’.
I have every sympathy with Maitlis, Marr and Sopel – successful interviewers and commentators and reporters all. For many years and in their different ways, each of them has skilfully and successfully navigated that fine line which separates sometimes unhuman clinical objectivity from a more human but still neutral viewpoint. Nobody could blame them for wanting to say what they really think.
But I suspect that their departure is a symptom of change in the relationship between the UK publics and their media. I suspect that, like the departing BBC journalists, many of us have tired of the will to impartiality. In the binary world so often created by mainstream and social media, we have tired of the attempt to see the other’s point of view or to believe that that there can be either impartiality or reconciliation between people who hold entirely different viewpoints.
Instead, maybe journalists and viewers/readers alike are more interested in creating a media world where the currency exchanged is opinions rather than an attempt at objective views of what is going on. Maybe we are moving towards a world where most of us will give up believing in or hoping for impartiality. Instead, we will seek to live in echo chambers where we see and hear views of the world which reflect and support our own.
We must avoid that dangerous world at all costs. In a time of conflict and war such ours, more than ever we need journalistic impartiality whether it’s from the BBC or others. Even if it’s hard work, even if objectivity is sometimes ‘more honour’d in the breach than the observance’, the ideal of journalistic neutrality must remain non-negotiable. More than ever, we need fair-minded journalists and readers – and if that means hearing Vladimir Putin’s viewpoint, so be it! Hard to believe in such an obvious case of war crimes but we need to understand how the enemy thinks. And I’d still take to the streets for the right to hear it.