The BBC has made a programme about ‘impartial journalism’. But wait till you see the contributors.

BBC sign
John Ranson

BBC Radio 4 is to air a discussion titled Impartial Journalism in a Polarised World. Sounds good. But sociologist Russ Jackson spotted a problem:

The Osborne friend in question is former BBC head of news, James Harding. Harding’s ‘impartiality’ at the BBC has come under scrutiny in the past. So it’s little surprise that Jackson suspected Harding might not be the best pick for this particular challenge.

The chumocracy

Joining Harding is a panel that the programme-makers presumably see as a spectrum of opinion. Indeed, the programme notes promise a “noisy discussion”. The discussion airs at 9pm on 12 September, though it’s already online here. Jackson felt it was good in parts but fell short on the crucial point:

And panellist Gavin Haynes, of the hard-to-categorise Vice UK, shared a plug for the show that perhaps indicates why it’s neither “noisy” nor impartial:

Sigh. Now obviously you wouldn’t expect him to describe fellow panellists as ‘a bunch of people I hate’. And maybe they genuinely are friends of his. But his tweet certainly goes some way to explaining why the discussion is all very cosy, with only a few small diversions away from the central path of agreement.

Does this matter?

While it might seem natural to populate a discussion about the media with professional media people, the lack of outsider voices shrinks the programme’s scope. There’s a bit of debate about how to manage coverage of arguments where one side is blatantly wrong, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. Mark Mardell, three decades into a life sentence at the BBC, seems to suggest that any opinion (even a demonstrably incorrect one) should be given airtime if enough people support it. But he suggests this rather apologetically and doesn’t get a chance to define it more clearly.

Talk Radio’s Julia Hartley-Brewer possibly thought she was the least establishment contributor. Her frequent BBC appearances would suggest otherwise. She at least attempts to stir the pot a bit by saying of the BBC: “You created Tommy Robinson” (aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon). She feels the corporation has achieved this by not acknowledging disquiet about immigration and sidelining such voices. Her supposed opposite, Helen Lewis (formerly of the New Statesman and now of the Atlantic), offers some comeback. She says: “it doesn’t happen on the left though, does it, where you say ‘there’s huge inequality in society, therefore we should get more communists on’”. Hearing the word “communists”, Hartley-Brewer says “Have you heard of Jeremy Corbyn?” And there is ZERO RESPONSE from anyone. Does everyone in the room agree, then, that Corbyn is a communist? Are they all too keen to stay friends with Hartley-Brewer to call out her sniping? Did Harding, in the chair, even realise that she had lobbed a smear at the leader of the opposition?

Only about 10 minutes later does ITV’s Robert Peston make the point that Corbyn suffered “vicious” and “genuinely unfair” press attacks during the 2017 general election campaign. He’s making the case for social media as a “counterweight”, and references the positive impact it had for Corbyn in the face of establishment media negativity.

The Overton goldfish bowl

The discussion does touch on the concept of the ‘Overton window’. This is the idea that there’s a range of acceptable ideas in any society and that this range can shift over time. It’s often applied to the portion of the political spectrum which is supposedly the ‘centre ground’. The panellists spend a fair amount of time discussing people who should or shouldn’t be given a media platform. But they don’t mention a single left-wing figure. Instead, it’s all about people from the right such as Steve Bannon, Carl Benjamin, Ben Shapiro, and Yaxley-Lennon. The clear implication is that, if the Overton window is moving at all, it’s moving to the right.

And that’s the big problem. For all their talk of needing to both uphold standards and reach new audiences, these media ‘experts’ give the impression that they’re unaware of anything remotely left-wing. The lack of impartiality that they’re supposed to be confronting is actually baked into their own programme. The irony couldn’t be starker.

Featured image via Flickr – Tim Loudon

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