Do some journalists have a duty to keep their opinions to themselves?

The BBC has ordered its own reporters to project a neutral image

A screenshot of the Twitter page of Laura Kuenssberg.
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Impartiality is in the BBC’s DNA. So said the head of BBC News a decade ago. You would not get this impression watching the organisation’s news coverage today. This is a serious problem for a broadcaster, whose world-renowned reputation was painstakingly built on providing reliable and informed reporting free from political bias.

For BBC News producers and presenters, not allowing their own political views to become known to viewers and listeners used to be a point of pride. Creating challenging and stimulating programmes and conducting combative interviews without making obvious a presenter’s opinion was central to the role of a BBC journalist. The reasoning behind this was to enable viewers to form their own opinions.

But today the political beliefs of BBC employees are often blatantly obvious. The distinction between analysis and opinion has been eroded. The age of social media also encourages people, including BBC employees, to air their views at the click of a button.

The result has been a steadily increasing stream of complaints over one-sided BBC coverage, most notably in the way the broadcaster presented Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and stories like the Black Lives Matter movement.

This has prompted Tim Davie, the BBC’s new director general, to take action. Last month, he issued new guidelines to staff, particularly those working in news, warning them against publicly expressing personal views on contentious subjects. Davie also warned staff not to attend marches and demonstrations that were controversial or political in nature as this could risk creating the perception of institutional bias. He stressed it was unacceptable for high-profile BBC presenters to earn large sums working for private companies in their spare time while working for the organisation.

Some BBC journalists have criticised these new guidelines. Journalistic trade unions have attacked them as a breach of the human right to free expression. Davie’s response made clear that producers and reporters had the freedom to be campaigners on social and political issues but not while working for the BBC.

Despite the outcry in some quarters, what Davie has is trying to do is revive the spirit of the Producer's Guidelines, a booklet traditionally handed to new recruits of the BBC to remind of them of their special responsibilities when working for the national broadcaster.

Some media commentators have portrayed Davie as capitulating to government pressure. It is true that British governments of all political colours have historically had an antagonistic relationship with the BBC. In many ways this is a good thing, given the BBC’s responsibility to interrogate and hold those in power to account on the public's behalf.

But complaints of biased reporting also come from beyond Whitehall. Now, the BBC itself is acknowledging the truth of much of this criticism. Perceived bias in the coverage of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU caused the former head of BBC News, Fran Unsworth, to admit that the broadcaster needed to work much harder to reflect the views of all sections of British society, not just the “London bubble”.

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer appears on BBC TV's The Andrew Marr Show in London, Britain November 1, 2020. Picture taken through glass. Jeff Overs/BBC/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. NO NEW USES 21 DAYS OF ISSUE
Veteran BBC interviewer Andrew Marr (foreground) is among those at the broadcaster who would prefer to keep the attention on the interviewee. BBC via Reuters
The BBC needs to reflect the views of all sections of British society, not just the 'London bubble'

It is not government pressure, but rather failure by the BBC to intervene earlier which now poses the biggest threat to its future. Many in the BBC understand this. Veteran political interviewer Andrew Marr sees the responsibility he has as presenter of a high-profile weekly political programme to address a wide range of political views in the country. Marr says of his feelings of responsibility: “Every time I step into the studio on a Sunday morning, I remind myself that the people who are paying for it and who are watching include people who voted for UKIP (a eurosceptic party) to members of Momentum (left-wing pressure group) and everything in between.”

The BBC’s new director general understands that if the corporation fails to defend its reputation for impartiality, it risks losing not only its national and global reputation but also its income. All citizens in the UK who watch or records programmes on any TV channel must pay the annual TV Licence. This unique system funds the BBC and is precisely why the corporation is obliged to reflect a diverse range of opinions, tastes and cultures.

There are many private media companies that would love to replace the BBC with a US model of competing private broadcasters each with their own political outlook. If the BBC abandons the impartiality at the heart of its identity and appeals only to certain sections British society, it will lose the argument for publicly funded, impartial journalism. This would be a disaster not only for the Britain but also for those that admire the BBC across the world.

David Powell is a media analyst and former journalist with a range of pan-Arab broadcast media, including BBC Arabic