Features

Must I Be Impartial?

Let’s cut to the chase: impartiality matters a lot. And yet the answer to the question posed above is far from straightforward. In matters of justice and freedom, ‘impartial’ arbiters are indispensable to any functioning democracy – indeed we expect nothing less. 

But one’s level of respect for the term often depends on where – not why it exists; must we expect it of everyone? Whilst judicial impartiality remains a prerequisite in a court of law, the story is more tangled in the world of news media. For the BBC, impartiality stands forefront to everything. But to many others – aptly summarised by the late G.K Chesterton – “a man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun and moon.”  

But a key question exists over the extent to which Chesterton’s own definition of impartiality – “indifference which is an elegant name for ignorance” –  ignores the fundamental essence of the term itself; its enduring malleability. It is a choice suited to some better than others. More precisely, it is fully possible to make this choice, far unlike the choice to have a ‘private’ solar system. 

Generally valued for its objective and measurable characteristics, impartiality is defined as the equal treatment of opponents and disputants. But for BBC Director General Tim Davie, impartiality is more of a ‘negotiated’, shapeable ideal as opposed to a concrete artefact. In essence, the decision to act impartially – note the word ‘decision’ here – derives from conversations surrounding the relative importance of certain positions. Hence minority opinion is given as much light as required, but never enough to overshadow majority expression.     

When considering the ‘malleability’ of the term, the problem at the BBC has less to do with reneging one’s right to expression – or to have “convictions” as Chesterton put it – and more to do with having extreme faith in the value of impartial news, allowing viewers to make up their own minds on key issues. 

‘In my view party political statements are not the right thing to be asking if they are a part of an impartial news organisation,” Mr Davie recently told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee. Not once does the BBC Charter make any bold claims of righteousness, instead specifying its decision to enact ‘due impartially’ – that is to say impartiality ‘adequate or appropriate to the subject and nature of the programme’. Even Mr Davie himself described the career move of an opinionated columnist or partisan campaigner as a “valid choice”, just not as a BBC employee. 

In essence, the very decision to act ‘impartially’ is both private and optional. Nonetheless, Mr Davie’s sternness could have a damaging effect on the corporation’s ability to attract and retain key talent. Upholding impartiality involves renowned and popular presenters toeing the line, and not all do. 

Andrew Neil recently left the BBC to join GB News, a recently founded and thoroughly anti establishment news channel modelled around U.S based Fox News. The jury is out over whether or not British viewers have an appetite for more partisan news coverage. 

But impartiality has a separate problem: both the left and right have completely different notions of what constitutes ‘impartial” verses media bias, further propagating claims of prejudice from opposing ends of the political spectrum. 

Understandably so, significant issues cause significant emotional responses. But anger is unalike passion. Brexit has widened divisions between people on both micro and macro levels, in cities like London and university campuses like UEA’s. 

Far from disabling and in the age of fake news, treating rivals and adversaries equally benefits us all. This explains why impartiality underpins the editorial process at Concrete, engaging with a variety of stories and perspectives to expose genuine truths about today’s world. Then again, the choice is yours. 

13/10/2020

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Sam Gordon Webb


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