The broadcaster is feeling guilty about its liberal guilt. Can it fix it?by John Lloyd / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
Andrew Marr, the former BBC political editor, recently stood before an audience and said that “the BBC is not impartial, or neutral. It’s a publicly funded urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias, not so much a party political bias: it’s better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.”
Quite a few in the audience could claim to have been his boss. There was Mark Byford, deputy director general and head of journalism; Jana Bennett, head of television; Alan Yentob, director of drama and entertainment; Helen Boaden, head of news; Mark Damazer, head of Radio 4… and so on. Highest of all was the BBC’s head of state, Michael Grade, chairman of the board of governors, who had called this meeting. The BBC had set aside a day for a discussion of impartiality—mainly for themselves, with some others invited to share in the reflections.
It was an extraordinary day, momentous even. Extraordinary in that it did not discuss impartiality as one might have expected: as a set of practices for use in describing events through broadcast journalism. These concerns did come up, but mainly from the invited audience. Tim Gardam, former director of programmes at Channel 4, said the approach of BBC journalism must be one of rational scepticism displayed on all occasions—a remark which acted as a leitmotif of later debate. Jean Seaton, the professor of media studies at the University of Westminster, Adam Bolton, political editor of Sky News, and I all talked of how journalism must seek something which was at least a sketch of the truth.
But this was not the day’s project. It went deeper into the BBC’s emotional hinterland, unleashing a certain amount of controlled anger, even of self-contempt. There was a sense that the BBC was saying to itself what it roundly condemns others for saying. Much of what came out in the open—and it was not private: it was webcast, and I was told I could write about it—can now be used by its opponents to say “Look! Even the BBC says it!”
Perhaps the most powerful moment was a brief exchange towards the end of the day between Sue Lawley, who was the event’s compère, and the BBC’s Washington correspondent Justin Webb. Webb, whose question-and-answer reports with some of his BBC colleagues sometimes reveal a certain testiness at…