From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel
'Two recent reports have sharpened the debate. This month the communications regulator Ofcom said that young people and minorities weren't interested in TV news programmes, and that one way to win their attention might be to sweep aside impartiality rules (although not for the BBC).
'But the report with greater impact came from within: "From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel - Safeguarding Impartiality in the 21st Century" was commissioned by the BBC governors and management and was written by John Bridcut, a former BBC staffer. Its purpose was to examine impartiality in an era of blogs and multiple channels.
'"Impartiality in broadcasting," said the report, "has long been assumed to apply mainly to party politics and industrial disputes. It involved keeping a balance to ensure the seesaw did not tip too far to one side... Those days are over. In today's multipolar Britain, with its range of cultures, beliefs and identities, impartiality involves many more than two sides... The seesaw has been replaced by the wagon wheel... where the wheel is not circular and has a shifting centre with spokes that go in all directions."
'Bridcut argued that the profusion of views and outlets meant that BBC impartiality would become more, not less, important. But it should involve reporting as many views as possible and should not shy away from reaching conclusions.
'Impartiality, he thought, should apply in all genres, including drama. In conversations with Bridcut, I put to him that his call for impartiality across the entire TV output was utopian: most dramatists, for example, thought of themselves as progressives. Bridcut said: "It is true that furthering liberal causes is very much the mindset of the drama fraternity. But the categorisation of dramatists by political outlook was not always helpful. There are many shows which may come from writers with a liberal perspective, but... the treatment of their subject breaks new ground. Instead of asking whether writers are liberal or conservative, it is rather more interesting to know whether they are original or conformist."
'The engines of contemporary culture - the fashionability of good causes, the merging of the media, political and entertainment worlds, the trend towards greater public emotion, exhibition and polemic - seem to be working against a view that rigorous impartiality is desirable, or even possible.
'But the BBC report said that when it asked the Sparkler agency to carry out consumer research, the researchers imagined they would have to use alternative words for impartiality: fairness, lack of bias, balance. The researchers found that was unnecessary. "The audience understands perfectly well what impartiality is," the report said. People, it seems, will recognise impartiality when they see it. The challenge for public-service broadcasters is to persuade them to continue to want it - even as the sirens of a polemical multi-channel world attempt to lure them away.'