Baiting the goody-goody

When it comes to ethical standards in journalism, the BBC is in a league of its own

Some of us, upon reading the headline "BBC guilty of liberal bias", probably let out a cheer. Since on any day of the year another headline could truthfully declare "National press guilty of conservative bias", and a third might reasonably claim "Government guilty of conservative bias", it's comforting to be told somebody is on our side.

But on second thoughts we might scratch our heads. This is the BBC of John Humphrys, Andrew Neil, Jeremy Clarkson and David Dimbleby? The BBC that gave us Andrew Marr eulogising Margaret Thatcher? The BBC that invited Tony Blair to perform in a charity show? The BBC from which Jeff Randall and Rod Liddle have departed, leaving who knows how many more like them behind? What's so liberal about that?

And if your idea of liberal bias is a sick-making Richard Curtis drama about a G8 summit miraculously seeing the light on world poverty, then you can keep it, thank you very much.

Impartiality, as the BBC's new "guiding principles" acknowledge, is a slippery business. Here is an organisation that is required by law to be impartial, having to admit that there's no pleasing everyone, that the nature of bias varies according to time, place and type of programme and - trickier still - that impartiality is not always to be found in the middle ground.

The arguments about this can never be won or lost and the problem, if there is one, cannot be solved - no matter how much advice is offered by the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press. What is good here, and deserves our applause, is that once again the BBC is demonstrating that it tries.

No other British organisation of any size that engages in journalism puts half as much effort into considering the ethics and the propriety of what it does. Most of our newspapers (and in particular those that are the most enthusiastic BBC-baiters) are far more concerned with what they can get away with than with what is right or ethical. They pay a lot of people a lot of money to keep them on the right side of the law - just - but they pay almost nothing to ensure that they behave morally.

And it shows. Rupert Murdoch's News of the World is the paper whose royal editor was jailed for phone-tapping - an activity funded from his expenses, and which he would still be doing if it had been left to his paper to catch him. The Mail, meanwhile, is the paper that, after it was outbid for Faye Turney's story about her captivity in Iran, promptly turned around and denounced the government for allowing the story to be sold at all.

There are many things wrong with the BBC (and this magazine has written about some of them), but in terms of attempting to uphold journalistic standards in an organised way, it is in a league of its own. And the result, as we know, is that by and large the British public trusts it more than any other source of news.

So, what is happening to the BBC? A relentless and dispiriting succession of staff cuts. Its news staff has been shrinking for two years, with some of the best talent taking voluntary redundancy. And following the government's licence fee decision in January, another round of cuts is planned. If the leaks are correct, this will involve the loss of around a hundred staff, coupled with a trimming of the foreign bureaux and the merging of various news bulletin operations.

"There is," I read recently, "a market in providing serious, balanced news. There is a desire for impartiality. The way that people get their news may be changing; but the thirst for the news being real news is not."

Wise words indeed. They came from our outgoing Prime Minister, in that famous "feral beasts" speech. Serious, balanced news is what the BBC tries to produce, and it tries harder than anyone else. So if, like Mr Blair, we want to keep the average standard of news journalism in Britain as high as possible, isn't it short-sighted to be squeezing the BBC?

The week of Richard Ingrams

Every Saturday, the Independent carries a column by Richard Ingrams that is just as amusing and acerbic as you would expect, but I am never able to read it without irritation. Above it, you see, is a little sketch of the man and the title "Richard Ingrams' Week".

I know, I know, I need to get over this. Pretty well all the punctuation gurus agree with me that it should be "Richard Ingrams's Week", but most of them, I am forced to concede, will tolerate "Richard Ingrams' Week" as a matter of "taste". I find it an eyesore.

It's not as though the paper is consistent, for you are far more likely to find "Prince Charles's wife" in the Independent than "Prince Charles' wife". A few weeks ago Ingrams himself referred in the column to "Haines's account". (When I spotted that I said "Aha!" aloud, just as Sherlock Holmes would on finding a vital clue with his magnifying glass. Perhaps I need a holiday.)

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?