The BBC’s pursuit of unobtainable impartiality is failing its audiences

Reprimanding staff for confronting abhorrent views is an unsustainable position for the public broadcaster.

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Sometimes the BBC really doesn’t help itself.

In the last week its Editorial Complaints Unit has handed down two decisions reprimanding presenters Naga Munchetty and Emily Maitlis for what it deemed were inappropriate comments.

Their transgressions? Calling out racism.

In Maitlis’s case, it concerned a Newsnight segment in which she asked Sun columnist Rod Liddle if he would describe himself “as a racist because many see you that way” and added that his columns contained “consistent casual racism week after week”.

This is of course the same Rod Liddle who has called for the BBC to “ensure that Britain’s Islamaphobic community is adequately represented on air”, and who was censured by the then press regulator the PCC (now Ipso) for failing to back up a claim that “the overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community”.

These are two examples from among many. Yet the BBC considered that Maitlis was too “persistent and personal” in criticising Liddle, which meant she was open to claims she had “failed to be even-handed”.

In Munchetty’s case, she was reprimanded over her response to Donald Trump’s remarks that four ethnic minority congresswomen “should go back” to where they came from. During a segment while presenting BBC Breakfast, Munchetty said: “Every time I have been told, as a woman of colour, to go back to where I came from, that was embedded in racism.

“Now, I’m not accusing anyone of anything here, but you know what certain phrases mean.”

The Complaints Unit decided that while she “was entitled to give a personal response to the phrase ‘go back to your own country’ as it was rooted in her own experience, overall her comments went beyond what the guidelines allow for”.

This comes just a few months after presenter Ben Thompson was rebuked after he used Twitter to criticise Question Time for letting an audience member ask the question: “Is it morally right that five-year-old children learn about LGBTQ+ issues in school?”

On one level it is the subjects of these comments that make the BBC’s decisions seem so wrong-headed. As a society we have, as a majority if not uniformly, decided that racism and homophobia are not acceptable. To take issue with those who implicitly or explicitly support either form of prejudice is not adopting a strong political stance, but rather challenging those who seek to attack some of our most basic shared values.

The BBC’s editorial guidelines state that the corporation’s output: “does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic principles, such as the right to vote, freedom of expression and the rule of law.”

You have to ask what kind of society wouldn’t add respect for minorities as one of our fundamental democratic principles. Freedom of expression does not mean freedom from being challenged about the views you express.  

But in a broader sense these rulings and warnings reflect a deeper problem: the BBC is bound by rigid adherence to an impossible goal of impartiality.

On issues such as how we treat different groups within society, how we organise the economy and, yes, what our relationship with the European Union should be, no one can hold a truly objective opinion. Facts can and will be interpreted, twisted, fabricated and ignored.

For much of the 20th Century following its founding in the 1920s, it was the dominant source of news. It was still possible to maintain a fiction that there was indeed an objective truth, and that such truth was what the BBC relayed to us.

Today, there are so many different outlets for opinions – from alternate news sources to social media – that the BBC can no longer claim to be above it all. No matter the standards that it strives to hold itself to, the broadcaster's output will always be used to support of one narrative or another, quite often at the same time.

In an update to its statement on the Munchetty ruling, the BBC said that "audiences should not be able to tell" the political views of its journalists, but this is unsustainable and counterproductive. Few honestly believe that the people reporting, investigating, analysing and presenting are mere conduits. They are people, with opinions. Forcing them to pretend their views don’t exist fuels distrust precisely because we all know that no one can really disassociate themselves completely from their beliefs.

It is understandable that the BBC finds itself backed into this corner. It faces a hostile government that can apply leverage to its funding and structure, as it did during the recent renewal process for the Charter under which it operates, and in its decision to force the corporation into shouldering the cost of TV licences for the over-75s.

It is also assailed from both sides of the political spectrum for bias – claims that not only say more about the accusers than the corporation itself, but also ignore the fact the BBC encompasses thousands of people who, for the most part, are doing their best to inform the public.

This is all despite the fact that the BBC remains one of the best, most accurate and balanced sources of information available. 

But if the BBC continues pulling back into an ever decreasing “safe” zone that gives airtime to extreme views while holding its staff to an unattainable and unbelievable standard of impartiality, it will inevitably fail in its mission to serve the British public.

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesmans digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.