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27 August 2009

“Do we get it right?”

The BBC is still defined by impartiality

By Caroline Thomson

Impartiality: few words more precisely define what the BBC stands for. Do we get it right? Not always. But we are not doing badly. Two years ago, a BBC Trust report recognised that in today’s Britain, with all its cultures, beliefs and identities, impartiality is no longer simply a “seesaw” balancing one side of a clear argument against another. Achieving it in our increasingly complex society requires even more than the usual mixture of accuracy, balance, context, distance, even-handedness, fairness, objectivity, open-mindedness, rigour, self-awareness, transparency and truth. It requires breadth of view and completeness. It is often achieved by bringing extra perspectives to bear, rather than limiting horizons or censoring opinion.

Take the challenge of covering the Afghan elections. Being impartial did not just mean providing a platform for those on one side who thought the elections were a waste of time and those on the other who maintained they were an unqualified success. Nor would our record of impartiality be judged simply through a British lens. It is a universal value, particularly important for the BBC when its services in Pashto and Persian are regularly used by 57 per cent of the Afghan people.

As Afghans went to the polls, the BBC was reporting from a dozen different provinces across the country. We endeavoured to give the wider picture. Martin Patience in the north emphasised on the Today programme that it was in the countryside that the elections would be won, and reported a relatively high turnout. Peter Allen, in the south, said polling was low, while John Simpson in Kabul gave the overall context.

Impartiality is about reflecting events comprehensively, but it is also about judgement – informed correspondents making judgements based not on who is paying them or which side they support, but on their experience on the ground, the evidence they find there and their expertise. Impartiality must never fall into the trap of simply reflecting the views of an established elite, whether liberal or reactionary. It requires constant vigilance to achieve this.

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It was the great CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite who said: “Our job is only to hold up the mirror – to tell and show the public what has happened.” Impartiality today requires many mirrors, all of them fragile. They must be handled with care. That is what the BBC is committed to doing.

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The writer is the BBC’s chief operating officer

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