Post-impartiality: BBC journalism and the Internet

The BBC's journalism has become more diverse and the old model of impartiality has been replaced by a new post-impartiality, Georgina Born argues.

The BBC is mov­ing towards a new jour­nal­ism mod­el. Post-impar­tial­i­ty, or “rad­i­cal impar­tial­i­ty” as the broad­cast­er itself prefers to name it, has replaced the old mod­el of impar­tial­i­ty. Forces influ­enc­ing the BBC’s devel­op­ment are polit­i­cal pres­sure from the out­side, deci­sions by top man­age­ment and a major change in how jour­nal­ists per­ceive their role and work, Georgina Born says.

The Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy, Anthro­pol­o­gy and Music at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge pre­sent­ed find­ings from her BBC research in a lec­ture titled “Post-impar­tial­i­ty: Trans­for­ma­tions in BBC jour­nal­ism in response to the Inter­net” at a sem­i­nar on pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing and the Inter­net at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bergen on April 26–27, 2007.

Born iden­ti­fied four polit­i­cal dynam­ics bring­ing change to the BBC news and cur­rent affairs jour­nal­ism start­ing in the 1980s. First, polit­i­cal pres­sure from the Thatch­er gov­ern­ments to dis­ci­pline and con­trol BBC jour­nal­ism con­tin­ued under New Labour. Sec­ond, polit­i­cal jour­nal­ists were faced with an inten­si­fi­ca­tion of polit­i­cal mar­ket­ing and news man­age­ment. Third, “neo-lib­er­al” broad­cast­ing poli­cies were pur­sued. And final­ly, the BBC’s direc­tor-gen­er­al from 1992 to 2000, John Birt, imple­ment­ed inter­nal poli­cies based on new pub­lic man­age­ment principles.

From the mid­dle of the 1990s, the BBC turned to brand­ing, for­mat­ting and mar­ket­ing their news and cur­rent affairs offer­ings in a more aggres­sive way. New, “com­mer­cial” for­mats and chan­nels were intro­duced, such as the BBC World and News24 news chan­nels, Radio Five Live and the BBC News Online web­site. The aim was to increase audi­ence reach. For some jour­nal­ists, this often meant hav­ing to con­tribute to many dif­fer­ent pro­grammes and chan­nels dur­ing the day. Accord­ing to Born, one for­eign cor­re­spon­dent had to appear in 18 dif­fer­ent set­tings through­out one day, hence reduc­ing the time avail­able for on the spot reporting.

Birt intro­duced strict vet­ting of scripts and strong hier­achi­cal edi­to­r­i­al con­trol. But at the same time, major cul­tur­al changes emerged from “below” among jour­nal­ists, Born said. Jour­nal­ists have pre­vi­ous­ly been called “naive empiri­cists”. This is clear­ly no longer ade­quate. Jour­nal­ists are well informed about media crit­i­cal research and lit­er­a­ture, and they now embrace the notion that jour­nal­ism is inher­ent­ly inter­pre­tive. Born called this a “new reflex­ive realism”. 

In Greg Dyke’s peri­od as direc­tor-gen­er­al (2000–2004), the BBC’s jour­nal­ism was braver, more orig­i­nal and provoca­tive, Born said. Dyke hired jour­nal­ists from the press and strength­ened inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism. But there was an uanan­tic­i­pat­ed effect that Born called “volatile dere­pres­sion”. The BBC clashed more fre­quent­ly with New Labour, and then came the Kel­ly affair fol­lowed by Dyke’s res­ig­na­tion. In the peri­od after Dyke the BBC can be described as a “but­toned-down dis­ci­plined machine”, Born argued.

Born pre­sent­ed find­ings from research she has done inside the BBC recent­ly, focus­ing on how the Inter­net is used and influ­ences jour­nal­ism. Born iden­ti­fied four “inter­ac­tiv­i­ty effects”: 

  • “I‑witness” news­gath­er­ing: Peo­ple con­tribute images, infor­ma­tion and expe­ri­ences. When the July 7 2005 bomb­ings hap­pened in Lon­don, the BBC received 300 pho­tos from the pub­lic. When the Hert­ford­shire Oil Stor­age Ter­mi­nal burned half a year lat­er, 15.000 pho­tos were sub­mit­ted. These cit­i­zen con­tri­bu­tions are sub­ject to the usu­al edi­to­r­i­al verification.
  • Inter­ac­tive audi­ence feed­back: The BBC receives 10.000–20.000 e‑mails every day. They have an online pan­el of 15.000 giv­ing their views. Over­all this paints a rich pic­ture of audi­ence response. 
  • Online com­ment: Giv­ing users the pos­si­bil­i­ty to com­ment online increas­es diver­si­ty of voice, and also includes illib­er­al and extreme views. The BBC sees this as con­tribut­ing to “audi­ence auton­o­my and empowerment.”
  • Audi­ence response: Peo­ple con­tribute tes­ti­mo­ny and expe­ri­en­tial mate­r­i­al. This “enrich­es the news agen­da and diver­si­fies the tone,” again accord­ing to the BBC. 

Alto­geth­er the increased con­tact with users/audience expands and ener­gizes the agen­da and tone of the news, the BBC argues accord­ing to Born. These devel­op­ments go hand in hand with increased reliance on “cross-plat­form” syn­er­gies between TV, radio and online. 

Where the BBC calls its own jour­nal­ism “rad­i­cal­ly impar­tial”, Born prefers “post-impar­tial”.

Over­all, the devel­op­ments of recent years leads the BBC to two types of uni­ver­sal­i­ty, Born con­clud­ed. Addi­tive uni­ver­sal­i­ty means diver­si­fy­ing into dif­fer­ent for­mats. Inte­gra­tive uni­ver­sal­i­ty means to expose peo­ple to shared expe­ri­ence of increased diver­si­ty. So far, the BBC has done more of the first, but the strat­e­gy is to do both.

See also:







  1. […] As the Finan­cial Times reports this week that the BBC has been giv­en a stern warn­ing from an inde­pen­dent com­mis­sion about “repeat­ed vio­la­tions” of its own impar­tial­i­ty poli­cies in its busi­ness cov­er­age — see BBC 2.0 Borked on Busi­ness-Friend­li­ness — it is hard to know what to make of the fol­low­ing item: […]

  2. […] Post-impar­tial­i­ty: BBC jour­nal­ism and the Internet […]

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