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The BBC's journalism has become more diverse and the old model of impartiality has been replaced by a new post-impartiality, Georgina Born argues.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