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.
- Book description: Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC.
- Working paper: Uncertain Futures: Public Service Television and the Transition to Digital.