Tuesday, May 29, 2012

It's not BBC bias: It's an unbalanced view of "balance"

The Government's Director of Communications, Craig Oliver, has been complaining about biased reporting by the BBC's Norman Smith. The report was about the Culture Secretary's precarious position in relation to the News Corp bid for BSkyB. Craig Oliver's complaint has remarkable similarities with objections I made 18 months ago about how Norman Smith reported the Business Secretary's position in relation to the same bid.

In the previous incident, the transcript of Norman Smith's report for BBC Radio 4's PM programme shows that Smith effectively gave his own personal opinion that Vince Cable should resign. He asserted that Cable's position as Business Secretary was "fatally compromised".

Making such an assertion is not Smith's job, I argued. He's not a columnist. He's not a politician. He's not a player.

Smith could have said that The Opposition was calling for Cable's resignation. He could have said that a key question under discussion was whether Cable's position as Business Secretary was fatally compromised. He could have said that his Government sources were sceptical that Cable could survive. But Smith didn't do that. He asserted that Cable's position as Business Secretary was in fact fatally compromised. This exceeds Smith's role.

Smith saw himself as providing balance by saying "there would be huge reluctance to see [Cable] go". This does not provide balance, because it does not offer an alternative view to Smith's assertion that Cable's position as Business Secretary was fatally compromised.

“Balance” would have been to quote those saying that Cable hadn't compromised his position, or that Cable's words were private and taken out of context, or that Cable needed to recuse himself from the decision. Now Smith might not agree with these views, but Smith's view isn't important.

Smith portrays the balance as between Cable being fatally compromised and it being politically damaging for Cable to go. But actually the balance is between Cable being fatally compromised, AND NOT.

In the same report Smith also asserted that a Government press conference was a “charade”. Again, this was The Opposition's view. It wasn't the Government's view, and it wasn't Smith's role to declare that it was (even if it was).

Smith's understanding of the notion of "balance" is wrong.

In the most recent case, raised by Craig Oliver, Smith asserts that the "Prime Minister having his name in the same headline as the Murdochs is a problem". Just as in the Cable case above, Smith accepts The Opposition's argument and dismisses the Government's argument.

And again, Smith might or might not be right. That's not the point. The point is that a BBC correspondent has a duty to report the facts and provide insightful analysis, rather than to take one side or another. Smith seems to view "balance" as a requirement on him, as a BBC correspondent, to weigh up fairly who is right. I.e. in this instance: is the Prime Minister damaged by his association with the Murdochs? But such judgements are not Smith's job. His job is to present the arguments and counter-arguments as fairly as possible.

Now I'm no cheerleader for government directors of communication, nor of the Prime Minister, let alone Jeremy Hunt or Rupert Murdoch. And I'm certainly not one of the "The BBC is full of biased Guardianistas" brigade. I have good friends in the BBC, and I've had very few good things to say about Cameron or Hunt or Murdoch. But it seems to me that Norman Smith has a mistaken view of impartiality.

In the video Oliver gives another example of Smith picking a side. Smith asserts that Jeremy Hunt's memo to the Prime Minister in favour of the News Corp bid for BSkyB (a memo sent before Hunt took up a quasi-judicial role in the matter), constituted "making representations". The implication is that Hunt lied to Parliament.

This might be right. There are plenty of respectable commentators saying just that. And the Opposition is saying that. But there is an alternative view, expressed very clearly by the Government, that Hunt's memo was to the Prime Minister, not to the person making the decision at the time (Vince Cable), and that this memo was deemed by senior civil servants as constituting no bar to Hunt taking over responsibility for the decision.

Once again, Smith sees "balance" as weighing up whether the Government is right or the Opposition is right. And he comes down in favour of the Opposition. Smith thinks it's balance if he makes an (honest) attempt at a personal judgement about who's right, without bias or prejudice. But that's not balance. "Balance" in this instance would be explaining the Government view, explaining the Opposition view, indicating some of the unanswered questions, and giving an insight into what key players are saying about the relevant merits of these views.

Now is Smith's view of balance shared by his editors? Does it represent the official policy of the BBC? Because if it is, then we have a serious matter on our hands. It would mean that BBC News is redefining its view of impartiality.

No comments:

Post a Comment