What Do We Mean By ‘Impartiality’?

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Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the case, the current controversy about star BBC TV presenter Gary Lineker and his tweets opposing the UK Government’s approach to immigration raises the question of what exactly it means to be ‘impartial’. It turns out this is not as straightforward as it might seem.

The charge against Lineker, and the reason he was asked to ‘step back’ from his duties was that BBC management considered those tweets to be a breach of its Social Media Guidance. The BBC has now announced an independent review of this guidance, which clearly does need to be made more coherent. But one assumes the review will not touch the treatment of impartiality in the BBC’s main ‘Editorial Guidelines’, and it is worth looking at these more closely.

The Guidelines have a whole section on ‘Impartiality’, prefaced (section 4.1) with the statement:

“The BBC is committed to achieving due impartiality in all its output. This commitment is fundamental to our reputation, our values and the trust of audiences. The term ‘due’ means that the impartiality must be adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content, the likely audience expectation and any signposting that may influence that expectation. Due impartiality usually involves more than a simple matter of ‘balance’ between opposing viewpoints. We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring that the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected. It does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic principles, such as the right to vote, freedom of expression and the rule of law.”

In other words, ‘impartiality’ is a very precious, but also a nuanced, concept.

The Guidelines also highlight (section 4.3.4) that impartiality is as much about perception as reality. Therefore, it is particularly important for the BBC to appear impartial when the subject matter covered by its broadcasts is controversial. Clearly this can be a very fine line to tread. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, should the BBC have given equal weight to the views of those who denied the effectiveness of vaccines, against a well-established body of scientific evidence? Its Guidelines would suggest not, but what about the views of those arguing against lockdowns, where the science is less precise? In the case of immigration policy, the argument is only partly about the ‘facts’, but also about underlying values, about which there are also strongly held, but differing, views.

Clearly, while one hopes everyone would agree about the importance of impartiality to the BBC, it is not always clear what it means in practice. With that in mind, it is interesting to compare the weight the concept carries in other, equally vital, walks of life.

It is, for example, along with ‘Humanity’, one of the two core Humanitarian Principles articulated and defended by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The latter:

Makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. It endeavours to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.”

While this might seem obvious, when combined with the practical necessity for an aid agency to prioritise responding to crisis where the need is greatest, or where for other reasons it is unable to operate on both sides of a conflict, it can be controversial: “why are you are not helping my people, only my enemy’s?” Again, the perception can be as important as the reality. Even if an organisation stays silent on the rights and wrongs of a conflict (thereby preserving its neutrality), it can still be perceived as partial. Aid agencies have to grapple with this dilemma on a regular basis.

In the UK, under the Civil Service Code, impartiality has two definitions. The first mirrors the humanitarian one: it is about being fair and non-discriminatory. The second is closer to that applied in the BBC:

“You must act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of ministers, while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future government… You must not allow your personal political views to determine any advice you give or your actions.”

Again, while this is clear, it can be very difficult for individual officials if an aspect of Government policy that they are required to support challenges their fundamental values. But political impartiality is essential if the permanent Civil Service is to provide the necessary continuity as governments change as part of the democratic process. If challenging the policy fails to produce a resolution, individual officials must search their conscience and decide whether they are able to continue to serve, or whether they have no choice but to resign.

These three examples illustrate that an even more important commodity than impartiality is trust. The BBC needs to be trusted by the public to do its best to provide a balanced account of what is happening in the world around us. Aid agencies must be trusted by the people they are trying to help, especially in situations of conflict or contestation. Politicians must have trust in civil servants if our system of government is to function effectively.

Now that the immediate crisis is over one hopes the BBC will be able to look calmly at what changes it can make to its social media guidance to reduce ambiguity and help restore the trust of all concerned. We all need it to continue exercising the key role it plays in our lives, both nationally and internationally.