Sunday 22 March 2015

Does impartiality foster extremism?

My friends on the right and the left of the political spectrum usually agree on one thing: the shocking partisanship of the BBC. To those on the right of centre, the BBC is full of unadulterated socialists, while for those on the left of centre, the Grand Old Dame of public broadcasting is a mouthpiece of Thatcherism. To me, the unison condemnation of the BBC by all of them demonstrates that the BBC is clearly doing something right. In fact, I believe that its journalists are unfailingly impartial.

Compared to German news (Germany has a similarly tax funded broadcaster obligated to impartiality) the BBC's reporting strikes me as notoriously bipartisan. Listening to Nick Robinson's verdict on Prime Minister's Questions on Daily Politics I am always struck by his verbal contortions to do justice to everyone involved.

So, far so good. But is impartiality always good for us as a society?

The question may sound strange, but there is an argument that, unfailing impartiality may contribute to a lack of representation of extreme views in public debate. If you thought that this would not matter (the likes of BNP or al-Muhajiroun clearly make good use of social media) you are wrong. Any healthy society needs open and honest debate, and part of that debate is the ability of people to voice their views and opinions. The founders of American government recognised that by enshrining the right to free speech in the constitution. That right has repeatedly been interpreted by the Supreme Court to include the articulation of unpalatable ideas, unpalatable, that is, to you and me.

But is the BBC just as representative of those voices as it is of the mainstream? I think it may just fall victim to its own laudable, yet narrowly applied, principle of impartiality there. When it invited (then) BNP leader Nick Griffin to Question Time, the media storm lasted for weeks. As it happened, his views seemed to sink without much notice and the BNP is now nowhere to be seen.

So, perhaps the BBC and other broadcasters should have more faith in our ability to listen, engage with and ultimately reject the extreme and radical ideas of some on the fringes of the political spectrum. After all, confronting their ideas should make good debating practice.

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