The Value of Impartial Reporting

The value of impartial reporting is that it gives people an unbiased picture of what politicians are doing, to hold them to account.

If people choose channels which reinforce their views, the value of media contribution to public debate is much reduced – because a divided audience cannot know what has been omitted and what degree of ‘spin’ is being applied.  Instead of interaction there is a deepening polarisation.  Ronald Dworkin referred to Fox News’s “shamelessly biased news and current affairs programs”, for example, in his book Is Democracy Possible Here? (p. 129).

Ad Fontes Media publishes a chart on media bias, mapping reliability of reporting on one axis and political leaning on the other.  It shows Fox News Cable as “Hyper-Partisan Right”, for example, with several articles being classified as “Selective or Incomplete Story / Unfair Persuasion”.

In recognition of the value of impartial reporting, this book makes great use of the BBC and The Economist websites.  They are mostly impartial sources that keep their material online for many years – as noted in the book’s Preface and AcknowledgementsAd Fontes Media rates both as having a “Neutral or Balanced Bias”, although some BBC articles are rated as “Skews Left”.

The BBC is often criticised for a liberal bias, notably by Conservative politicians and some newspapers but, as Professor Ivor Gaber remarked in his Analysis: The Beeb, the bias and the bashing, “newspapers see the BBC as a formidable competitor, not just for audiences but for income as well”.  He noted that there are “demonstrable connections between the BBC and Conservatives” and a “paucity of connections on the other side”, and cited Hard Evidence: how biased is the BBC? as showing that BBC coverage “tends to reproduce a Conservative, Eurosceptic, pro-business version of the world”.

The value of impartial reporting depends upon people trusting it.  There is a strong argument in favour of having public-service broadcasting such as the BBC, whose charter requires political neutrality.  It provides a lot of impartial and educative material as, for example, in its coverage of general elections where it makes every party’s manifesto available.  It was also able to act as umpire in assessing the truthfulness of statements made by rival politicians in 2016 in its Reality Check: The EU referendum.

Several newspapers in both Britain and America have tried to offer the same service, but all would be suspected of bias whereas the BBC is mostly trusted.  Sadly, though, most people wouldn’t have bothered to read its reports.

It would be better if falsehoods and misleading statements were challenged at the time that they were uttered, and the BBC was criticised for not doing this.  It has a formal duty to report both sides of every political argument, but it should also comment on lack of honesty.  It has sometimes, but not always, done so.

There are obvious dangers in having an officially-sanctioned source of news if it could be manipulated by a government and used for propaganda – though people would quickly realise that this was happening and would cease to trust it.


Next Section

This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6434.htm.