The former director of BBC Global News explains what Britain’s historic public service broadcaster means by ‘impartiality’ – and why it has not always achieved it.
The findings of the Leveson enquiry – namely that British politicians and the police were overly cosy with the tabloids – have reminded the public of the importance of the BBC with its strong set of editorial values, argues Richard Sambrook, the former director of the BBC World Service and Global News. Sambrook defines the BBC’s ethos of impartiality as “the absence of bias”. This, he says is different to objectivity, which is related to fact. However, he agrees that at times even the BBC has failed in striking the right balance. He points to the furore over the MMR vaccine when only one scientist disagreed with the consensus that it was safe. But he says, “We gave as much weight what was a maverick view as we did to the established academic view.” Presenting the complex range of opinion over the UK’s membership in Europe has always been another difficult area to navigate, says Sambrook, admitting that it can often seem as if there are only two camps – those for and those against. He says: “If you’re putting to me that over the years the BBC has oversimplified that and should’ve done a better job, I wouldn’t disagree with you.” Sambrook also questions Paolo Mancini’s theory of multiple partialities, under which each political force has its own media. For Sambrook, the result would be the richest voices being heard. He adds that this would also shift the responsibility of verifying information from the producer to the consumer: “I’m not yet convinced that the consumer is equipped to make proper assessments and judgements in a world where a thousand opinions are blooming.”