Saturday, 26 December 2015

Impartiality is so important

By Cleland Thom

The trouble with holidays is you come back and there are hundreds of emails waiting for you.  I had 249 to plough through when I returned this week after a break from work.

And, as well as emails stacking up in my absence, it seems quite a lot has been going on that’s relevant to two of the courses I tutor.  Significant stuff too.

If you study any of the broadcast journalism courses with us, you’ll encounter the whole issue of impartiality.

While ‘pesky’ print journalists are allowed to express an opinion, broadcast journalists are not.  The industry regulator takes a firm line on the whole issue of neutrality.  It expects broadcasters in the UK to present both sides of the story.

Ofcom requires ‘due impartiality’ (as well as ‘due accuracy’).

That’s fine in theory although there has been much debate over the years about whether broadcasters are actually baised.  For instance, there’s the BBC.  It is accused of taking a left-of-centre line.  It has also been criticised about the fairness (or otherwise) of its reporting of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict.

However, earlier this month, attention turned to Channel Four News presenter Jon Snow.  He recently returned from the middle-east after reporting on the latest escalation of violence.  Safely back in London, he recorded this video and posted it online.

There has been a lot of reaction.

Putting aside the numerous Joe Public who have been filling in comment boxes on all the sites that have linked to the film, many journalists have responded.

Mr Snow stands accused of ‘crossing the impartiality line’ and expressing an opinion when he shouldn’t have done.  However, and here’s where I feel some people have missed the point, Jon’s views were never transmitted on television.

The internet is, in effect, a free-for-all, so should it matter that Jon Snow posted his thoughts there?  Personally, I’m relaxed about it.  You may have another view.

I’m not so casual about impartiality on-air though.  Ask one of my radio journalism course students and they will tell you that I always pick them up when they fail to attribute comments properly or write a script that appears to be their own opinion.

There’s been much coverage and comment on the Jon Snow video.  Do a search on ‘Jon Snow children of Gaza video’ if you’re interested in some further reading.

I thought this article in the Guardian newspaper summed the issue up well, and BBC Radio Four’s Media Show included a recent discussion on bias.  It’s worth a listen.

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