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Mission, values and public purposes

The Royal Charter states that the BBC’s object is “the fulfilment of its Mission

and the promotion of its Public Purposes”

What does impartiality mean?

BBC no-bias policy being pushed to limits

Analysis: from anti-racism protests to trans rights, who gets to choose topics where impartiality matters is a live issue

Tim Davie outside BBC Scotland building
Tim Davie, the BBC director general Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

Tim Davie has a problem. When the BBC director general was appointed a year ago, he said restoring trust in the BBC’s impartiality was his first policy objective. With one eye on securing a future licence fee funding settlement with a hostile government, he suggested the corporation needed to be “free from political bias” and shed the idea that its output represented a narrow viewpoint.

But now he’s implementing the policy, he’s finding the devil is in the detail. Who exactly gets to define what impartiality means? Which topics – such as the climate crisis – no longer require dissenting voices, in the eyes of the BBC? And what happens when some of your own staff believe that certain topics simply should not be up for debate?

This week the BBC quit Stonewall’s staff diversity scheme, even though the broadcaster insisted its payments to the LGBTQ+ charity had not affected the impartiality of its journalism. Instead, the BBC said, the issue was the external perception that membership could theoretically affect the impartiality of its journalism on topics such as trans rights.

“Read the press and listen to the newspapers,” said Rhodri Talfan Davies, the BBC’s director of nations, explaining the decision on Woman’s Hour. “We believe that our involvement in Stonewall’s diversity champions programme had raised questions with some groups, with some individuals, and in the media about whether the BBC could be impartial in covering public policy debate. It’s about the perception of risk.”

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In effect, Davies confirmed that the BBC’s decisions on what topics are subject to impartiality concerns within the corporation were shaped by external debate in the public sphere.

And when that public sphere is still substantially defined by a national newspaper industry where most titles support the government – and Tory ministers are pushing culture war topics while negotiating a licence fee settlement – exactly who gets to choose topics where impartiality matters remains a live issue.

Ensuring impartiality is undoubtedly tricky, with the BBC often forced to defend itself. Many supporters of Jeremy Corbyn still feel the BBC gave him an unfair hearing during his time as Labour leader, but the corporation largely stood by its journalism on the topic.

During the Brexit referendum, parts of the BBC’s broadcast output were measured with stopwatches, with impartiality taken to mean representatives for both sides receiving equivalent airtime.

This approach is unusual outside elections. In common with other UK broadcast outlets, the BBC is usually guided by the subtly different concept of “due impartiality” – a term at risk of being misunderstood by the general public, partly because it is so difficult to define and is shaped as much by cultural norms as a strict set of guidelines.

Due impartiality does not require that the same airtime is given to all sides of a debate. Instead, it takes into account context, audience expectations and the ability of presenters to provide robust challenges to views.

Within this interpretation of due impartiality, the BBC now feels comfortable stating that climate crisis deniers are not needed to balance an on-air debate. Its editorial guidelines also say that the “BBC is not impartial on racism”. But other topics – such as whether staff can support active anti-racism campaigns or transgender rights – are pushing Davie’s approach to the limit.

On Friday the director general took part in an uncomfortable Zoom call with the BBC Pride group where he defended the decision to withdraw from Stonewall’s scheme and also a contentious article published last month about some lesbians feeling pressured into sex with trans women. He insisted these editorial choices did not contradict the BBC’s commitment to be a welcoming employer.

Yet he will soon receive an open letter, signed by BBC staff in support of trans rights and seen by the Guardian, which argues the corporation is breaching its impartiality guidelines if it hosts a debate on the legitimacy of gender reassignment. Citing the 2010 Equality Act, the staff called on Davie to stop offering a platform to the LGB Alliance organisation, which has denied accusations of transphobia, and argue that for the BBC to “encourage debate about who is and who is not a woman is a total denial of scientific fact”.

“The BBC prides itself on impartiality, and we are all proud of that being one of the main pillars of the organisation we work for. However, recently there has been a false dichotomy between the rights of the transgender community and cis women,” the staff wrote.

At the same time, some gender-critical staff members at the BBC do not believe it is possible for a person to change sex. At the moment this viewpoint is seen internally as being in the ascendancy within the organisation.

The other major issue is anti-racism campaigning. On Tuesday the former BBC executive Marcus Ryder met Davie to discuss diversity in the media. This followed claims – denied by the BBC – that Ryder’s application to be the editor of Radio 1 Newsbeat and the Asian Network’s news output was blocked due to his public support for anti-racism groups.

Speaking at a parliamentary event on Tuesday to mark his MBE for work on media diversity, Ryder said journalists of colour were scared of being blacklisted if they spoke up on racism. “They are scared of being exposed as one of the millions of people who went on a Black Lives Matter protest in the summer of 2020. They are scared that they liked a picture of an England footballer taking the knee during the Euros. They are scared that they did not delete their black square in memory of George Floyd on Instagram quickly enough. These are all real and specific examples.

“They are worried that doing any of these things will bring their impartiality into question and by extension be used against them when they go for promotion or worse be used as ammunition against them in a disciplinary hearing.”

Ryder said he was committed to impartiality in broadcasting but believed anti-racism should be considered a basic news value. He said: “Championing the need for a more representative, diverse and equitable media is not an impartiality issue, it is why Ofcom – the media regulator who passes judgment on matters of broadcasters’ impartiality – also champions these ideals. It is why the BBC and ITN can state them as core values without compromising their ability to deliver impartial objective news.”

A BBC spokesperson said: “Impartiality is at the heart of the BBC’s mission and public purposes, and one of our top priorities which is why last month we published a 10-point plan to further strengthen this commitment and why independent research consistently shows BBC News is the most trusted news source in the UK.”

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