From BBC to GB News: can the media be impartial?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


Earlier this year, for the first time ever, Match of The Day aired without a host after Gary Lineker was removed from the airwaves by the BBC’s director general, Tim Davie. Lineker was said to be in breach of the BBC’s impartiality guidelines for tweeting that the language surrounding the government’s new asylum policy was ‘not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 1930s’.

The incident was just the most high-profile in a growing list of BBC controversies that include its allegedly biased coverage of the coronation of King Charles, and Carol Vorderman’s scathing criticism of Conservatives. There was also controversy over the decision not to broadcast an episode of Sir David Attenborough’s flagship series on British wildlife after allegations that the BBC had taken funding from two charities previously criticised for their political lobbying. Following the October attacks on Israel, a huge row has broken out over the BBC’s refusal to describe Hamas as ‘terrorists’.

But it’s not just the BBC that finds itself grappling with the problem of impartiality these days. Journalists, presenters, news organisations and even podcasts such as The News Agents are regularly called into question, with all sides of the political spectrum crying foul. The BBC’s Nick Robinson has said the corporation’s reputation for impartiality built over decades faces an existential threat from the growing influence of partisan political figures on newer channels. Ofcom is investigating GB News and TalkTV over a willingness to push opinionated television news into controversial areas that result in misinformation and use of politicians as presenters.

What do we mean by ‘impartiality’? And how does that ideal match up to how it plays out in practice? Some argue that there is a considerable difference between the duties on news programmes and presenters and the hosts of other programmes who express views on personal social feeds. Should celebrity presenters be held to have breached impartiality rules or does this impinge on their free expression? Will our existing opinions and reaction to external pressures not always play a role?

Others say the problem is not presenters lacking objectivity or young journalists lacking training, but rather the rules themselves. Does it make sense for Ofcom to try to apply a broadcast code written in a different period dominated by the BBC and ITV in an era of new independent channels? Is it sensible or even possible for an individual to insist that organisations show true impartiality? And ultimately, what’s at stake if we ditch the idea of impartiality altogether?

Michael Booker
editorial director, GB News

Iain Macwhirter
columnist, The Times and Spectator; author, Disunited Kingdom: how Westminster won a referendum but lost Scotland

Helen Searls
chief operating officer, Feature Story News

Baroness Stowell
chair, Communications & Digital Select Committee

Max Sanderson
senior editor, audio, Guardian