Two interesting news stories have caught my attention today. The first concerns a BBC finding that the opening to its flagship Newsnight programme broadcast yesterday had breached its impartiality guidelines. The second relates US President Donald Trump’s response to Twitter’s decision to flag one of his Tweets about postal vote fraud with a fact checking warning.
Both stories raise fundamental questions about the role of the news media and social media platforms in promoting robust dialogue and debate, and holding powerful interests to account. Trump is entitled to a view about the potential for fraud in the postal ballot process, but he cannot expect (and is certainly not entitled) to assume that news outlets or social media platforms will broadcast that opinion uncritically and without challenge. What that criticism and challenge comes, he must be prepared to support his opinion with facts of his own. Threatening to close down platforms that dare to hold him to account is a very small step from despotism.
Similarly, a public service news organisation must have the courage to hold powerful figures in the UK to account; and to accurately represent the mood of the country that it serves. It has become a cliche, but the old story of the job of a journalist when confronted with two people arguing that it is simultaneously raining cats and dogs, and that so sunny that the road is melting still holds true. In that situation, the reporter does not relate both sides equally ‘for balance’ – she goes outside and finds out the facts for herself.
I would go further and say that the obsession with balance – with artificially seeking to give both sides of a story when there really is only one – is destroying the credibility of previously esteemed news outlets, including the BBC. The failure to point out the absurdity of a situation or to clearly and explicitly call out lies or misinformation where it is clear that they are being told or peddled, does a grave disservice to the audience and – furthermore – is incredibly insulting to that audience’s intelligence.
When we have administrations on both sides of the Atlantic systematically manipulating the media, dealing in half-truths and misrepresentations, and failing in their fundamental duty of honesty and transparency to the people they were elected to serve, then the gloves need to come off and news organisations and social media platforms need to say it how it is – without fear or favour.
In this context, impartiality is a weakness that unscrupulous people will ruthlessly expoit.