BBC rival ‘good for democracy’ says TV star

Talking heads: Biased presenters accused of polarising viewers

Should news really be impartial? British households may soon be able to tune into a new opinion-led TV news channel, but critics worry that it will further widen political divisions.

Nearly 100 years ago, a group of MPs in Britain called for the creation of a media outlet that would act as a “guide, philosopher and friend” for its audience. It insisted that this channel must be totally unbiased, stating that: “It will not be easy to persuade the public of an absolute impartiality but impartiality is essential.”

Two years later, the British Broadcasting Corporation was founded. Today, the BBC’s mission statement still honours its century-old commitment to “duly accurate and impartial news”.

But some people are not convinced that this model of broadcasting is effective. Star BBC presenter Andrew Neil, chairman of the right-wing magazine The Spectator, now plans to set up an alternative TV news channel, GB News, that will mix news with opinion.

Broadcasters in Britain are required to report the news impartially. This means that they have to treat all political parties equally and fairly, and expose viewers to a range of opinions.

The BBC takes impartiality further, banning its presenters from expressing any political opinions on air. On GB News, however, presenters will talk about issues from their own political perspective.

Supporters of the new channel say that it will be good for democracy because it will encourage more people to engage with the news. They point out that viewing figures for traditional channels, such as the BBC, ITV and Sky are collapsing – recent research suggests by as much as 30% in less than ten years.

Neil claims that many people in Britain feel “underserved” by the BBC. Right-wing figures say that the BBC promotes a liberal point of view, and some have even called for it to be defunded. Meanwhile, left-wing politicians and activists assert that the BBC has a right-wing bias.

But some worry that opinion-led news stations may cause political polarisation. They say that people tend to watch outlets they agree with. This reinforces their opinions and makes them less tolerant.

They argue that this has already happened in the USA, where opinion-based TV channels like Fox News have become the norm in recent decades.

The founders of the GB News channel insist that they do not want to polarise opinion. Although its founders are right-wing, they claim that they will host a wide variety of political ideas, and encourage debates between people with opposing views.

Some British broadcasters already employ presenters who express their opinions openly. Piers Morgan, the host of ITV’s Good Morning Britain, caused controversy last year when he repeatedly mocked climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Most European nations have some kind of impartiality requirement for their broadcasters. France imposes a strict separation of news and opinion. German broadcasters must respect “objectivity and impartiality, diversity of opinion, and due balance”.

So, should our news be impartial?

News or views?

Yes, say some. It is a fundamental democratic principle that people must be allowed to make up their own minds on important issues, and to do this, they need to have access to unbiased information. In the USA, people tend to watch different news channels based on their political allegiances, which means that they have access to different information, and it is harder for them to agree.

Not necessarily, say others. They argue that a healthy democracy is an informed democracy, and if opinionated news channels can attract more viewers than traditional impartial news, people will be generally better-informed. Rather than causing polarisation, opinion-led news stations can promote lively debate and force those with opposing views to engage with one another.

You Decide

  1. How often do you watch the evening news at home? How would you make the news more engaging and interesting to watch?
  2. Which is more important for sustaining a democratic system: impartial news sources, or broad public engagement with current affairs?

Activities

  1. Think of a name for a new 24-hour news channel, and then design an eye-catching logo for your channel. Try to make it as interesting and as colourful as you can.
  2. Make a list of some of the issues that are most important to you. Now imagine you are organising televised discussions of these issues. Note down which guests you would invite on to your programme to discuss each issue.

Some People Say...

“Our job is only to hold up the mirror – to tell and show the public what has happened.”

Walter Cronkite (1916–2009), American journalist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that society does not function unless almost all people agree on certain fundamental principles. For example, elections only work if the losing side in the election is willing to give up its claim to power. Equally, this can only happen if the losers are certain that the winners will not use their power to persecute them. For the political process to take place, each side has to trust that the other will abide by these principles.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over the limits that should be placed on impartiality. Some argue that news outlets have a duty to exclude racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination from their platforms. They claim that by airing these opinions we risk spreading them further, putting vulnerable people in danger. However, others suggest that these ideas can be more effectively discredited if they are publicly debated.

Word Watch

Right-wing
Sometimes referred to as ‘conservative’, this is a range of political beliefs that emphasise the value of tradition, individual freedom and responsibility, low taxes and a hands-off approach to government.
Political parties
A group of people with a broadly similar set of political ideas, who work together to get themselves elected.
Liberal
Liberalism is a school of political thought that stresses individual liberty. Liberals believe that society should not try to impose values or behaviours on individuals but should be tolerant of different lifestyles. A leading exponent of liberal thought was the 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill, the author of the classic work On Liberty.
Defunded
Stripped of the money that it receives from the state. In recent months there have been calls, especially in the USA, to defund police departments. The BBC is funded by the licence fee, a flat rate of £154.50 per year that is paid by everyone who owns a TV or watches BBC content online.
Left-wing
A range of beliefs that are the opposite of right-wing ideas. People on the political left usually believe in collective responsibility and the good of society. They often, though not always, support higher taxes and a more active, interventionist government.
Fox News
A right-wing TV station founded by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch in 1996.
Greta Thunberg
A teenage climate activist who inspired a mass environmental movement by schoolchildren in 2018, when she was just 15 years old. She has since spoken at the UN and been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Polarisation
When people tend to flock towards extreme opposite points of view. Some think that polarisation is bad for politics, because it makes co-operation between people on opposing sides of a debate less likely. Others welcome it, however, because it offers voters clear alternatives in elections.

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