This story came to me via Ian Bissell’s Twitter feed this morning:
BBC’s Mark Thompson: Impartiality is dead in the age of the internet | Media Digest http://ow.ly/3ts6K
The story referenced can be found here whilst the original source was the Guardian newspaper, which, amongst other things, reported Thompson as saying:
The BBC had been, historically, “weak and nervous” about airing debates about immigration and Europe, he said – but added that he believed the public broadcaster had forced the main parties to discuss immigration during the 2010 election campaign. He promised that there would be more space for “extreme and radical perspectives” on the BBC, which one day could become common views.
It also pointed out that:
Ironically, Thompson’s proposal makes him an ally of the Murdoch family. The BBC director general told the audience that Rupert Murdoch had told him he would like Sky News to go down a polemical “Fox-style” route – but that the editors of the channel had brushed off his wishes.
The nub of the argument lies in these paragraphs however:
The director general said: “There was a logic in allowing impartial broadcasters to have a monopoly of the broadcasting space. But in the future, maybe there should be a broad range of choices? Why shouldn’t the public be able to see and hear, as well as read, a range of opinionated journalism and then make up their own mind what they think about it?
“The BBC and Channel 4 have a history of clearly labelled polemical programmes. But why not entire polemical channels which have got stronger opinions? I find the argument persuasive.”
It would be interesting to examine more deeply this circumstance. I remember writing a piece for the El País journalism course entrance exam where I argued that the future lay in a more overtly opinionated journalism – particularly of an Anglo-Saxon type – instead of the finer sort El País has continued to practise, where opinions are hidden well in the background and where its practitioners seem to sincerely believe it’s possible to write without exhibiting such opinion or allowing it to even influence your work.
This article would have been written almost a decade ago now – and needless to say I didn’t manage to get on the course. But the argument I made stands the test of time. And here Mark Thompson is bringing us up to date.
The impartiality argument was made in the first place because public service broadcasting needed to sell to a potentially dubious audience the politically useful porkie that a single nation existed. And perhaps for a while it did. If you could show both extremes, you could fashion a shared centre. A kind of Werther’s approach to sociocultural fabrication perhaps.
And even where series such as “Play for Today” demonstrated division and disintegration in our society, paradoxically they also served to bring us together again as, once back in our workplaces, we discussed their import and weight all those mornings after and chatted about the themes raised with a real interest and engagement.
Thompson believes that in an Internet world it makes no sense any longer to sustain this porkie. I would argue that it has very little to do with the fact that far more media are available for us to access – or even that it is far easier for even more channels to be provided in the future than currently exist.
Rather, I think it has much more to do with the fact that our access to different media – to Twitter, to bloggers, to hybrid software and communities such as Facebook – has meant we ourselves have come to understand the true extent of the porkie: the true obfuscation of this single nation irreality, this idea of an impartiality, a Werther’s softness we should all hanker after, which can no longer be sustained.
An opinion is expressed and made concrete by how we string the facts together, whether we believe we can be impartial or not. This is so obvious that no one could surely argue with it. And yet, on top of all of this, we have allowed the British media establishment to build an infrastructure of impartiality which has served to hide the beautiful clarity of this observation and make it dark.
For the last ten years, and certainly in the environment I detected was operating within El País itself, I have to admit I have found myself more at Rupert Murdoch’s side in this matter than the BBC‘s – at least as per prior to Thompson’s arrival. But that is perhaps because I have been trained more as an editor of literature and fiction, an editor in search of universal truths, than one of daily realities, of numbers and statistics, of weather forecasts and bullfights.
So then. I do not see Murdoch’s encroaching takeover of BSkyB as the disaster my political inclinations may have led me to perceive it as perhaps only a few months ago.
There are other things at work. YouView may come on stream shortly and offer an entirely different sense of what TV and broadcasting could mean in Britain. If objectivity and representation can be achieved through a discrete recognition of opinion expressed over time rather than a tiresome trying to ensure that each and every debate ever aired is a four-cornered Buggins’ turn of points of view – quite intellectually unproductive in itself – then perhaps we can follow the historical and technological trends of real users out there on the Internet, instead of tying the bigger organisations down to a Geiger-like decaying of their earlier efficacy and solvency.
A miserable half-life no one would surely wish on any fellow publisher.
Blogging, Twitter and Facebook have all shown us that the future is in building a society on the inventiveness of many individuals. For a while, it seemed that traditional blogging in its two aspects – i) logging the best of the web and ii) fixing in diary format the occurrences and thoughts that each blogger had – would be the way forward. Now it appears that Twitter has built a community around the former and Facebook is doing – in fits and starts, even where not always with happy results – the same for the latter. Whatever the technologies and companies we finally end up using – and I suggest we maybe should get used to the idea that our favourite brands of today will begin to shift rather more rapidly and disintegratedly than the consumer society of the last century had led us formerly to believe might be the case – the path both Thompson and Murdoch are showing us as their view of the future is, in fact, the only one that can allow these big organisations to maintain anything approaching their existing structures intact.
If they do not become more opinionated themselves, they will lose out to an ever-expanding world of Web 2.0 opinionated interactions.
My question therefore is as follows: this may allow people like Fox and the BBC to continue more or less as they are. But how will such an overtly opinionated media – perhaps I should say an honestly opinionated media – affect the nascent and increasingly self-structuring political blogosphere? Will it be good or bad for the “real” bloggers?
Might, in fact, it explain the recent peeling-off and shutting-up-shop of some of the biggest name bloggers?
Are they preparing their stalls for when Internet talk radio – or even Internet video broadcasting – hits our British shores?
Impartiality can be tracked falsely in the Buggins’ turn way I have already described. So many minutes. So many participants. And this then is objective television.
Or it can be tracked by allowing equal access to all over a period of time.
And here is where I would, of course, possibly find myself begging to differ with Mr Murdoch – as well as find it difficult to support his publishing instincts if I were right. If he chose to ensure that the barriers to entry became so high and complex to administer that the only opinionated publishing we would ever get to hear from would be his version of it and his ideology of the world, then I would no longer be able to agree with his desire to Fox News the British media landscape.
So it is that I wonder if this is what is really being planned here.
In which case, Mr Thompson is less a prescient editor, rather more a fool.
Meanwhile, that is the other challenge we on the left will always find in such circumstances – that of visibility and sustaining it. It’s inevitably been the case that right-wing talk stations have been better at making their politics sexier.
Could we turn the trend upside down?
Given the opportunity, would we have the nous to?
Would, in fact, we be willing to?
It’s a publishing challenge, no more or less than that. The question is if, in a free market, we want to be up for the fight.
With Vince Cable out of the reckoning and Jeremy Hunt ready to give the go-ahead, and Mark Thompson from the BBC simply relishing the idea to become controversial, I’m pretty sure it’s going to become a publisher’s Turkish Delight.
And we all know what happened to Edmund in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” when he decided to have just one piece of Turkish Delight.
Even so, we will have to try just one piece.
Just one little piece.
Wouldn’t you like to try just one little piece of that Turkish Delight this Christmas?
Wouldn’t you like to be given the opportunity to launch your unvarnished opinion on the Great British Public each and every night?