As the governing body of the BBC, the Trust is charged with ensuring that the organisation fulfils its aims as defined in the Royal Charter, the first of which is “to serve the public interest”. Under the terms of the agreement between the BBC and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the BBC is required to deliver its services whilst upholding standards of “accuracy and impartiality” (clause 44) and ensuring that:
“The UK Public Services must not contain any output which expresses the opinion of the BBC or of its Trust or Executive Board on current affairs or matters of public policy other than broadcasting or the provision of online services.”
The same agreement obliges the BBC Trust to establish and implement editorial guidelines.
The BBC’s complete editorial guidelines can be read here. Section 3 relates to accuracy and section 4 to impartiality.
(Note that accessing section 12 – religion – actually brings the reader to section 14, but it is possible to read section 12 via the letter ‘R’ in the ‘view by letter’ section on the right hand side of the web page.)
In addition to the editorial guidelines, a guidance section provides further instruction.
Thus we learn, for example, in the guidance section on the subject of “language when reporting terrorism” that according to the BBC:
- There is no agreed consensus on what constitutes a terrorist or terrorist act. The use of the word will frequently involve a value judgement.
- As such, we should not change the word “terrorist” when quoting someone else, but we should avoid using it ourselves
- This should not mean that we avoid conveying the reality and horror of a particular act; rather we should consider how our use of language will affect our reputation for objective journalism
- In a digital age, it is no longer possible to assume an easy split between domestic and overseas audiences.
Whilst under the editorial guidelines:
“We must report acts of terror quickly, accurately, fully and responsibly. Terrorism is a difficult and emotive subject with significant political overtones and care is required in the use of language that carries value judgements. We try to avoid the use of the term “terrorist” without attribution. When we do use the term we should strive to do so with consistency in the stories we report across all our services and in a way that does not undermine our reputation for objectivity and accuracy.”
“The word “terrorist” itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding. We should convey to our audience the full consequences of the act by describing what happened. We should use words which specifically describe the perpetrator such as “bomber”, “attacker”, “gunman”, “kidnapper”, “insurgent”, and “militant”. We should not adopt other people’s language as our own; our responsibility is to remain objective and report in ways that enable our audiences to make their own assessments about who is doing what to whom.”
It should be noted that there exists an appendix to the editorial guidelines for the BBC’s commercial services (such as BBC World News), which are required to comply with the Ofcom code as a whole. The appendix states that:
“The strength of the BBC brand, in the UK and around the world, is based on its reputation for integrity, impartiality and independence. These values are central to both the BBC’s publicly funded and commercial services. Our audiences everywhere must be able to trust the BBC and be confident that our editorial content is not influenced by commercial interests or political pressures. It is also of key importance that all BBC commercial services and any products or programmes bearing the BBC brand or BBC programme brands do not undermine the BBC’s reputation for quality and high editorial standards.”
The BBC does periodically both create and commission reviews of its own adherence to the principles of impartiality, accuracy and/or fairness when reporting on certain subjects. The most famous of these is perhaps the 2004 Balen Report on the subject of impartiality in its Middle East reporting, which the BBC did not make public despite a protracted legal battle.
In April 2006 the BBC did publish a report on the subject of its impartiality in reporting on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Besides relying upon a pre-existing BBC-commissioned report from Chatham House and a publication by Greg Philo and Mike Berry of the Glasgow Media Group, the reviewing panel’s methodology included:
“[I]nviting evidence from relevant organisations and interested members of the public and commissioning two pieces of research: one on audience views and the other systematically analysing programme content.”
Mr. Trevor Asserson, who established the ‘BBC Watch’ website in 2000 and has produced a series of studies on BBC coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, also contributed material to the panel. Mr. Asserson’s reviews can be read on the page entitled ‘reports‘.