Monday 12 October 2009

"Rooted in evidence" and other notes on the BBC's draft editorial guidelines

Last week, I was preparing and giving a talk on the BBC and blogging at the War Studies Department annual PhD conference. The research was based on the interviews I have been conducting over the last couple of years with a variety of BBC journalists.

Unfortunately, what I said there is not really ready for a wider audience. There are various processes I need to go through before I can publish. But you'll get to hear about it one day...

While I was busy with that, I note that the BBC has published a draft copy of the updated editorial guidelines which they have made available for public consultation. (At the time of posting the site is unconsultable...but no doubt it will be up soon).

I've had a quick read and selected a few points that caught my eye.

"Nothing should be written..."

The Guardian picked out the phrase: "Nothing should be written by [BBC] journalists and presenters that would not be said on-air."

The headline they decided to run on the basis of that sentence, "BBC gets tough on journalists' blogging", implies that is something new. It isn't really. A point that the BBC's Steve Hermann makes in this blog post.

I've heard the 'don't write it if you wouldn't say it on air' sentence repeated on numerous occasions over the last two years.

It seems to have been more or less official policy on blogging for quite some time and has certainly been re-emphasised since Sachsgate ushered in yet another crackdown on editorial standards at the BBC.

The mantra has also been used inside the Corporation as a way of making sure journalists' use of Twitter stays within BBC policy.

Impartiality 1

There's an interesting little addition to the section on impartiality. The 2005 guidelines said:
"Presenters, reporters and correspondents are the public face and voice of the BBC, they can have a significant impact on the perceptions of our impartiality...our journalists and presenters, including those in news and current affairs, may provide professional judgments but may not express personal opinions on matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy. Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC programmes or other BBC output the personal views of our journalists and presenters on such matters."
Whereas the draft version for 2010 inserts the phrase "rooted in evidence":
"Presenters, reporters and correspondents are the public face and voice of the BBC - they can have a significant impact on perceptions of our impartiality. Journalists and presenters, including those in news and current affairs, may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence, but may not express personal views on public policy, on matters of political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area. Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC programmes or other BBC output the personal prejudices of our journalists and presenters on such matters."
It would be worth trying to find out a bit more background about the "rooted in evidence" phrase but this is surely an attempt to indicate a difference between personal opinion and professional judgement.

This is something I thought might be worth exploring back in March. It seems that the issue has become much more confused by the BBC's forays into the blogosphere with critics accusing the BBC's blogs of being vehicles for the personal opinions of BBC Correspondents.

It's possible, then, that the "rooted in evidence" phrase looks in two directions.

For those inside the Corporation it reiterates that BBC journalists must resist the wave of opinionated journalism; for critics outside the BBC it attempts to more clearly demarcate a boundary line between professional judgement and personal opinion that might appear blurred.

Impartiality 2

There's a section in the draft guidelines on impartiality in series and over time.

This means that you don't have the potentially ridiculous situation of needing to have every programme perfectly balanced by differing points of view but can achieve impartiality within the context of a radio or TV series or over a period time.

Although the section doesn't directly mention BBC blogs, I assume that this would also apply to them under the term, "a set of interlinked web pages".

Rather than balancing each individual blog post, a blog should be balanced over time:
"On long-running or continuous output (such as general daily magazine programmes, the News Channel, Online, etc) due impartiality may be achieved over time by the consistent application of editorial judgement in relevant subject areas."

Haven't got much too add on this bit, but for those of you that are interested in what the BBC does or doesn't link to:
"BBC online sites covering ‘controversial subjects’ may offer links to external sites which, taken together, represent a reasonable range of views about the subject. We should normally try to ensure that when we link to third party sites this does not give strong grounds for concern that this breaches the law or the BBC Editorial Guidelines on harm and offence."


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