Why balance should be banned 

15 April 2019 tbs.pm/68839

From the Daily Telegraph for 12 July 1971

OPENING the peroration of their long statement about the television film “Yesterday’s Men,” the BBC Board of Governors declared: “Politics is a minefield.” There was plenty of cautious side-stepping of explosive issues in the statement; if the BBC never attempts magnificent defiance it always endeavours to be a little more clever at politics than its critics.

In particular the Board confined itself to four characteristically vague lines on the action that is to follow the statement. The Director General is to consider its “general implications” and “review the levels of responsibility and the means for internal consultation within the field of current affairs.” Clearly things are wrong about “the means for internal consultation.” One of the issues delicately avoided is how a proposed “Tuesday Documentary” came to be placed in “24 Hours,” although it was not supervised by the editor, against a quite different programme about “Mr Heath’s ‘Quiet Revolution.’”

The processes of internal consultation were also shown wanting by the matter of “leaks.” According to the statement: “The source of leaks to the Press is always difficult, if not impossible, to trace without the assistance of those to whom the information is given — and naturally this has not been forthcoming.”

As one of those well doused I may say that I was not even asked for my assistance. If I had been asked I should have said that the source of the leaks was in overwhelming feeling of frustration, by no means confined to one phantom leaker, that decisions were being taken in remote offices without reference to the broadcasters in the front line.

Ludicrous row

Harold Wilson, leader of the Labour party 1963-1976

This frustration is made all the greater by the fact that there has to be so much consultation the other way round. As a former BBC boss, Stuart Hood, wrote in reply to Mr Crossman’s New Statesman knockabout: “BBC producers and journalists in current affairs and news are subject to inhibitions, consultations, co-ordination and, on occasion, suppression, such as no Fleet Street journalist is asked to put up with.”

The danger of the ludicrous row over “Yesterday’s Men” is that when Mr Charles Curran has dutifully considered the “general implications” of the Board’s statement he may feel obliged to increase the inhibitions and so quench flair in favour of safe dullness.

Mr Wilson’s broadcasting policy when in power was to appoint Lord Hill as chairman of the BBC in the hope that he might get the current affairs output more under “control.” Then may now be another attempt to exercise such “control,” even though the Board’s statement says quite clearly between the lines that the BBC is too large for its consultations ever to work quickly and efficiently.

An important factor about “Yesterday’s Men” almost forgotten in the welter of speeches and articles, is that it was a very watchable film which, shafts at Mr Wilson apart, showed the Labour leaders as a group of likeable, as well as comfortably-housed, and modestly ambitious people.

There were errors of judgment. No doubt the perfect film will never be made. But it was unwise of the Board to concede that “some important aspects of the treatment were too frivolous” without saying which aspects. There is nothing intrinsically frivolous about the use of cartoons, or pop music, both of which can make serious points with useful simplicity.

Edward Heath, leader of the Conservative party 1965-1975

It has been widely accepted that “Yesterday’s Men,” with its obvious editorial personality, was guilty of “trivialising politics.” Also that “Mr Heath’s ‘Quiet Revolution,’” a compilation of past speeches and interviews with balanced comment by supporters and opponents, was very far from “trivial.” Yet it was the first of these films which gave the most cause for thought. The BBC Board holds that “the basic principle in current affairs programmes is impartiality” and the Labour party embarks on yet another futile inquiry into allegations of BBC bias against it.

Yet the great need, if the public is ever going to be persuaded to stop yawning every time politics is mentioned, is a great deal more bias — not just for and against Labour and the Conservatives, but for and against ideas of all kinds.

Since balance is an impossible ideal let it be introduced at once into the BBC’s list of banned words. Producers should be encouraged to make passionate programmes full of conviction and strongly stated opinion, and should not be made afraid of entertainment.

Broadest spectrum

Obviously there must be controls. Because of the privileges of power and influence allowed the BBC it must always be prepared to match programmes, so as to eliminate overall bias where possible. Producers should be selected as representing the broadest spectrum of ideas and when given their heads should nature of programmes and the way contributions will be used.

It may be argued that the dullness of party political broadcasts shows that programmes with an editorial point of view are to be avoided. In fact they demonstrate only that propaganda is to be avoided by any producer who wishes to attract and hold an audience.

Of all the programmes about the Common Market in the last month or so the most effective were the two from Thames’s “This Week,” one putting the case for British entry and one against, both equally partial. Would it be optimistic to hope that Labour’s committee of inquiry and the BBC might take note of this?

Russ J Graham writes:

At the moment, both left and right, leave and remain, are tearing into the BBC for perceived bias against their points of view. The left say that all packages about Jeremy Corbyn are wilfully edited to present him in a bad light by Conservative-supporting management; the right say that Theresa May is being given an impossible ride by journalists who vote Labour. Leavers say that any reports that Brexit might have bad economic consequences are evidence that the BBC is pro-EU; remainers say that having the foghorn of Nigel Farage on Question Time and the news all the time is evidence that the BBC is anti-EU. People on all sides say something should be done.

Thus it ever was, as Sean Day-Lewis back in 1971 shows. His proposal sounds very much like the (West) German solution to this. The ARD, for instance, had two main political magazine programmes – NDR’s Panorama, which was left-leaning, and BR’s Report, which leaned right.[1] Together, proportionality and neutrality was achieved across the ARD’s output, whilst each side got its say in its own programme without the need for balancing voices.

The ARD also had Kommentar,[2] which invited a different person to speak on a specified topic each week, again creating a programme that was biased in each edition but, taken over the course of a year, was proportional and therefore balanced.

Whether this would work now, in 2019, in a society that is extremely polarised and where social media means that ‘hot takes’ giving a biased, political or personal opinion on a broadcast have flown around the world and been retweeted into the timelines of people who aren’t even watching even before the title sequence has finished, is a difficult point to know. Perhaps it would tame the cries of bias; but equally it might tip the debate over from ‘is this bias?’ to ‘this is propaganda’.

As for Yesterday’s Men, the row rumbled on but the BBC is seen as having caved in the end. David Dimbleby has said that the edge was taken off interviews with politicians for a long period, with lighter questions being asked and longer, off-topic replies being left uninterrupted. Upon returning to government in 1974, Harold Wilson quickly set up the Annan Committee, charged with, yet again, pulling television up out of the ground to examine how well its roots were doing. This was meant to cow the BBC, and indeed Annan ultimately recommended changing the nature of the licence fee and privatisation and commercialisation of several BBC services; at the same time, the report also expressed disappointment with the BBC for not having more backbone in its response to the original complaints. As is not unusual with such reports, the ultimate effect on the BBC was basically nothing.

  1. Michael Tracey in Smith, A., Paterson, R. (ed) (1998). Television: an international history. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.79.
  2. Ibid

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