There is a growing view that the time may have come to open up television news so that channels can express partisan political opinion.

Britain has some of the most strict rules in the western world to ensure impartiality of television news — not just on the BBC but across the medium — and Rupert Murdoch who is trying to acquire full control of Sky TV is said to have been warned that he won't be allowed to turn it into a British version of his right-wing and partisan Fox News.

The idea that television journalists should not only be impartial but like Caesar's wife be seen to be impartial is so strong that apparently political editors of BBC and Sky don't vote and are discouraged from discussing their political leanings even though it is an open secret in Westminster Village that one is on the centre-Left and the other slightly, well, on the “other” side of the divide.

No impartiality rules, however, apply to newspapers and there is a long tradition of British newspapers publicly declaring support for their favourite party at election time. At the last general election, in May 2010, The Guardian and Independent backed the Liberal Democrats while the Murdoch press (The Times and the Sun) which had supported Labour under Tony Blair switched support to the Tories after heavy wooing by David Cameron which included a promise to go slow on broadcast regulations. The Telegraph as always batted for the Tories.

Where it began

But there is now a growing view that the time has come to open up television news so that TV channels are allowed to express partisan political opinion in the same way that newspapers are. Surprisingly, the BBC for whom impartiality has been the holy grail of news journalism was the first to throw up the idea sparking a vigorous debate.

Its director-general Mark Thompson took his own colleagues by surprise when, speaking at a seminar, he advocated Fox-style networks arguing that with the rise of internet journalism old rules of impartiality had become outdated. It was no longer appropriate for public service broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 to have a “monopoly” over news and there should be room for opinionated television channels such as Fox.

While insisting that the publicly-funded BBC would remain impartial, Mr. Thompson said he would welcome “polemical” channels with “strong” opinions. He expected even the BBC to provide more space to “extreme and radical perspectives” within the broad parameters of impartial reporting.

“There was logic in allowing impartial broadcasters to have a monopoly over the broadcasting space. But in 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,” he said.

Mr. Thompson did not agree that impartial broadcasters would necessarily lose the ratings battle to the polemical networks as had happened in America where CNN had lost audiences to Fox News. On the contrary, impartial journalism could gain with people putting more trust in independent news sources.

“I don't believe that necessarily means you get the dire consequences that some people see in America. Having a broader range of channels would actually strengthen that enduring tradition of impartial journalism across BBC, ITN and Channel 4. They would continue to be trusted,” he said.

Attenborough's reaction

His views have since been echoed by others with a number of liberal voices joining in. Veteran broadcaster David Attenborough believes that with the proliferation of news channels there is no logic any more in imposing arbitrary impartiality norms. Such rules made sense when one channel (the BBC) had a monopoly over news but when there are so many channels they should be allowed to carry opinionated news.

“I think that the multiplicity of channels makes a quite totally fundamental difference to the sort of television I went into which was a monopoly. If you are a monopoly, you have to be unbiased. But if you have 50 channels then maybe there should be areas where people should say, not exactly what they like, but at least be biased,” he said.

There is also the view that in an information age when people are spoilt for choice with regards to news sources (not to mention the generally growing political awareness) it is somewhat patronising to assume that they would not be able to distinguish news from propaganda. In America, for example, despite the heavily biased and often racist coverage of the last presidential election on far-right television channels ultimately people made up them their own minds and voted for Barack Obama.

“It is rather insulting to think that British voters are not capable of independent thinking,” said one media commentator suggesting that there is no reason why television channels should not be allowed to take positions on issues like immigration or Britain's relations with Europe.

Thankfully, nobody is seriously advocating “Fox-ification” of British television yet but the fact that a debate has started suggests an increasing impatience with the idea of “received” impartiality.

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