BBC must remember “public service” ethos

Further to yesterday’s blog, I did subsequently appear on the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster to challenge why his TV show had on as a “commentator” somebody who was thoroughly uninformed and just outright abusive. The defence was that he was taking positions a lot of the public take – but that is fundamentally not the purpose of a commentator.

If there are views held by the public which are uninformed, it is the role of the public service broadcaster to challenge them through people who are informed, not to pay people with our licence fees to regurgitate them in a particularly insulting manner.

The BBC seems to have forgotten that “impartiality” does not mean letting a deliberately insulting view on air and then trying to counter it with someone from the opposite extreme. It requires informed debate.

There would have been no difficulty if this “commentator” had competed equally with others for his platform. He is entitled to his views and to express them freely. In fact, however, he was elevated beyond others and deliberately given a much greater say than anyone else – despite the fact he had not a single qualification for that say (having no demonstrable expertise in the subject, no evidence of detailed practical understanding of the implications of the reforms, and no electoral mandate).

It does so happen that I spent many years, mostly voluntarily but sometimes with a prominent think tank, researching welfare issues. However, I can think of countless articulate people – at our Universities, at NICVA, in the Law Centre, in independent consultancies – who would have provided an informed view. To be clear, this may very well have differed from my view, but it would have constituted legitimate opinion rather than gratuitous insult. In short, they would have provided a public service.

The BBC also has a role not to encourage stigmatisation. It is correct that the reprehensible and groundless views expressed were challenged on air, and that other people with informed views were invited to speak. However, the real issue is why someone of such resounding idiocy was given preferential billing even to those other people. He was in fact invited on deliberately to be provocatively ignorant. It is simply not the BBC’s business to do that, particularly when it risks increasing the stigma felt by people who are genuinely vulnerable.

As it happens, I have almost never come across someone who fundamentally did not want to work (yes of course there are those who do not fancy discipline, or getting up for 9am or whatever, but that is not quite the same thing). Yet I have come across hundreds, maybe thousands, whose lives could be transformed even by a relatively minor, targeted intervention in mental health. This is an informed opinion based on lengthy research backed up by many others, and it deserved an airing much more than the ignorant ranting of an egomaniac.

The BBC must stop sacrificing the “informed” for the sake of the apparently “impartial” in the quest for ratings. If that must be done, leave it to commercial broadcasters. The BBC has a public service duty to inform and educate – and therefore not to elevate the deliberately ignorant and insulting. There is no excuse for a single one of its programmes not to pay heed to that at all times.

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7 thoughts on “BBC must remember “public service” ethos

  1. Scots Anorak says:

    On the matter of a public-service ethos, I understand that the BBC requires those whom it pays to appear on air to set up their own companies, resulting in savings for both parties. Given that the deficit has brought society to its knees over the past few years, with tax avoidance a major contributory factor, perhaps the BBC’s Charter should be amended to require the opposite: that allowing one’s income to be taxed at the appropriate rate should be a precondition for working with the corporation. Surely hospitals and schools are more important than bang from the licence-fee buck.

  2. Rowan Silverbeard says:

    I feel that Nolan thinks that people would be bored by a debate with expertise and facts.

    To be honest I don’t think Nolan is targeted at an intelligent audience.

  3. […] wholly agree and indeed I wrote last week about how the media have a duty to inform. This is something which applies most obviously to the […]

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