BBC once again must reflect on public service role

I am a longstanding defender of the BBC and indeed the concept of a BBC. You only need to look at the crazed nonsense that passes for television news in the United States to see why – indeed, a recent poll showed that the most trusted news broadcaster in the United States was… the BBC!

However, I remain concerned about the BBC’s quest for commercial ratings, which are not fundamentally why it exists. Its role is in fact to provide an impartial public service. It is beginning on occasions to mistake having one informed view and one uninformed view for impartiality – in fact, impartiality requires two informed views; they have to be informed because the public service role demands it.

The usually excellent (and recently much improved) Talkback programme on Radio Ulster hosted a discussion last week on Transgender issues. My wife and I happen to be working with some people experiencing them and are on our own learning curve about them, so we looked forward to an informative show on a sensitive subject – bearing in mind the high rate of mental ill-health and even suicide experienced by people affected (not least because of the lack of awareness and even sympathy), which we feel could be reduced by awareness-raising in an informed and sensitive manner. It was to be the BBC at its best, in other words.

What you absolutely do not want to do in such circumstances is invite an extremist on to the programme recently paid out of our licence fee to say on BBC TV that people with mental health issues were work-shy welfare fraudsters. Such extremists are, of course, commonly used by shock jocks to attract ratings and, arguably, have their place in such a role. They are not, however, remotely appropriate for a debate which must be informed and sensitive about a much maligned and misunderstood minority.

As such, the programme failed utterly to add awareness and understanding on a topic which badly needs it. Informed contributors of differing views were available. Next time, let us hear those informed contributors given their “right to free speech”.

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4 thoughts on “BBC once again must reflect on public service role

  1. Mark Battleday says:

    The BBC in NI have become very tabloid.

    I have a feeling that it is not at all the same for BBC in other regions of the UK that I listen to. The move to a lower level of discussion is actually a long term trend in all of broadcasting. But the shock jock type of approach is very specific to BBC NI in recent years.

    Talkback has gone low brow, and at times is as vulgar as Nolan, which is not aimed at a thoughtful audience.

  2. Stephen Baker says:

    I missed the programme that you are referring to, Ian, but I suspect I can imagine the sort of professional controversialist you are referring to. What qualifies or recommends Katie Hopkins as a public commentator, for instance? Who is she supposed to be representative of? Or David Vance, for that matter – a poor man’s Katie Hopkins if every there was one.

    I’ve heard scientists complain about the BBC’s skewed notion of balance. They invite an expert in a particular area onto a news programme to discuss a piece of ground break research, and then in the name of balance seem obliged to invite the equivalent of the Flat Earth Society to comment also!

  3. Scots Anorak says:

    The main reason why TV news in the US lacks balance is that it is no longer required to have any. There’s a very entertaining documentary called Outfoxed, which focuses on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox channel in particular. One presenter almost attacked a man whose father had been killed in 9/11 — simply because he had pointed out the indisputable fact that the US had previously funded the fundamentalists in Afghanistan.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairness_Doctrine

    Where the BBC is unbalanced, it’s often the result of excessive centralisation and, not to put too fine a point on it, metropolitan ignorance. Bizarrely, the immediate reaction to devolution was to centralise further, and more recent initiatives have focused on hypothecating spending rather than anything more substantial. Traditional Scots is *never* heard, while full-blown urban Scots is heard more often in Peter Mullan’s films than it is in the BBC’s own programming.

    Thankfully, there is now a good chance that broadcasting will be devolved to Scotland following the election (Parliament does not run the BBC on a day-to-day basis, after all, and Labour is more concerned with its MPs’ right to vote on budgets).

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