Tuesday, August 05, 2003
The Myth of an Impartial Authority - 5th August 2003, 23.18

When one examines the history of the BBC, it is clear that the recent poll on public trust reflects its longstanding reputation as an impartial, newsgathering organisation. Critics of the BBC may pause and note that the comparison was with Blair's spin-driven government, presenting a choice between Wormtongue and a rattlesnake.

Preference for the BBC, even from such a low base, demonstrates the length of time that it can take for an institution's authority to wither away. After all, a dispassionate observer in contemporary Britain would not judge the BBC to be objective or impartial, although the lingering effects of its past present a noteworthy survival and form the foundations of its remaining credibility.

The concepts of 'Reithian impartiality' were similar to the values that underpinned another British institution, the British civil service, and provided a similar foundation for its authority. The civil service, both home and foreign, has prided itself upon its political neutrality and willingness to carry out the policies of its ministers, the elected representatives of the people. However, from histories of the civil service including their paragon, Hennessy's "Whitehall", the story of impartial civil servants implementing the policy of their political masters has shrouded personalities and factions that have held strong views on their direction of their Ministry and of Britain itself. In the last decade, the politicisation of the civil service under Blair and the slow-burning "Europeanisation" of policy has led to a convergence of views and values with those held at the BBC: Both institutions hold fast to a prevailing ideology of objective and authoritative detachment that hides an institutional and political outlook partial to the ambitions of the EU and at odds with the majority view of the British people.

The erosion of the BBC's reputation for objectivity is to be welcomed. Not only does it represent a bodyblow to the dominance of an 'official British culture'; it also provides another landmark in the long-term shift of political debate from the elitist values of the post-imperialist 'great and good' to a more diverse, fractured and (hopefully) individualist landscape.


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