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The Ethics of the BBC

Par Beth Harper : Lectrice d'anglais - ENS de Lyon
Publié par Clifford Armion le 04/07/2009

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This essay will look at the ways in which the ethics of the BBC have been manifested, compromised and disputed by drawing upon particular instances of crisis, both in its endorsement of certain popular culture personalities in its programming, and in its BBC News coverage of international events such as the Iraq war and the Arab-Israeli conflict. We shall see the controversy that has surrounded the BBC in recent times and investigate the various debates on public morality, journalistic integrity and cultural sensitivity that have ensued.


The BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation, is the world's biggest broadcaster. It employs over 28,500 people in the United Kingdom alone, and with an annual budget of more than £4 billion, the BBC has both dominated media coverage in Britain and acted as the standard-bearer of  British media culture abroad since its inception in 1922. Today, the BBC reaches over 200 countries, is available to more than 274 million households worldwide and broadcasts news, by radio and internet, in some 33 languages. It has a significant advantage over its nearest competitor, the American Cable News Network (CNN) which reaches an estimated 200 million households. The nature of the BBC's funding, which comes primarily from television licence fees (under the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1949), means that it is obliged to provide high quality shows which commercial broadcasters might not normally broadcast. It is prevented under Royal Charter from showing any commercial advertising on television, radio or internet services within the UK. Thus as stated in its charter, it is to be

free from both commercial and political influence and answer only to its viewers and listeners.
(To view the whole of the charter visithttp://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/charter/)

Its self-proclaimed mission is

to enrich people's lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain', and 'to be the most creative organisation in the world.

The BBC's values are listed as follows:

- Trust is the foundation of the BBC; we are independent, impartial and honest.

- Audiences are at the heart of everything we do.

- We take pride in delivering quality and value for money.

- Creativity is the lifeblood of our organisation.

- We respect each other and celebrate our diversity so that everyone can give their best.

- We are one BBC: great things happen when we work together.

With regards to the provision of international news broadcasting the BBC Trust states that:

The BBC's journalism for international audiences should share the same values as its journalism for UK audiences: accuracy, impartiality and independence. International audiences should value BBC news and current affairs for providing reliable and unbiased information of relevance, range and depth.

(For more in-depth aims, purposes and values professed by the BBC visit: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/governance/charter_review)

Thus the BBC has both enormous power and great responsibility. This essay will look at the ways in which the ethics of the BBC have been manifested, compromised and disputed by drawing upon particular instances of crisis, both in its endorsement of certain popular culture personalities in its programming, and in its BBC News coverage of international events such as the Iraq war and the Arab-Israeli conflict. We shall see the controversy that has surrounded the BBC in recent times and investigate the various debates on public morality, journalistic integrity and cultural sensitivity that have ensued.

1. The Ross/Brand Controversy

In October 2008, two of the BBC's biggest and most highly paid stars, Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand sparked off a furore of public outrage when the two left lewd messages on the answer phone of an elderly television actor, Andrew Sachs. In shockingly explicit language during his Saturday night radio 2 programme (co-hosted by Ross to publicise his new book), Brand claimed that he had had sex with Sachs' granddaughter. The following is the story as reported by the popular press:

Shortly before they contacted Mr Sachs for a pre-arranged telephone interview, Brand said: In a minute we're going to be talking to Andrew Sachs, Manuel actor. The elephant in the room is, what Andrew doesn't know is, I've slept with his granddaughter.' The comedian then rang Mr Sachs. When the veteran actor didn't answer his telephone, Brand left a message during which Ross shouted He ****** your granddaughter!', generating raucous laughter from the studio. Ross subsequently speculated that Brand had enjoyed' Georgina on a swing. The pair then decided to ring Mr Sachs again to apologise. When he repeatedly failed to answer, Ross and Brand left three further messages, making the situation worse.

During one message, Brand said: I wore a condom.' In another, which took the form of an impromptu song, Brand sang: I'd like to apologise for the terrible attacks, Andrew Sachs . . . I said some things I didn't of oughta, like I had sex with your granddaughter, though it was consensual . . . it was consensual lovely sex. It was full of respect, I sent her a text, I've asked her to marry me, Andrew Sachs.'

Ross could be heard singing quietly to himself: Your granddaughter ...she was bent over the couch...' Later in the programme Brand even joked about the idea that Mr Sachs might consider suicide as a result of their comments. Imagining a news bulletin, he said: The main news again. Manuel Andrew Sachs hung himself today...'

("Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross could face prosecution after obscene on air phone calls to Fawlty Towers actor, 78", by Miles Goslet (26/10/08), on the Mail Online website

Clearly such behaviour is totally unacceptable and does not chime well with the supposed integrity and decency of the BBC. The fact that such calls were broadcast to around two million people was more shocking because they were not live: the offending episode was pre-recorded to fit around Brand and Ross' other commitments and according to the BBC, "a senior editorial figure signed off the programme, including its strong language, before it was broadcast".

This led to all kinds of questions being raised about the raging populism of the BBC that would bow to the celebrity of Ross and Brand (Ross is paid £6million a year for his TV chat show, Radio 2 show and film review programme, while Brand is thought to be paid a six-figure sum for his weekly radio show) rather than pulling the show from the air. In response to the sheer number of complaints received from the public after the broadcast on 18th October 2008, Brand and Ross were both suspended on 29th October. The BBC director general, Mark Thompson issued the statement:

BBC audiences accept that, in comedy, performers attempt to push the line of taste. However, this is not a marginal case. It is clear from the views expressed by the public that this broadcast has caused severe offence and I share that view.
("Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand suspended from the BBC", by Leigh Holmwood and Tara Conlan, 29/10/08, on the guardian.co.uk website

Ross's position at the BBC highlights the problem that what for one person is hilarious comedy, is for another offensive vulgarity. In an article appropriately entitled "Where low humour meets high culture" for the sober economic newspaper, the Financial Times, the predicament of the BBC was underlined:

Its offerings are pious and randy, elevating and low, testing and silly: take your pick, you don't have to watch. But at the same time it rests on a communitarian philosophy: it's our BBC (it tells us), the last great institution that still unites the nation. But if its our BBC why is it obscene? Why cruel? Why does it give the feeling we live in a frightening world, where those with the highest rewards have the filthiest mouths? Isn't there still a common decency that the BBC helps preserve?
("Where low humour meets high culture", by John Lloyd, 31/01/09, on the Financial Times website

The BBC is destined to live on with these tensions unresolved; as society changes the values of the BBC are gradually eroded. Writing in the Daily Mail (a socially conservative newspaper), Melanie Philips said of the BBC:

There is widespread dismay that, far from elevating and educating public values, its entertainment output is becoming steadily degraded. The anger and revulsion this has created boiled over in the Jonathan Ross affair...the return of Ross is not just a disgrace. It is a gesture of contempt to the public and highlights the extent to which the BBC has lost its way.
("The BBC won't show the Gaza appeal to protect its impartiality. But does anyone really believe it's impartial?", by Melanie Phillips, 26/01/09, on the Daily Mail website:

"Public morality" and "common decency" are to many distant, noble relics of a Britain before the cult of celebrity, rampant individualism and consumerism infiltrated and radically altered any previous existing sense of national consciousness.

2. The Death of Princess Diana

The Queen's response to the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and the public anger at what was seen as her cold indifference, typified this change in attitudes towards the separation of public and private.  The Royal Family's preference for a quiet and dignified private family funeral accompanied by a strict adherence to protocol belonged to the old-school, stiff upper-lip British mentality and was proven to be completely at odds with the prevailing mood of the nation. The Queen was forced to speak publicly about Diana's death, to leave Balmoral (her residence in Scotland) in order to recognise the hundreds of thousands of bouquets which had been left outside Buckingham Palace. The pressure of the public to fly the flag at half mast over the Palace in recognition of Diana's death (a strict protocol existed whereby the flag flies only when the reigning monarch is in residence) forced the Queen to break with tradition and fly the union flag at half mast on the day of the funeral. There was real fear amongst members of the Royal Family that the public reaction to Diana's death could spell the end of the monarchy. Her funeral at Westminster Abbey was attended  by – over one million people who filled the surrounding area and watched the funeral on large television screens. The media played a huge role in channelling the momentum of public grief; indeed the scale of the mourning for Princess Diana was unprecedented and  has since  been described as

an embarrassing memory, like a mawkish, self-pitying entry in a teenage diary...we cringe to think of it
(Hysteria after Diana's death: A myth or reality?, by Sandie Benitah, 31/08/07, on ctv.ca News:

The BBC stands as a focal point for these different currents of feeling at various points of crisis, both absorbing from and reproducing for its public. It has to capture and propagate what it thinks is the current mood of the nation whatever that might actually mean in practice. There was criticism of the BBC in its reporting of the aftermath of Diana's death for being too simplistic; for not scrutinising the language of its reporting carefully enough and making sweeping statements generalising the public response to her death when in fact there were a range of reactions. The death of a public figure can act as a touchstone for other issues and the BBC has a duty not only to report the facts but to provide intelligent and tailored interpretations of the facts.

3. Coverage of the war in Iraq: the Scandal of the Hutton Inquiry

On 18th July 2003, Dr David Kelly, an employee of the Ministry of Defence, was found dead after he had been named as a source in a number of quotes in media reports claiming that Tony Blair's Labour government had knowingly exaggerated and embellished (or "sexed up" was the term used) the case for war with Iraq in its September Dossier Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: the Assessment of the British Government. The accusations had been made by BBC journalists, most notably Andrew Gilligan, on both radio, television and in print. The government angrily denounced the reports accusing the BBC of poor journalism, but the corporation stood by its claims stating that it had a reliable source. Amidst intense media speculation, David Kelly's name emerged as the source for Andrew Gilligan's story and he committed suicide. The government then launched a public inquiry chaired by Lord Hutton into the circumstances surrounding Kelly's death. Hutton's report was to have dire consequences for the BBC. Eventually published on 28th January 2004, it found that there was no underhand strategy by the government to name David Kelly as Gilligan's source, that Gilligan's original accusation was unfounded and the BBC's editorial and management processes were defective. It was concluded that the dossier for war had not been "sexed up" but was in line with current intelligence, even if that intelligence regarding Iraq's military capabilities would be shown to be utterly wrong. The inquiry largely exonerated the government and criticised the BBC's chain of command that accepted Gilligan's word that his story was accurate, in spite of his notes being incomplete.

In light of the criticism of the BBC, its Chairman Gavyn Davies resigned the day the report was published, its Director General Greg Dyke resigned two days later as did Andrew Gilligan. Reporters from rival news broadcaster ITN described the day of publication of the report as "one of the worst in the BBC's history". None of the three wholly accepted Hutton's findings thinking them too black and white in their blanket condemnation of the BBC's journalistic integrity. On the day of his departure, Gilligan stated:

This report casts a chill over all journalism; not just the BBC's. It seeks to hold reporters, with all the difficulties they face,  to a standard it does not appear to demand of, for instance, government dossiers.
("Gilligan quits BBC over Hutton row", 30/01/04, on the BBC News website:

Journalistic probing of the government is vital to the system of checks and balances of a flourishing democracy. Gilligan saw the Hutton Report as stifling this freedom of the press and Greg Dyke defended the corporation's right to broadcast the concerns of an anonymous, but reputable source. The scope and function of journalism in seeking for partial truths in order to encourage the whole truth was called into question following the Hutton Report. Increased pressure put upon journalists to reveal their sources inevitably results in less sources and whistleblowers coming forward, and of crucial probes into the inner workings of society simply not taking place. The Hutton Inquiry rocked the BBC and was influential in bringing about far-reaching changes in British journalism. Not least was the creation of the new BBC College of Journalism in June 2005, which in addition to training on core production skills, aimed to focus on values, ethics and knowledge-building of important global issues such as Europe and the Middle East. The former editor of the Today Programme Kevin Marsh wrote of the college as he took up his new position as its editor in 2006:

At one level, the College is the simplest of propositions; the BBC intends to uphold its values - accuracy and impartiality chief among them - promoting the highest ethical and editorial standards and developing the strongest craft skills. So it has to offer the best possible career-long teaching to support that - including drawing on and sharing the experience of the best journalists in the trade.
But it aims to be much more than that - and this is what is even more exciting and necessary.
Journalism is a trade that celebrates its independence - rightly believing that it's an essential condition of its freedom. But that insistence on independence does not make it immune to criticism and beyond peer and academic scrutiny, critique and informed debate. Providing that scrutiny, critique and debate will be a key function of the College.
("Tomorrow's Journalism", by Kevin Marsh, 28/02/06, BBC News website:

In this respect, the Hutton Inquiry strengthened the BBC, forcing it to overhaul its training and management structures in order to safeguard its reputation as the most trusted broadcasting provider in the UK.

4. War in Gaza

The BBC's coverage of the events in the Gaza strip in recent months illustrates the difficulties inherent in achieving complete impartiality in its news coverage. It was accused in turn both of anti-Israel bias and of using only the Israeli government's narrative in reporting the war. In an article for Arab News, the editor of Al Quds (the largest circulation daily newspaper in the Palestinian territories) was quoted as saying in relation to the BBC:

One must not underestimate the career damage journalists, politicians and academics fear in the event of being branded 'anti-Semitic'. Most do not have the moral courage to unreservedly criticise Israel.
("BBC caught in the Hasbara' spin", by Shabana Syed, 27/01/09, on the Arab News website:

The Arab News article stated that John Kampfer, a journalist and chief executive of Index and Censorship, had compared Channel 4 reports with the BBC's and had determined the line of questioning weak when BBC presenters questioned Israeli spokespersons:

...on The World at One [Britain's leading political affairs programme on BBC radio 4] on 9 January Yigal Palmer was allowed to fob off the charges with relative ease in an interview with the usually rigorous Brian Hanrahan. These spokespeople...have been ever present on the news channel, but rarely have they been truly pressed...The BBC which prides itself on its objective reporting showed its subjectivity and bias throughout the Gaza conflict, basing all reports on Israel's 'right to defend itself.'
This perceived failure of the BBC to be tough on Israeli ministers was thought by some in both English and Arab press to be indicative of a broader sympathy towards the state of Israel's policies towards the Palestinians. This was perceived by some as made manifest in the BBC's controversial refusal to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee's national appeal for Gaza. Writing in The Guardian, the chairman of Arab Media Watch stated that
its [the BBC] bias is revealed starkly in this case in its fear of the pro-Israel lobby, and by turning its back on chronic human suffering.
("For and against: was the BBC right?", by Sharif Nashashibi and Geoffrey Alderman, 27/01/09, on the Guardian website:

According to the BBC, it blocked the airing of the appeal for emergency aid to Gaza in order "to avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC's impartiality." What was most interesting in the British media's response to this was that those factions who did support the BBC's decision did not accept the plea of impartiality. A journalist for The Times stated:

the fact is that the BBC does not have any such reputation, having for years been institutionally pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli. The reason that his [Mark Thompson, the Director-General of the BBC] decision is brave and right, however is that many of the 13 charities that make up the DFC are even more mired in anti-Israeli assumptions that the BBC itself.
("The charities are guilty, not the BBC", by Andrew Roberts, 26/01/09, Times online:

Criticisms of the main British charities that make up the DEC included their repetition of standard Palestinian political rhetoric such as that Israeli policy constitutes a collective punishment against ordinary men, women and children and of failing to report on the role of Hamas in pursuing war with Israel and failing to protect its own citizens. The decision of the BBC (as well as SKY)  not to broadcast the appeal while ITV , Channel 4 and Five judged the conflict worthy of a nationwide call for emergency aid raised important questions concerning who adjudicates on which victims to support via such charitable aid and according to whose political morality. Following the BBC's decision there were thousands of complaints from licence-payers and 50 Members of Parliament and the Charity Commission called for a U-turn. Many believed it was insulting to suggest that viewers would not be able to tell the difference between news coverage and an appeal on purely humanitarian grounds, and that by making a donation to the appeal one would be taking sides in the Middle East conflict.

5. The BBC and the Balen Report

The corporation's decision to not run the risk of equating the humanitarian crisis in Gaza with aggressive Israeli policy towards Palestinians in the minds of the British public might be better understood within the context of its broader coverage of the conflict over many years. In 2004, as the BBC was still reeling from the Hutton Report, it commissioned Malcolm Balen, a senior editorial advisor, to investigate allegations that the BBC's Middle East coverage had been biased against Israel. Balen examined hundreds of hours of broadcast material, television and radio, and analysed the content in minute detail, putting his conclusions in a 20,000-word report. The report was kept secret though leaks indicated that the BBC had in fact been biased against Israel. As a journalist for The Evening Standard stated:

The enormity of this can hardly be overstated. Apart from the corporation's legal obligation to be impartial, it had struggled for years to counter allegations that its reporting favoured the Palestinians. The claims meshed with attacks on the BBC for being Left-leaning and undermining its own legitimacy by harbouring a secret liberal agenda.
("The secret report at the heart of BBC's Gaza paranoia", by Keith Dovkants, 27/01/09, Evening Standard website:

In this light, the reporting on the latest war in Gaza, begun on 27th December 2008, in which journalists are instructed to avoid using "assassination" in favour of "killing" and  "occupation" in favour of  "permanent military presence",  may be seen as an overcompensating for previous sympathy toward the Palestinians. Pressure from both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian factions is an enormous strain on the BBC's ability to provide balanced broadcasting and to maintain its political independence.

6. The Future of the BBC

Thus we have looked at various scandals that have rocked the BBC in recent times from the improper vulgarity of some of its media personalities through to the difficulties, verging on impossibility, of retaining "neutral", "balanced" and "impartial" positions on its news coverage of some of the most emotionally charged and politically delicate crises of modern times. In broad terms, the BBC openly supports multiculturalism, environmentalism, European federalism, human rights law and "alternative" lifestyles, while remaining more critical of conservatism, big business, religion and traditional family values. Its entire reason for existing as a public service broadcaster is to embody the highest standards of excellence and integrity. In order for it to regain the values that ensure its unique place in Britain's cultural life, and, indeed, the world, the BBC needs to remember its role within the public space as a supplier of opportunities to establish truths. Public service broadcasters should be impartial, indefatigable truth seekers, and the BBC, more than any other organisation needs to resist the fatal cocktail of the growing editorial and proprietorial willingness to organise the news so it tells the right sensational story, suiting the editors and readers prejudices. The BBC deserves credit for trying and there is no doubt that its presence forms an essential part of British culture today. Let us end this foray into the BBC on a note of optimism with the words of Will Hutton, a British writer, weekly columnist and former editor-in-chief for The Observer in London:

The BBC is liberal, but in the Enlightenment sense of that word....The BBC is open to every opinion, and those who cannot stand the heat of being exposed to harsh cross-examination and evidence-based reporting fall back on the charge that the BBC is biased. Sometimes it's Eurosceptics; sometimes the Israeli government; sometimes the Palestinians; sometimes the British government. I don't argue that every BBC decision is right...but I do stand by the view that it tries to get it right. It tries consistently to seek the truth of the matter for every citizen. And it does so more than any other news organisation in the country.
("The BBC and the future of Public Service Broadcasting", speech given by Will Hutton in Manchester on 15/05/08:
Pour citer cette ressource :

Beth Harper, "The Ethics of the BBC", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), juillet 2009. Consulté le 25/07/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-britannique/the-ethics-of-the-bbc