No, Andrew Neil’s magnificent anti-Islamist rant was not a violation of the BBC’s commitment to impartiality
It’s a strange world where I find myself writing in support of Andrew Neil twice in the same week, but then these are very strange political times.
Nick Cohen sings Andrew Neil’s praises in The Spectator this week, before going on to condemn Neil’s rousing anti-ISIS monologue at the start of his This Week programme – a speech which this blog strongly supported – on the puzzling grounds that it broke the rules on journalistic impartiality.
Cohen writes well as always, but there are so many mistaken premises and inaccurate comparisons in this piece that a proper rebuttal is needed.
His criticism of Neil begins:
Everywhere you look you can see broadcasters following Neil and Snow and pushing against the fuddy-duddy rule that they must show ‘due impartiality’. The Church of England is joining in, and pushing against equally antiquated restrictions on political and religious advertising.
They must be stopped. However admirable Neil and Snow’s sentiments are, and however inoffensive the Anglican’s celebration of the Lord’s Prayer was, we have to shut them up. The BBC and Channel 4 should never have broadcast their interviewers’ opinion. The cinema chains were right to tell the Church of England it was not welcome on their screens.
Britain is a country with rules to prevent wealthy politicians buying votes and wealthy televangelists buying converts. We are also a country that has fought to maintain the principle that broadcasters must be politically neutral – not always successfully, I grant you.
Three points here. First, the requirement for broadcasters to show ‘due impartiality’ applies to news programmes, and not to commentary – least of all when we are nowhere near a general or local election, the time when the rules governing broadcaster impartiality are at their strictest. The BBC’s This Week is a political magazine show, not a straight-laced news bulletin. Of course one would not expect Evan Davis, Kirsty Wark or Huw Edwards to pepper their delivery of the news with caustic criticisms or sarcastic asides – that would be highly improper. But a political magazine show is by definition an opinion-based show, relying for its content on a parade of partisan guests from different political parties and the media.
Cohen attempts to lump Andrew Neil’s tirade against ISIS along with Jon Snow’s coverage of the Israeli siege of Gaza, but this is comparing apples and oranges – one is a daily news bulletin required to be impartial, and one is a weekly talk show where opinions and partisan debate are essential ingredients.
Second, this is Andrew Neil we are talking about – a seasoned veteran journalist and businessman with a vast political Rolodex and a personal “brand” all of his own. Neil was also editor of the right-leaning Sunday Times for over a decade, is chairman of the company which owns the reliably Tory-friendly Spectator, and in previous life was a researcher for the Conservative Party. Neil was never supposed to be an anonymous newsreader, nor is he marketed as one – people watch This Week because Andrew Neil presents the show, and they know exactly what they are getting when they do so. The BBC are fine with that, and there is nothing to suggest that either the letter or the spirit of the rules are not being followed.
And thirdly, while Cohen’s assertion that Britain is “a country with rules to prevent … wealthy televangelists buying converts” might plausibly be true, we are also a nation with an established state Church – one whose grasping tentacles reach into nearly aspect of our politics and our national life. The ongoing row about the Church of England’s cinema advert is a separate issue, but we should not pretend that our United Kingdom is a nation where we even pay proper lip service to the concept of separation of powers.
When meddlesome bishops speak out in parliamentary debates without a shred of a democratic mandate, and when there are still scenarios whereby the Queen might conceivably end up picking the next government, we should not act as though there is some ancient and grave constitutional requirement for television stations to broadcast opinionless, equivocating platitudes 24/7.
Broadcasters themselves know a dirty secret newspaper editors understand too well: extreme opinions sell. They confirm the partisan in their beliefs and draw in outraged opponents.
[..] Broadcasters want a piece of that action. Opinion is cheap. News is expensive. The public watched Andrew Neil and Jon Snow’s polemics in their millions. What possible justification is there for insisting on balance, accuracy and impartiality?
It may be the case that news is expensive while opinion is cheap, but without the forceful expression of political opinions there could be no This Week in the first place – indeed, there could be no Question Time or Newsnight interviews either, let alone the crucible that is Radio Four’s Today Programme. And if Cohen is saying that the host should always be impartial even on political magazine shows then he sets a standard which can simply never be met, since every raised eyebrow, incredulous glance, rude interruption or “gotcha moment” will be seized on as evidence of deepest bias. Far better that we have good presenters with transparent histories like Neil, and then allow the public to adjust their perceptions accordingly.
Besides, this is not a question of political neutrality, at least as we traditionally understand the matter. Britain is not at war with a sovereign nation, however much ISIS may try to strut and pose as such. We are in conflict with a nihilistic, totalitarian death cult which seeks to spill the blood of everyone who does not adhere to their harsh, warped interpretation of Islam. They stand for nothing save creating hell on Earth to please their petty, jealous and vindictive god. Why shouldn’t the presenter of a serious political talk show be able to say that which we all know to be true?
And since when did expressing an opinion prevent something from being “real journalism”? Is Cohen himself not a journalist because his Spectator piece failed to strike an impartial position between Andrew Neil and himself? Whenever a broadcast news presenter reports on a “horrifying murder” or a “tragic death” they are making a value judgement and presuming to speak on behalf of the 99.5 percent of people who will agree with them. There is no moral or statutory requirement for the newsreader to treat criminal and victim alike in their tone and description, nor should there be. Similarly, ISIS are torturers, rapists and murderers. They break the law every moment of every day in their campaign to spread hatred and ignorance around the world. What’s wrong with saying so?
If ISIS were a legitimate, functioning state or political party and Andrew Neil went on a two minute tirade about their fiscal policy or industrial strategy then there might be grounds to accuse him of political bias. But that is absolutely not the case. Andrew Neil saw ISIS (or Islamist Scum, as he now calls them) take their patented formula of death and suffering, and smear it across the bright lights of Paris one unsuspecting Friday night, and he called it what it was – an act of savage murder that history suggests is doomed to fail in its stated goals.
If ISIS supporters were greatly offended by Neil’s words and lack of objectivity then by all means they can submit a complaint via OFCOM or the BBC Trust. I rather hope that they try.
But they do not need Nick Cohen – or anyone else – to help them out.
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