Indian journalists should be grateful BBC lost the ‘impartiality’ battle

If you made up your mind about the BBC when the Indian government recently attacked it for broadcasting a documentary about Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, then pause a while.

Perhaps you believe that the BBC is part of the evil white media conspiracy whose members wake up each day and immediately start thinking of ways to defame India. Or perhaps you think of the BBC as a largely impartial media organisation that is committed to exploring all reasonable points of view no matter who takes offence.

Either way, forget about your own prejudices and preconceptions because for all of the last week, the BBC has been involved in a crisis of its own making about—what else?—impartiality. And the Corporation has not come out of it well. The way the dispute has gone may have consequences for broadcasting and journalists all over the world.

To understand why the battle could impact all of us, even though the original context was entirely domestic, try and think of an Indian parallel: should a journalist employed by an Indian news organisation treat his or her Twitter account as an extension of their employer’s personality?

And that, in fact, is the way it works in our country. Nearly every journalist I know tweets independently without worrying about how their employers may react. News anchors, like other human beings, have political views. They may stay neutral (in theory, at least) when they are moderating TV debates but they make no secret of what their own views are when they are not on camera. And on the whole, news organisations regard this as fine.

Sometimes these political views are in consonance with the views of their employers (especially if they are pro-government) and may even result in a promotion or, at least, an increment. But rarely will somebody be rebuked for, say, tweeting about the independence of the Supreme Court, for attacking the Karnataka government over a corruption scandal or saying that Delhi’s former deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia should be given bail.

There might be a problem if these views are expressed in the newspaper or the TV channel the journalists work for but Twitter is usually regarded as a private space. Nobody expects journalists not to have any views of their own, which they express on their private platforms.

That’s not true of the BBC. If you anchor the TV news, you cannot tweet anything about a political controversy or reveal what your own views are.

This is because of the unique nature of the BBC’s charter. While it is funded by the British government (through a license fee raised from citizens), it is not (like Doordarshan for instance) subject to governmental control. It has its own board of directors who function autonomously. Not all governments are happy about this and the BBC is constantly under attack, is regularly accused of bias and there are threats about restricting its funding.

Given the level of pressure it is under, the BBC asks its journalists not to offer up political opinions on social media, lest they be regarded by the government of the day as signs of bias.

So, while Indian TV anchors can (and do) express themselves freely on Twitter, the BBC’s anchors are banned from doing so.