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BBC Boss on Impartiality Amid the “Storms of Social Media”: “Polarization in Society Is Profound”

The BBC is “fiercely independent” and typically “impartial,” despite more work needed on an ongoing basis, despite such challenges as the “storm of social media,” Tim Davie, the director general of the U.K. public broadcaster, said in London on Wednesday.

Appearing in front of a parliamentary committee, he argued that the broadcaster is doing a good job fulfilling its mandate of impartiality in coverage, but must also do more work at a time when people tend to “ascribe intent” depending on which part of the “echo chamber” of the world they come from.

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Overall, Davie argued that the BBC has done “a good job in terms of delivering impartial coverage amidst enormous pressure,” explaining: “The polarization in society is profound. So any institution like ourselves to steer the course amongst the noise, the storms of social media, is very demanding.”

Referencing Ofcom research about trust, he said, “we’re holding firm in the midst of a situation where actually public institutions, and I worry about this, are losing trust. So I believe we are impartial and we’re doing a good job.”

Saying that “our perception tracking remains strong,” the BBC boss continued: “We’re seen as the number one source for impartial news. But we’ve also got people on either side of the political fence… that believe the BBC is leaning one way or the other.”

He concluded: “We’ve got to be considerate and more transparent in explaining our workings because what we are seeing is quite disturbing trends globally where people are constantly trying to ascribe intent. So people will watch the same … piece of basic coverage and read it very differently based on where you come from or your echo chamber.”

Davie also highlighted his focus on avoiding “group think,” for example by getting more news staffers from outside London as people in the U.K. capital are often seen as bringing certain biases to their take on the world.

Asked if his team backs down after complaints of news coverage, the BBC director general said “we consider” complaints and rethink and change approaches to or language in coverage where the broadcaster’s team judges that makes sense. “The pressure is ferocious from every side. If we responded to everyone among them…,” he said. “There are people who think we’ve got an agenda to the right [or] an agenda to the left. We’re woke warriors on one side, and small c conservatives on the other. I can tell you that if you go and meet the editors of programs … I’m fiercely proud of them. Because what they’re trying to do is calmly get this right.”

He and other BBC chiefs appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the U.K. parliament’s House of Commons in London in a wide-ranging session as part of parliamentarians’ regular scrutiny of the public broadcaster’s work.

The cross-party committee asked about various topics, including the government’s mid-term review of the BBC, which led to recommendations on the BBC’s impartiality and changes in the broadcaster’s complaints handling.

“A new wave of technological change is reshaping the media landscape and bringing fresh challenges for us all: to our democracy; to our creative economy; and, to society,” Davie recently said. He has long argued that the BBC must become a digitally-led public service broadcaster.

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