Column

Impartiality at the BBC

For 10 years, between 2006 and 2016, my alarm clock went off at 3.30am.

I’d stagger into the shower before being whisked to Broadcasting House in the back of a cab. If I was lucky, I’d doze against the window of a warm and womb-like Toyota Prius.

If I was unlucky, Steve Allen would be on the radio.

Safely inside the revolving doors of BH, I’d take the lift to the third floor and head to the control room of the Today studio, glancing over my shoulder to see whether Humphrys was in.

If he was, it would be a morning of anxiety. Finding his headphones, hoping his breakfast bowl hadn’t gone missing again. We did our best to set everything up as he liked it, we wanted an easy life.

My job was to keep the show to time, which meant getting the presenters and guests to stop talking.

I wasn’t popular.

When the pips squeaked at 05:59’55 (more on the pips here), the Editor would saunter in with a latte, hoof an armful of broadsheets onto her desk and assume the ‘God’ position, directly behind me.

The Editor’s job was to direct the big ‘8.10’ interview, deal with breaking news and monitor incoming email.

If a similar number of emails accused us of rampant left wing bias as rampant right wing bias over the course of a morning, we’d call that a win.

Today, BBC impartiality remains in the spotlight.

It’s arguably the most important challenge the organisation faces as the charter comes up for renewal at the end of the decade.

Political neutrality

It should be impossible for the public to work out the political leanings of a BBC programme or presenter.

One of Humphry’s predecessors, Brian Redhead, conducted a minute’s silence (or at least threatened to) when Nigel Lawson appeared on the programme and suggested he knew which way Redhead voted.

BBC journalists have to remain professionally neutral, but they get a vote in elections. They take part in the democratic process privately, just like everyone else.

But impartiality guidelines are now being rolled out to wider issues. Issues on which it’s difficult to find an equivalent ‘neutral’ position.

New guidance

Tim Davie, the newly appointed Director-General, sent an email to staff this week entitled, ‘Renewing our commitment to impartiality.’

Davie reminded staff, particularly those working in news that, “Impartiality is one of the cornerstones of the BBC’s relationship with the audiences we serve. Thanks to everyone’s outstanding work we have a strong and hard-won reputation for fairness and balance. We want to ensure that we keep building the trust people have in us.”

He went on to link to fresh guidance on impartiality, including a section on ‘Participating in marches and protests.’

“People working in news and current affairs and factual journalism (across all Divisions), as set out in the Guidelines, should not participate in public demonstrations or gatherings about controversial issues.”

What are ‘controversial issues?’

“It should be assumed that most marches are contentious to some degree or other.”

Around 3,500 staff cannot now take part in marches, tweet, RT or like ‘controversial’ social media posts, or speak publicly on issues that might cause controversy.

The problem is that political and social neutrality are not the same. Political neutrality is not demonstrating allegiance to a political party. But every journalist gets a vote.

The equivalent of a vote for contentious issues is turning up at a protest. If a staff member wants to attend but is not allowed to, their vote is placed on the other side by their non-attendance.

I’m not sure the BBC can make that decision for staff members.

‘Clarification’

The guidelines were ‘clarified’ on Friday morning.

Staff are allowed to attend LGBT+ events, so long as they are ‘commemorative or celebratory.’

“Staff need to ensure that they are not seen to be taking a stand on politicised or contested issues.”

Pride is never just ‘commemorative or celebratory.’ Pride events are fun. That doesn’t mean they’re not protests.

The LGBT+ community has been fighting for change, equality and acceptance at Pride related events since 1969. And there is still a mountain to climb. The idea that all we want to do is to celebrate how far we’ve come is patronising and ignorant of the myriad issues faced by LGBT+ communities.

If it’s about not being seen to take a stand, it’s important to realise that banning staff from participating in marches is a stand.

Keeping away is a decision. And it’s a decision for the individual, not the Corporation.

Remembering Phil Hutchinson

Phil Hutchinson
Phil, on a balcony at Broadcasting House. Photo by Marianne Khoo.

I met Phil in 2006 in the lobby of Bush House in London. We’d been recruited as trainee Studio Managers and were about to be sent to the Beeb’s training centre, Wood Norton in Evesham, to learn how to manage studios. Presumably. We didn’t know exactly what to expect at the time.

What we should have expected was a man telling us that the women on the training course would be SMs ‘for a few years until you go off and have babies’, another who told us there was a dragon in the mixing desks (or was it a wizard?), and a collection of incredible people at the canteen who wore elaborate fancy dress every Friday, rain or shine, and committed to it with zeal, imagination and themed menus.

Phil wore the cheekiest of grins throughout. He simultaneously took it very seriously and found it tremendous fun. Which was more or less Phil’s approach to life. It was an excellent three weeks.

We trained and drank and argued and I had to rethink how I saw the world. Things I thought were funny were, in fact, sexist, racist and/or homophobic. Phil nudged me into a better way of thinking without judgement.

He was one of the few out, gay people I’d met. This also had a huge influence on my closeted 25-year-old self. I admired his confidence, his curiosity and his passion for all the things he was into.

Phil knew who he was, what he liked and didn’t at a young age. He had a solid kind of morality. He knew a lot about a lot of stuff. Classical music, economics, history and politics were in his wheelhouse but it was an extensive wheelhouse. This list doesn’t begin to cover it.

He loved Terry Pratchett, travelling and climbing. When I met him he had already toured with a youth orchestra and travelled the world. The photo was taken after someone had smuggled an ice-axe into Broadcasting House at Phil’s request.

He had a desk-globe at his flat which he topped with an Indiana-Jones-style hat. He was the sort of person you could arrange to meet in Red Square in a fortnight and he’d be there. Wearing the hat.

In 2014, Phil took a sabbatical from the BBC to go to the Banff Centre, to learn how they do audio engineering in Canada. He died in a car accident that December.

I don’t know what Phil would have gone on to do with his life, but I do feel a profound sense of loss for all the fields he could have made a difference to, and all the people who miss him.

Today is his birthday, so I thought I’d write down a few memories.

Do add yours below.

Here Comes the Rain Again

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It’s raining.

South London, reset to factory settings.

In the fourth Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novel, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, there’s a character called Rob Mckenna, a Rain God.

He’s a lorry driver and it rains on him every day.

As he drove on, the rainclouds dragged down the sky after him, for, though he did not know it, Rob McKenna was a Rain God.

All he knew was that his working days were miserable and he had a succession of lousy holidays.

All the clouds knew was that they loved him and wanted to be near him, to cherish him, and to water him.”

Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Rob Mckenna ends up making good money being paid by a tour operator “not to go to Malaga this year”.

Here are some types of rain listed in the book:

33 (light pricking drizzle which made the roads slippery), 39 (heavy spotting), 47 to 51 (vertical light drizzle through to sharply slanting light to moderate drizzle freshening), 87 and 88 (two finely distinguished varieties of vertical torrential downpour), 100 (post-downpour squalling, cold), all the seastorm types between 192 and 213 at once, 123, 124, 126, 127 (mild and intermediate cold gusting, regular and syncopated cab-drumming), 11 (breezy droplets) and now his least favourite of all, 17.

Rain type 17 was a dirty blatter battering against his windscreen so hard that it didn’t make much odds whether he had his wipers on or off.”

Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

My favourite is characterised by huge droplets, or ‘froglets’ of water, which you cannot stand in for more than 5 minutes without getting soaked to the skin. I’m going to call that number 42.

Is it raining with you?

The Mouse Man Cometh

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In an uncertain world, the few things we can be sure of are a comfort.

London housing will always be riddled with vermin, the pubs will charge a morning’s wages for a main and August in the city is an oven.

I remember now why I try to escape to Edinburgh for the month. I tell people it’s because I’ve written a comedy show, but really it’s because I enjoy rain more than I care to admit.

I split up with my partner earlier this year and moved into a small flat round the corner. Because this is London, there are mice.

After a week attempting to deal with the situation myself, I got professional help.

The mouse man arrived, looking confident. His teeth were too white.

“These your bait boxes?” he asked, incredulous.

“Yeah, I got them off the internet. They don’t work.”

“Course they don’t,” he sniffed, looking like my hairdresser as I walked in post-lockdown. “They won’t eat that stuff.”

He slung a gym bag to the floor full of plumbers’ syringes. “What you want,” he explained, triumphantly holding up an old tub of peanut butter, “Is this.”

Finely honed patter is part of the gig for this guy.

He explained that the contents of the peanut butter tub are illegal in 47 countries (I’m not surprised, it’s bright blue and looks like it could take out a moose.)

“They banned it here a couple of years ago,” he said, “but I squirrelled away a few bottles. And that’s paid my mortgage, that has.”

He began enthusiastically loading neon peanut butter into a syringe.

When he said ‘a few bottles,’ I imagined a lock-up full of the stuff.

“Course, they won’t eat this in Wimbledon.”

I looked at him closely. (How can you trust a man who looks like a ’70’s disc jockey?) “How do you mean?”

“It’s a bit of the old Darwin, y’see love,” he explained. “The ones that don’t like it survive to breed. Eventually, none of the mice will eat it and we’ll have to find something else. And that always starts in Wimbledon.” I was baffled.

Are posh mice more discerning? Do they make podcasts for each other about what colour peanut butter to eat? Has this got something to do with the Wombles?

He iced some peanut butter into cardboard boxes with mouse-sized holes in the ends, then shook a tub of what looked like birdseed into his gloved hand.

“This, is canary seed,” he explained, hoofing the kickboard out from under the sink. “Now, I’m not allowed to put this down without a tray. But I’m very clumsy I am,” he chucked a handful under the sink. “Ooops, I’ve spilt some,” he turned to grin at me, radiantly.

It seems the mice of South Wimbledon won’t eat their dinner off a tray.

£47 later, he’s spilt some more behind the sofa, some in a cupboard the estate agent boldly described as ‘roomy’, and more in the bathroom. There are tiny boxes of peanut butter everywhere.

Turning to step out into the sweltering heat, he handed me his card. “You’re very nice but I hope I never see you again.”

And with that, he was gone.