Radio 4’s Justin Webb: The days of unbiased newsreaders are numbered

"Shouldn't TV and radio be endowed with every madcap opinion?"

Huw Edwards looks into the camera and gives you that approachable-yet-authoritative look you know so well. “The Liberal Democrats,” he begins, “useless and distrusted and badly led, approach their conference in Glasgow today with little hope of it going well.”


Or: “The Conservatives meet in Birmingham pretending to care about you but in reality feathering the nests of their wealthy backers.”

Or: “Labour, pursuing a left-wing agenda that will destroy British industry, gather for their usual festival of envy in Manchester.”

It is party conference season at the end of the month and under the rules that govern all news broadcasting in Britain you are entitled to fair and balanced coverage of all the parties on all the channels. And this week broadcasters across the UK will tell you about the result of the Scottish referendum. They will do so in sober fashion, whatever they feel.

But why? In a world in which newspapers and maga- zines and online commentaries and social media postings are richly endowed with every madcap opinion under the sun, why should TV and radio be different? You could understand, when they were new and dominant, why fairness dictated a certain vanilla quality to the ramblings of my broadcasting colleagues. But now? Have we not all grown up? Do we not have the ability to grasp when someone is being obviously partisan?

And would we not enjoy our political coverage more if we had access to the kind of no-holds-barred stuff that the Americans have had for years?

When I first presented Today on Radio 4 the journalist Peter Hitchens suggested that the programme would be much more fun – and genuinely diverse – if you had a left-winger and a right-winger presenting every morning. Each interviewee could be attacked from every angle.

In the USA there is no need to worry, when you watch Fox News or MSNBC, that there might be a hidden bias in their coverage. They are partisan and their most famous presenters are political forces in the land. They can be annoying, persuasive, funny, embarrassing – but no one doubts that they are watchable.

And politically charged coverage extends, of course, far from the world of party politics. During the summer the Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow went to Gaza, and was so moved and upset by what he saw that he made a film about it. The film could not be shown on his programme; it was too partisan. Yet it was shown on YouTube. So you could watch it on a computer but not on a television – unless you plugged the computer into the television. Sensible? Rational?

Honestly, I don’t know. One of the biggest arguments against ripping up the broadcasting rules is the effect it might have on all broadcasting. Channel 4 News could no doubt prosper (if it wanted to) as a boutique offering, an overtly campaigning programme – and someone could set up alternatives on other channels. But what would become of those broadcasters (and audiences) who preferred to stay in the middle ground?

The former BBC Chairman Michael Grade nailed the problem: “It could be that in the context of this new world of opinionated, value-laden broadcasting, the BBC would be perceived not as fundamentally different from other providers but as fundamentally the same. Not a beacon of impartiality, but just another vehicle for another set of opinions.”

My experience in America (where I lived and worked for nearly a decade) bears out that view. The broadcasters in the middle of the road have been routinely and brutally run over by other punchier broadcasters and by audiences who trust no one.

So Jon Snow’s trip to Gaza will remain a YouTube exclusive. And perhaps our cultural predilection for fairness will keep our airwaves free from polemic for some years to come. But technology points to freedom and diversity and choice. One day, surely, the rules will be questioned, and Jon Snow (who will still be going strong) will get to tell everyone what he really thinks… 


Justin Webb presents the Today programme on Radio 4