Like music playlists, there is one aspect of our industry that can only be looked at subjectively. No matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to be impartial about personality. In recent months, it’s been well documented that BBC Local Radio is going through yet another period of attempting to define the “P” word with – you guessed it – a classroom training course.
But the main question, highlighted this week by the BBC Editorial Standards Committee, considers whether personality can sometimes go to far.
Anyone who has witnessed an Iain Lee broadcast knows what to expect. He’s direct, unconventional and challenging. Which is presumably the main reason why BBC Three Counties hired him in the first place. Yet an investigation this week has concluded that Lee broke the rules on impartiality, mainly due to what was viewed as an “inappropriately combative” approach.
Of course, impartiality is one of the founding principles of the BBC, and as a journalist I try to respect that in my professional life (my blog, my views, is a different matter). Yet I wonder if judging an interview to be “inappropriately combative” is somewhat at odds with the push for more personality? Under such hard and fast rules, a presenter can’t win.
But as a union rep – standing up for the shop floor – another part of the ESC’s rationale concerns me. It suggested that robust interviews might deter others from calling in, for fear of encountering the same wrath. In Iain Lee’s case, he was interviewing two pre-arranged guests who were on the same side of the story. Surely they should have expected to be challenged, and firmly too? What’s more, the principles of “holding to account” and playing “devil’s advocate” are enshrined – in as many words – within the BBC’s own Editorial Guidelines. Nevertheless, we are all to be “reminded ” of the need for respect in the coming months. I wonder if this will apply to network colleagues like John Humphreys?
As always, there is a balance to be achieved. It’s interesting that OFCOM assessed six complaints on this, but decided not to launch a formal investigation. And Iain Lee will soon be back on air, as part of the line up for the new commercial station Talk Radio.
Whatever the outcome, this ruling must not be allowed to stifle the principle of challenging interviews, not least when the guest is expressing extreme views. Nor should it deter managers from hiring talent like Iain Lee. By his own admission, he went too far.
But if we never took risks, radio would be boring.