Andy Burnham defends TV news impartiality rules

Culture secretary Andy Burnham has said he is strongly opposed to the idea of relaxing the impartiality rules governing broadcasters in the multimedia age.

Speaking at a Voice of the Listener and Viewer event in Parliament last night, Burnham said that although the “proliferation” of news sources today had blurred the lines between print, online and broadcast, there was strong evidence that the public still took standards in broadcasting very seriously.

“I’ve been very clear that I would not wish to see a move away from impartiality requirements for television news. That is a characteristic of British broadcasting,” he told the audience.

“There are others who’ve made an argument that the time has come to relax the requirements in a multiplatform age.

“If anything, in this age that we’re in, as information sources proliferate, people are looking more and more to TV for standards and quality.”

Burnham said the furore that emerged when Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross broadcast lewd phone calls to actor Andrew Sachs had demonstrated how seriously the public felt about quality broadcasting.

The prank calls prompted the resignation of Brand, Radio 2 controller Lesley Douglas and head of compliance Dave Barber, and a 12-week suspension for Ross.

“If there’s a good thing to come out of it, it’s been a very clear focus in the media around the importance of standards,” he said.

“In some ways the aftermath of the affair was heartening. It shows people want there to be a clearer emphasis on standards in broadcasting. To lose this quality would be a grave mistake in the long term.”

Burnham also defended the work of the BBC’s sovereign body, the BBC Trust, after it was described as “a disaster” by one audience member in the question-and-answer session.

The Trust last month reached a provisional conclusion in its investigation into the BBC’s online video plans, ruling that the service was not an appropriate use of licence fee money and could seriously harm commercial media groups such as regional newspapers.

“I think there was very legitimate criticism from the rest of the media industry some time back that when the BBC was to launch a new service it simply did so without any regard for the rest of the media world,” Burnham said.

“The Trust has shown that it’s taken decisions balancing the broader public interest and the media landscape. I think it’s crucial that we have a body like the BBC Trust right now that is able to do that.”

He added: “The ripples from the BBC when it decides to do something could actually turn out to be something of a rather difficult wave for the rest of the media world.

“Not to have a body like the Trust right now would weaken the quality of the decision-making that is being taken.”

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