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EDITIONS
Monday, 30 September, 2002, 21:22 GMT 22:22 UK
How Today's editor went
Rod Liddle
The Today programme enjoys strong ratings

Rod Liddle was always a maverick. Though nominally a lefty, the editor of BBC Radio 4's Today programme has a powerful libertarian streak which often seems more in tune with right-wing thinking than with conventional left-of-centre politics.

But his personal views, whatever they are, haven't prevented him from presiding for the past three years over a flagship political news programme obliged to be impartial - and acknowledged by most fair-minded listeners to be so.

His enforced departure from the job - after the BBC told him to choose between Today and his outspoken newspaper column in the Guardian - raises an intriguing question: is it necessary for journalists with a commitment to impartiality in one part of their professional lives to exhibit equal impartiality in every other part?


Editors like Mr Liddle are subject to the same general rule: Avoid anything that could raise questions about their impartiality

The BBC has no doubt that it is, and recently beefed up its guidelines to journalists to remind them of the fact.

"The BBC's reputation for impartiality and objectivity is crucial," say the guidelines, which were revised in March.

"The public must be able to trust the integrity of BBC programmes and services. Our audiences need to be confident that the outside activities of our programme makers or presenters do not undermine the BBC's impartiality."

Rough ride

Presenters who express personal views in public - whether in speeches or newspaper articles - could compromise their on-air role, the guidelines say.

Whoever drafted them was presumably thinking of those occasions when an interviewee getting a rough ride on Today suggests the presenter's questions must be biased because informed by the presenter's own political prejudices.

Editors like Mr Liddle are subject to the same general rule: avoid anything that could raise questions about their impartiality.

To Rod Liddle this is nonsense.

He believes listeners - especially listeners to Today - are quite sophisticated enough to understand that he may hold particular views in private, but remain thoroughly impartial when it comes to editing Today.

If they know he must have private views, why the problem when he expresses them publicly?

'Challenging'

At one level the BBC apparently agrees with him.

In a letter to The Guardian, Mark Damazer, the BBC's deputy director of news, criticises Mr Liddle's original column, with its ridiculing of the Countryside Alliance march, for falling "on the wrong side of the line that separates edgy, challenging commentary from a frontal attack."

But Mr Damazer also pays tribute not only to Mr Liddle's "flair and intellectual courage" but to the impartiality exhibited by the programme he edits.


For the BBC it is not enough to be impartial; you have to be seen to be impartial as well, even outside the BBC

Not everyone would go so far: the Daily Telegraph was incensed not only at Mr Liddle's views on the Countryside Alliance, which the paper thought betrayed unacceptable bias, but also by what it saw as a lack of proper coverage of the march on Today.

Mr Damazer defends the programme's coverage, and also says - to quash suggestions that the BBC has been jumping to the Telegraph's tune in giving its editor the chop - that his view that Mr Liddle's Guardian piece was "significantly out of kilter" was reached even before he read the Telegraph.

The eventual upshot is this: for the BBC it is not enough to be impartial; you have to be seen to be impartial as well, even outside the BBC.

Hostages to fortune

There are plenty of other BBC journalists who write for the papers, and who are aware of the tension between newspaper editors' demands for trenchant views, trenchantly expressed and the BBC's requirement that personal opinions be kept firmly in the background.

Rod Liddle's scalp - though he will continue to work for the BBC as a presenter - may be partly a way of encouraging the rest not to stray onto "the wrong side of the line".

It does the BBC no good to be attacked by newspapers of the left or the right (or sometimes both) for bias, which is why it is anxious not to offer any hostages to fortune.

But if the papers can't find anything to criticise in BBC journalists' outside activities they'll probably go back to doing what they've always done - and criticise the programmes themselves.


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