Is Donald Trump a racist? Ah, what unfathomable mysteries does our cosmos contain! On the one hand, after a long career denying rental opportunities to black people, Trump rose to political prominence by repeatedly implying that America’s first black president had somehow faked both his religion and his birth certificate; won the presidency himself by fighting a campaign unprecedented in the viciousness of its nativism; has attempted to effectively ban Muslims from travelling to the United States; once publicly praised a group of neo-Nazis as “very fine people”; and has overseen an administration responsible for detaining migrants in what are, essentially, concentration camps. But on the other hand, he once described himself to CNN’s Don Lemon as “the least racist person you have ever met.” So, it's impossible for us to ever really know.
Hence why, presumably, you may not be allowed to say that Trump is a racist on the BBC — the British state broadcaster that is famously committed to the value of “impartiality” in its news coverage.
Last week, BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty was publicly reprimanded by the corporation's Executive Complaints Unit for comments she made in relation to this summer's “go back” controversy between Trump and four congresswomen of color. “Every time I have been told, as a woman of color, to go back to where I came from, that was embedded in racism,” Munchetty said on the July 17 edition of Breakfast. “Now I’m not accusing anyone of anything here,” she continued, “but you know what certain phrases mean.” This basic statement of linguistic reality went, the ECU found, “beyond what the BBC allows” — and so it upheld a viewer complaint. “Audiences should not be able to tell,” what opinions their journalists hold, the corporation reasoned.
In the BBC’s hands, “impartiality” was left looking like a front for institutional racism.
The result was an almighty storm: immediately the BBC faced objections from writers and broadcasters of color — objections the righteous force of which only intensified when it was discovered that Munchetty’s white co-host Dan Walker (who was not censured by the ECU in any way) had also been named in the original complaint, a fact the BBC’s editorial standards chief initially denied. Eventually, the BBC folded to pressure and yesterday, its director-general acted to overrule the ECU. But this was too little too late: the damage had been done. In the BBC’s hands, “impartiality” was left looking like a front for institutional racism.
Of course, if we were to think about what journalism — indeed, what any reporting on, or even just basic description of, reality — ought to be like, we might quite reasonably assume that some sort of commitment to neutrality, that “impartiality,” would be a virtue. In ordinary usage, “bias” indicates a distortion: the prejudices, or vested interests, possessed by individuals, which serve to obscure our access to the otherwise unvarnished truth. The ideal reporter is therefore someone free from bias. Only once matters are presented to the public as neutrally and fairly as possible, could the truth as such win out. Even Fox News, which is pretty much openly the propaganda wing of the Republican right, still clings to this fiction by describing itself as being “fair and balanced.”
But this, I think, ought to give us a clue as to what impartiality really means. An early test of the BBC’s public commitment to impartiality was the 1926 UK General Strike, some four years into its existence, during which restrictions on newspaper production (because the printers were on strike) led to the network’s broadcasts becoming, for the first time, the country’s main source of news. According to the diary of Lord Reith, the BBC's de facto founder, Winston Churchill — then serving as chancellor of the exchequer — wanted use the emergency to commandeer the BBC as an instrument of government propaganda. By contrast, then-Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, perceived the advantages of the government's message appearing on a nominally independent source of media. He overruled Churchill, but nevertheless took the view that he should be able to trust Reith “not to be really impartial.” Later, Reith coached Baldwin through a broadcast to the nation, then refused Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald the chance to put forward an alternative point of view — although he did broadcast statements from the Trades Union Congress. Reith would go on to congratulate himself on how he had maintained impartiality throughout the crisis.
In many ways, this pattern has persisted to this day, with the BBC often caught between its professed ideal of journalistic fairness, and the government's view that really the responsible thing to do is to always come down on their side. In 2004, the BBC’s two most senior figures, then-Director-General Greg Dyke and then-Chairman Gavyn Davies, were both forced to resign as a result of a judicial investigation of the circumstances surrounding the death of a former UN weapons inspector who was the source for the network’s claims that the Blair government had “sexed up” a report into Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the disastrous 2003 invasion (the report essentially found that Prime Minister Tony Blair and his press secretary, Alastair Campbell, should be allowed to lie about whatever they want, and the BBC should never have thought to question them).
Today, the BBC is officially “committed to achieving due impartiality in all its output.” The qualifier “due” here “means that the impartiality must be adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content, the likely audience expectation and any signposting that may influence that expectation.” Thus impartiality is “more than a simple matter of ‘balance’ between opposing viewpoints.” The BBC, by its own lights, “must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring that the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected.” Thus, presumably, the ECU ruled that Munchetty overstepped the mark in describing Trump's language as racist because in doing so, she failed to act inclusively towards people insistent, for whatever reason, on taking racist dogwhistles at face value.
Meaning exists as part of a vast network of intentions both manifest and misplaced, of material causes and effects.
Despite the guidelines, the BBC is frequently accused of bias from both the left and the right: the idea that the BBC has a “liberal bias” is a long-standing trope of Tory bores, most recently voiced by the veteran, scotch egg-brained BBC presenter John Humphrys (on the well overdue occasion of his retirement) . But this view seems increasingly hard to credit: in recent years, the BBC’s political coverage has largely seemed to favor the (increasingly hard-right) government, being clearly biased against the Labour opposition.
This March, the current Director-General, Lord Tony Hall, issued an impassioned plea for the embattled ideal of impartiality, claiming in the corporation's annual plan that, in an increasingly divided world:
“We must stand up for it and defend our role like never before. It is essential if we are to continue to be the place people know they can trust to get to grips with what is truly happening in the world, and to hear the broadest range of views.”
But in truth, Lord Hall seems I fear to be walking himself up entirely the wrong garden path, because impartiality is not a virtue — in fact, its pursuit is something much closer to an intellectual vice.
There are plenty of philosophical resources we might draw upon to make sense of this (I could have used Nietzsche's perspectivism, for example, or Heidegger on truth — although I don't normally like to use Heidegger as he was a Nazi). But a lot of these attacks on impartiality end up lapsing into a subjectivism which threatens to make any sort of objective agreement impossible. For this reason, I think the best might be R.G. Collingwood's “logic of question and answer.”
In his Autobiography, in which he describes the logic of question and answer in some detail, Collingwood relates how he came up with it during World War I, when he was assigned to the Admiralty Intelligence Division, which was based in the Royal Geographical Society, near Kensington Gardens — and so, every day he would pass by the Albert Memorial. And when he did so, Collingwood would think: Jesus Christ, that's a really ugly memorial.
“Everything about it was visibly mis-shapen, corrupt, crawling, verminous; for a time I could not bear to look at it, and passed with averted eyes; recovering from this weakness, I forced myself to look, and to face day by day the question: a thing so obviously, so incontrovertibly, so indefensibly bad, why had (the architect, George Gilbert) Scott done it?”
“To say that Scott was a bad architect,” would not explain it — since this answer would be tautologous, that Scott simply did a bad memorial because he was bad; to shrug and say “there is no accounting for tastes” would hardly be satisfactory either — since it would fail to take into account the object said taste was based on. There must, then, Collingwood reasoned, be some relation between “what (Scott) had done” and “what he had tried to do.” If he had been trying to produce a beautiful thing, Scott had, objectively, failed. But if he had been trying to produce something else, he might well have succeeded.
The Albert Memorial thus came to stand for Collingwood as the answer, to a certain question — the question that, in designing the Albert Memorial, Scott was asking. But as to what this question was, Collingwood could never know for sure. All he, in contemplating the Albert Memorial could do, was posit Scott's intention.
At any rate, through this consideration of Scott's intention in designing the Albert Memorial Collingwood came to realize the (far more general) lesson that:
“... you cannot find out what a man means by simply studying his spoken or written statements, even though he has spoken or written with perfect command of language and perfectly truthful intention. In order to find out his meaning you must also know what the question was (a question in his own mind, and presumed by him to be in yours) to which the thing he has said or written was meant as an answer.”
Nothing, then, is meaningful purely in-and-of itself. Meaning exists as part of a vast network of intentions both manifest and misplaced, of material causes and effects — a network which stretches back far further than the utterer of any given statement might possibly imagine.
The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer revived Collingwood’s logic in Truth and Method, his vast, dense debunking of common-sense notions of “objectivity,” calling this network a “tradition.” Such a tradition must be assumed in order for any of our utterances to be understood — the background of tradition is assumed by both speakers and listeners; writers and readers. People do not say things, do not write things, do not feel and think things, in a vacuum: they do so because they are a particular person, in a particular time, with particular wants and needs — and this context has, just as a basic fact, been shaped by what has come before. “The meaning of a sentence is relative to the question to which it is a reply, that implies that its meaning necessarily exceeds what is said in it.” Questions and answers, which themselves ask questions to which answers must then be given, echoing through time.
When someone says something new they do not blindly regurgitate tradition but rather, in Gadamer's jargon, “fuse their horizon” with it — they take a stance within a given tradition. The act of attempting to understand one another — to attempt to understand what is meant when someone says, to a person of color, “go back home,” for example; or to attempt to understand what is meant when the British state broadcaster tells one of its presenters that they shouldn’t, despite their own experiences of racism, describe these remarks as racist — is itself something which opens up new possibilities of meaning (thus, one can now say: “the BBC was wrong to reprimand Naga Munchetty for calling Trump a racist, and must, even despite its eventual retraction, be suspected of racism itself”).
Gadamer envisions us as existing within the flow of a vast conversation — “the conversation that we ourselves are.” “Every conversation presupposes a common language, or better, creates a common language.” And this act of creation is constantly being undertaken. “The standpoint that is beyond any standpoint,” unbiased and unprejudicial, is thus for Gadamer “a pure illusion.”
Seen through this lens, “impartiality” can therefore only possibly exist as a way of attempting to arrest the process by which meaning emerges as such: in order to understand anything at all, we must dare to take a stance on it. In our attempt to stand as intellectually honest describers (and interpreters) of reality, we must therefore strive to be as clear as possible about what that stance is — not only to others but also ourselves. Convinced of their neutrality, the BBC guidelines serve in fact to refuse their audience this honesty.
In describing the language Trump used against Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Presley, and Rashida Tlaib as “racist,” one does indeed set out a particular, finite perspective on his words. But that does not, of course, stop this perspective from being true. For the truth to win out, one simply needs to be able to convince others of it: something that, as it happens, Munchetty did a pretty concise job of, invoking her own experience of racism.
Abandoning impartiality, reporters ought instead be open about their perspective, taking care to relate how their experience (not just of race but of class, of sexuality, etc.) might shape their perception of events. Only then might we obtain a truly objective understanding of reality — by subjecting the distortions of our various finite perspectives to critique.