I would reject the notion that there is any such thing as impartial reporting and suggest rather that it is dangerously complacent to pretend that our broadcast news is fair and balanced. The reason for this becomes clear if impartiality is conceptualised using categories formulated by Daniel Hallin. Hallin argues that journalistic commitments to objectivity have always been compartmentalised within certain paradigms, or spheres as he calls them (Schudson 2002, 40).
In the sphere of legitimate controversy, journalists seek conscientiously to be balanced and objective. For example in the reporting of a industrial dispute they might have a debate between representatives of both sides of the conflict. But there is also a sphere of consensus, in which journalists feel free to invoke a generalised "we", and take for granted the shared values and shared assumptions of their society (ibid.). For example, in the aftermath of 9/11, no news editor demanded a quote from someone saying that it was acceptable to fly aeroplanes into buildings, because no one expected reporters to take an objective view of terrorists (ibid., 39).
The problem is that, while there maybe some justification in adopting a policy of social cohesion in atrocities like 9/11, in more politically motivated events like the War in Iraq, the sphere of consensus means that impartiality is sacrificed for nakedly ideological reasons. Journalists reject neutrality when they are convinced that national security is at risk, if a terrorist attack is deemed an ‘act of war,’ rather than a crime, then journalists will willingly withhold or temper their reports (Ibid, 41).
Section 3.3 of the UK Broadcasting Act states, that in dealing with major matters of controversy (such as events of national importance), licensees must ensure that justice is done, to a full range of significant views and perspectives during the period in which the controversy is active.
Now given that 47% of the British population were against the war in Iraq, and that a significant proportion of these believed the war was being fought over oil, one would have thought that these views might have been represented by our so called impartial media.
An explanation for their absence is again provided by Daniel Hallin. He points to a third sphere, the sphere of deviance where journalists also depart from the standard norms of impartiality, and feel authorised to treat as marginal or ridiculous, individuals who fall outside that range (Schudson 2002 41). In other word from the point of view of the UK news media, anyone who argued that waging war on Iraq was motivated by oil was an marginal extremist. A general point to be made here is that in the aftermath of war, when it is too late to do anything about it, there is much hand-wringing and mea culpa from the broadcast media. The truth will out as the cliche goes, as the Glasgow media Group noted in their assessment of the coverage of the 1991 Gulf war.
"In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war BBC news reporter John Simpson referred to a most noticeable gap in television's saturation coverage of the war: the human casualties, tens of thousands of them, [and] the brutal effect the war had on millions of others ...we didn't see so much of that." (Philo, & McLaughlin www)
The problem therefore for democracy, is that the time when the need for impartial reporting is greatest and most urgent, is precisely the time when impartiality is most absent from our screens.
[Link] Hallin discusses some of these themes in relation to the Vietnam War discussed in his book the ‘Uncensored War’ here.
Schudson, Michael (2002), 'What's Unusual about Covering Politics as Usual', Journalism After September 11, Barbie Zelizer and Stuart Allen (Editors) London: Routledge