BBC’s Social Media Achilles’ Heel

BY JAMIE FOSTER

At a time when the BBC is losing licence fee payers at a dangerous speed and needs to endear the nation, the organisation has chosen the suicidal path of changing its editorial guidance on social media in order to allow Gary Lineker and Chris Packham to keep on ranting over Twitter. The guidance still bans political journalists from expressing a view on controversial subjects but it has modified its impact by stating that its risk is lower if the person is commenting on something outside of their field. It gives the example of a sports personality commenting on politics. The BBC’s commitment to impartiality has been watered down by this guidance.

The essential point of BBC impartiality is that its high profile presenters become well known through their work for the BBC. They shouldn’t then use the platform this gives them to comment on political issues. The BBC as a licence fee funded organisation shouldn’t express views on politics through its presenters. The new guidance seems to ignore the real danger of a lack of impartiality which is that the BBC is used as a platform to express political views.

Anyone who spends any time on Twitter will be aware of Lineker’s constant rambling and virtue signalling. He uses the platform that the BBC has given him to propagate his fringe left wing PC world view to all and sundry. Instead of subtly altering the rules in order to make this easier for him, the BBC should be taking this behaviour seriously.

Chris Packham is another BBC presenter who abuses his position to spout partial opinions on Twitter. The new guidance on the face of it wouldn’t help him though as he expresses views on hunting and shooting which are inside his field as an environmental correspondent. It is time the BBC dealt seriously with those presenters who use social media to express political and controversial views. The integrity of the BBC is being threatened by those whose arrogance leads them to think that their unvarnished views have a place in the public discourse.

Lineker’s behaviour has made some of his colleagues uncomfortable. BBC Cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew wrote to him asking that he keep his political views to himself and saying that he would be sacked if he followed Lineker’s example. Lineker was dismissive in his reply saying that he was freelance so he would continue to say whatever he wanted on Twitter.

The BBC has made a rod for its own back with the new guidance. The less control it has over the outpourings of those who present its programmes the more chaotic those outpourings will become. In the end the BBC becomes associated with the views expressed by its presenters, whether it wishes to or not. It becomes much harder for the BBC to maintain an impression of its own independence if its presenters keep espousing partial opinions. This fuels the anger of licence fee payers and they will end their licences.

This topic is a difficult one for those of us who believe in free speech. The problem is that it is not a matter of free speech. It is a matter of a person using the notoriety their work brings them to have too much of a say on matters that do not concern them. It is simply wrong that licence fee payers should be sponsoring Lineker to turn Twitter into his soapbox. He is the most highly paid presenter at the BBC and this position should demand impartiality from him.

It is hard to see, other than in dealing with a position that Lineker has put them in, why the BBC would change its guidance in this way. The principle of impartiality must be a sacrosanct one to the BBC. The unique way it is funded means that it should be impartial as a matter of course. There is no compelling reason to allow its presenters free rein to opine on controversial subjects. It would seem that the way the BBC has dealt with complaints about Lineker’s behaviour is to soften its stance on impartiality. This would seem to be a self-harming response to the situation.

The BBC has enough of an image problem as it is without bringing more down on itself. This guidance change is a destructive response to a situation that required more backbone from the BBC. It leaves Lineker in a position where he feels untouchable and free to get on and use his position to foist his world view on an unsuspecting public. It is a real shame.

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