BBC's social media review - as much freedom of expression as possible?
A review of the BBC’s social media guidelines is a significant move, as long as it is truly independent and knowledgeable people are involved.
A prominent public figure could not have been more forthright about the Government’s Illegal Migration Bill, which has just passed its first stage in the House of Commons.
It amounts to “cruelty without purpose” and is both “immoral and inept.”
The man behind such trenchant comments, Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York, had better watch out. He might not be invited back to appear on Songs of Praise or the ‘Thought for the Day’ slot on Radio 4’s Today programme.
The Bishop of Durham Paul Durham attacked the Bill for criminalising the act of claiming asylum without acknowledging that: “many are highly vulnerable people escaping persecution and war, who have been left with no safe routes.”
The bishop of Dover, Rose Hudson-Wilkin argued the Bill lacked “basic human compassion” and was dehumanising, while Rabbi Charles Baginsky, the head of Liberal Judaism in the UK said we should see “the humanity on these boats and the lives that can be saved, rather than trying to deal with a problem by punishing the victims.”
Then there was the letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak signed by a series of charities, businesses, trade unions and legal groups accusing the UK of riding roughshod over human rights including language from ministers that could only “draw frightening parallels from history.”
‘A lower risk’
The reference to “history” came close to reflecting the views of Gary Lineker that kicked off the BBC’s Match of the Day shambles – that the Government had proposed “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 1930s…”
Lineker, who also pointed out that there is no “huge influx” and that the UK takes fewer refugees than other major European countries, was of course right in almost every particular.
And his views are shared by, “in language that is not dissimilar” by a wide assortment of bishops, rabbis, charity workers, business people, trade unionists and lawyers, and probably many millions other Britons.
Yet because Lineker presents a weekly football highlights programme on BBC television, the heavens fell in when he expressed such views on Twitter.
By general consent there was a technical breach of the BBC’s guidelines on “public expressions of opinion” which have the potential to compromise the BBC’s impartiality and to damage its reputation.
“The risk is greater where the public expressions of opinion overlap with the area of the individual’s work. The risk is lower where an individual is expressing views publicly on an unrelated area, for example, a sports or science presenter expressing views on politics or the arts,” the current guidelines say.
So there we have it. Gary Lineker, a former footballer expressing views on politics, represents “a lower risk” of damaging the BBC’s reputation or compromising its impartiality.
Yet Lineker was suspended by the BBC director-general Tim Davie from commenting on the outcome of Liverpool’s defeat at Bournemouth, even though far more egregious public statements have come from others associated with the BBC, but from the Right-wing side of the political spectrum, without anyone lifting an eye-brow.
Curiously Davie described his action in suspending Lineker as a “significant thing.” Damned significant: A significant error of judgement by a BBC DG lacking any editorial experience and one from which he was lucky to survive.
In fact Gary Linker has been magnanimous in enabling Davie to free himself from the spike he had impaled himself on by agreeing to return to work while a review is held on the guidelines.
Finding the right balance
A review may seem like a weak solution coming straight from a BBC comedy series W1A script, but it is actually a significant move as long as it is truly independent and knowledgeable people are involved.
The existing guidelines were probably put together long before social media became so pervasive and universal, and greater clarity is needed on what people who work for the BBC, in particular freelancers, are and are not allowed to say on social media.
It will not be an easy task to find where the balance should lie between an individual’s right to freedom of expression and their obligations to protect the BBC’s reputation for impartiality.
There are no mathematical formulae for such a task and in the end it will probably always be a matter of judgement, but the effort has to be made.
The review should sniff the current zeitgeist and err on the side of as much freedom of expression as possible for those not directly involved in BBC News and current affairs.
It would also be wise to totally ignore the ravings of the Right-wing press, which have been lashing themselves into one of their more irrational frenzies in the case of Lineker versus the BBC.
For the Daily Mail, BBC bosses have capitulated by allowing Lineker back into the studio “without further punishment” and that this represented a slap in the face for the licence payers.
It was a case of Lineker 1 – BBC credibility 0, according to the Daily Mail, although former BBC director-general Greg Dyke judged it a 5-0 win by the former England striker.
The usual suspects such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and backbencher Phil Davies called yet again for the end of the licence fee, while that well known public philosopher — Littlejohn — broadened out the intellectual debate by declaring: “Endless strikes, the small boats crisis and now the Lineker fiasco are proof that anti-Tory groupthink has taken control in Britain.”
Before those conducting the guidelines review have even been chosen, The Sun, even after the sad loss of Mystic Meg, can predict precisely the outcome.
Anyone who believes the “independent review” will crack down on anti-Tory bias will be disappointed. It is infinitely more likely to give staff and freelancers outside of news and current affairs the nod to tweet whatever they like, the paper suggests.
“Expect, then, a renewed barrage of Tory-hating, anti-Brexit tweets,” predicts The Sun, which could well turn out to be right.
‘Cruelty without purpose’
Davie, by belatedly correcting his misjudgement, has survived. The BBC chairman Richard Sharp may not be so lucky if no less than two inquiries into his behaviour as a go-between in organising an £800,000 loan for former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, find against him.
Meanwhile I’m with the Archbishop of York in describing the Government’s migration legislation as “cruelty without purpose” and “immoral and inept.”
Hopefully his views won’t get him into trouble with the Daily Mail and The Sun.
And with Gary Lineker, too, of course.
Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.