John Hardie (pictured) will not be lacking advice in the coming months. The BBC has announced that this former CEO and editor-in-chief of ITN and an executive vice president at Walt Disney will lead the independent review of its social media guidelines following the controversial row involving football pundit Gary Lineker.
The furore erupted in early March when the Match of the Day host, commenting on the government’s controversial Illegal Migration Bill, described it as an “immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.” The BBC took him off air, saying he had broken its impartiality guidelines. But following a walk out by fellow high profile soccer presenters, he returned a week later, with the corporation announcing the review to address “grey areas” in its rules.
With the announcement of Hardie’s appointment, I finally got round to reading the BBC’s “Guidance: social media” in detail ( https://www.bbc.com/editorialguidelines/guidance/social-media/ ). My conclusion is that, as regards freelance presenters, the current guidelines were a BBC hostage to fortune and presented an open goal to Lineker.
Well-meaning but vague, they furnished both BBC freelance presenters and executives (let alone pundits and MPs of both the political Right and Left) with decent arguments on either side as to whether Lineker broke the guidelines. The BBC says the revised guidelines must be “easy to understand, practical and deliverable.”
So what advice can I give as as a former BBC journalist, senior Ofcom executive who managed due impartiality cases at the regulator for a decade, and practising solicitor with a West End media law firm?
FIRST, based on my Ofcom experience, the BBC and everyone working for it need to recognise that impartiality rules MUST have an element of uncertainty. As I used to tell Ofcom TV licensees struggling to understand the due impartiality rules in the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, “it’s as much an art as a science”. It is not possible – or desirable – to set out a set of impartiality rules that can tell you in advance if any particular tweet by a BBC freelancer will breach the guidelines.
Why? Because it will all depend on the context.
SECOND, however, founded on 36 years of being a lawyer, the BBC guidelines need a clear test to judge whether a tweet will comply with the guidelines. This test seems obvious. “Is it probable that a tweet will adversely affect the BBC’s reputation for impartiality?” Of course the answer to this question will often not be obvious: it will depend on all the relevant circumstances.
So, THIRD, the guidelines need to explain what these circumstances might be. Who tweets? How often do they appear on the BBC? On which programmes? And what exactly does the tweet say? (If Lineker had not referred to “Germany in the 30s” his post would not have had the same sting.) How many followers do they have on social media?
FOURTH, the BBC needs some transparent and speedy procedure for applying its guidelines to particular tweets. Transparency of regulation, as Ofcom has pointed out several times recently, has been a weakness of the Corporation.
FIFTH, for any impartiality rules to work, there must be a common understanding and (some) flexibility. Freelance presenters need to appreciate that injudicious tweets (however heartfelt) have the potential to damage the BBC. BBC executives in turn must recognise that freelance presenters are not robot apparatchiks, but talented human beings with opinions and a right to freedom of expression. When common understanding of impartiality breaks down, robust action is often necessary. Witness (to take an extreme case) the coverage by TV broadcaster RT (formerly Russia Today) of the invasion of Ukraine. It was no biased that Ofcom snatched away the broadcaster’s licence.
Politically and culturally Britain is more divided than ever. But the BBC should be for everyone. An institution independent of government, giving voice to the range of opinions held across the UK – some of which will be on occasions be offensive and unwelcome to some viewers and listeners. To fulfil this role the BBC must be perceived by the majority of people to be reasonably impartial.
It will be fascinating to see how John Hardie and the independent review amend the BBC’s social media guidelines when they reveal their changes in a few months time.