New BBC guidelines extend 'due impartiality' to religion

The BBC has changed its editorial guidelines to ensure that subjects such as religion and science are treated with due impartiality.

The change has come about as a result of a review of the BBC’s editorial guidelines by governing body, the BBC Trust.

The 2005 guidelines stated that “controversial subjects” which must be treated with due impartiality were solely matters of public policy or political/industrial controversy.

The new guidelines extend the definition of “controversial subjects” to include religion, science, culture and ethics.

The trust said: “In practice, this means that when BBC content deals with controversy within these subjects, it must be treated with a level of impartiality adequate and appropriate to the content, taking account of the nature of the content and the likely audience expectation.”

The BBC has further beefed up its guidelines on religion by stating that “any content dealing with matters of religion and likely to cause offence to those with religious views must be editorially justified and must be referred to a senior editorial figure”.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said the new religion rules go to far: ‘Although we are not suggesting that contributors should go out of their way to be needlessly offensive, this is an entirely retrograde step that will put severe restrictions on comedians, documentary makers, satirists and commentators who want to be critical of religion. Almost anything that isn’t wholly reverential towards religious beliefs can be perceived as offensive by some believers. The idea that any comment that could be offensive to a religious person must be editorially approved shows that the BBC has become ridiculously timid and fearful of religious controversy.

‘Pressure from religious groups has caused the BBC to severely curb free speech in the area of religion. This is dangerous in these days of dangerous fundamentalism, when it has never been more important to hold religion up to forensic scrutiny, even if it offends followers. In a multicultural society no one should have the right not to be offended.

‘The BBC has done a disservice to its journalists, its entertainers and to the country as a whole by putting this wholly unjustifiable restriction in place. It diminishes free speech in Britain at a time when it is already under severe threat from religious quarters.”

Other changes include a new guideline on protecting international controbutors to the BBC from repercussions in their own countries.

Following upheld complaints about BBC coverage of the launch of a U2 album in 2009, and a Radio One ‘Harry Potter Day’ the same year, the new guidelines now require BBC staff to take account the ‘cumulative effect’ that repeated mentions of a particular brand or product over a short period may have in providing undue prominence.

Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, said: “We recognise the need for the BBC to be original, surprising and sometimes edgy. At the same time it must be fair, accurate, impartial and avoid giving broad offence.

“The need to get that right lies at the heart of these editorial guidelines – it’s always been clear that the public expects the very highest standards from the BBC, and the editorial guidelines are a vital tool in achieving that.

“It’s important to get them right, but it’s also important to ensure that they’re implemented in a way that does not over-complicate the making of great programmes. The Director-General and his team should continue to ensure that processes are made clear and simple, and that everyone understands what is expected of them.”

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