The BBC will launch an independent review of its social media guidelines following its row with Gary Lineker over his tweet criticising Government immigration policy.
BBC director-general Tim Davie said the current social media guidelines contain “grey areas” that had caused confusion over the past week.
The review will look in particular at how the guidelines apply to freelances outside news and current affairs, such as Lineker.
The row began last week when Lineker responded to the Government’s Illegal Migration Bill by saying it was “just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s…”
After he was asked on Friday to step back from presenting Match of the Day while the BBC came to an “agreed and clear position on his use of social media”, much of the BBC’s sports broadcasting was cancelled or altered after many presenters, commentators and other staff said they would not work out of solidarity.
The BBC came to an agreement with Davie on Monday morning. Davie said in a statement: “Everyone recognises this has been a difficult period for staff, contributors, presenters and, most importantly, our audiences. I apologise for this. The potential confusion caused by the grey areas of the BBC’s social media guidance that was introduced in 2020 is recognised. I want to get matters resolved and our sport content back on air.
“Impartiality is important to the BBC. It is also important to the public. The BBC has a commitment to impartiality in its Charter and a commitment to freedom of expression. That is a difficult balancing act to get right where people are subject to different contracts and on air positions, and with different audience and social media profiles. The BBC’s social media guidance is designed to help manage these sometimes difficult challenges and I am aware there is a need to ensure that the guidance is up to this task. It should be clear, proportionate, and appropriate.
“Accordingly, we are announcing a review led by an independent expert – reporting to the BBC – on its existing social media guidance, with a particular focus on how it applies to freelancers outside news and current affairs. The BBC and myself are aware that Gary is in favour of such a review.
“Shortly, the BBC will announce who will conduct that review. Whilst this work is undertaken, the BBC’s current social media guidance remains in place.
“Gary is a valued part of the BBC and I know how much the BBC means to Gary, and I look forward to him presenting our coverage this coming weekend.”
Lineker said in an accompanying statement: “I am glad that we have found a way forward. I support this review and look forward to getting back on air.”
Davie has also told BBC News Lineker has “agreed to abide by the [current social media] guidance while the independent review takes place”.
Davie introduced the BBC’s current social media guidelines in October 2020 soon after his arrival at the corporation. The guidelines stated that staff in news and current affairs and other factual journalism, along with all senior leaders, would be held to higher standards on impartiality regarding their personal posts than other employees.
The guidelines said that BBC employees, contractors and freelances should never express personal opinions on matters of public policy, politics or “controversial subjects” on either professional or personal accounts – if their work requires them to maintain their impartiality. In the first year of the new guidelines, four BBC journalists were formally disciplined over their social media use, while one was disciplined in the following year.
Monday’s agreement came after ex-BBC director of news James Harding said on Monday that the row was “part of a bigger muddle on impartiality”.
Harding, who co-founded “slow news” start-up Tortoise Media after leaving BBC News, said the broadcaster should not be able to “police” the opinions of every contributor outside its news and current affairs division for whom it is a “completely different” situation.
Speaking on the Radio 4 Today programme, Harding said: “I think it’s part of a bigger muddle on impartiality… Why do we care about impartiality? We care about making sure that a publicly-funded broadcaster that delivers news and information that informs the country is impartial, but people can make up their own minds on political issues.
“But you can’t get to a world in which the BBC is policing the opinions of every writer, director, musician, sports personality, scientist, business entrepreneur.
“Not only can you not actually do it, but the principle is wrong. The principle is wrong because it will actually deter people from joining the BBC, it will diminish the BBC.
“But, even more importantly, there are freedom of speech principles here. Those people have lives beyond the BBC and should be able to give voice to what they say.”
Dame Patricia Hodgson, former chairwoman of Ofcom and ex-BBC director of policy, appeared to agree.
She said: “I think that we’ve been asking the wrong question over the last week. The issue – and it’s not clear – is how we combine free speech with respect for that BBC brand; that’s to say the way that the BBC respects the opinions of the range of people it serves.
“So it seems to me that, on social media, people strongly associated with the BBC should be able to express their own opinions, including public opinions.
“That’s to say celebrities, people in sport and entertainment, not the news staff, providing they do so with respect for the BBC brand, respecting others, avoiding what might be thought to be aggressive or in some way stoking culture wars, and that’s the challenge that we’re seeing worked out in front of us.”
On Sunday afternoon National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet described the situation as a “whirling chaos” and said it was “causing mounting concern and frustration amongst journalists across the corporation.
“Freelance and staff journalists and presenters at the BBC have been put in a stressful and invidious position this weekend, with no sign of this crisis abating.”
The sports crisis came just days before hundreds of BBC journalists across England are expected to walk out on strike over cuts to local radio and plans for increased programme sharing between stations. The 24-hour walkout will begin at 11am on Wednesday, the day of Jeremy Hunt’s first Spring Budget.
Stanistreet said: “Rather than allow even more programme cuts and cancellations to kick in come 11am on Wednesday, the NUJ calls on the BBC to engage fully with the concerns of members who work across BBC Local, and come up with a workable compromise and sustainable solution.”
BBC chairman Richard Sharp is also facing growing pressure to resign as the corporation’s policy on impartiality has been called into question.
Sharp, who was appointed chairman in February 2021, has been embroiled in a cronyism row over helping former prime minister Boris Johnson secure an £800,000 loan facility in recent months. An investigation is being undertaken into his appointment but he now faces renewed scrutiny following the Lineker row.
Stanistreet said: “Many NUJ members have been asking the question this weekend – where is the Chairman? Not out there batting for the BBC and its reputation, that’s for sure. Richard Sharp has ducked for cover, because his own behaviour and poor conduct is part of the crisis facing the BBC.”
Additional reporting by PA Media
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