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October 25, 2022updated 14 Nov 2022 7:15am

One BBC journalist disciplined over social media use in second year of Tim Davie’s guidelines

By Bron Maher

Only one BBC journalist was formally disciplined for breaking the corporation’s social media guidelines in the past year.

The second year of director-general Tim Davie’s social media use policies for BBC journalists saw fewer disciplinary actions than the first, when there were four.

The news comes shortly after the BBC’s political editor came in for criticism for tweeting unsubstantiated claims from Boris Johnson’s political camp.

[Read more: BBC News presenter Martine Croxall taken off air amid Boris bias claims]

Responding to a Press Gazette freedom of information request asking how many BBC journalists had been disciplined for their social media use between 1 September 2021 and 31 August 2022, the BBC said its records turned up one case.

The records covered only the public service broadcasting portion of the BBC – i.e., not the commercial arm BBC Studios – and only staff with the job title “journalist”. They also only included “closed formal cases dealt with under the BBC Disciplinary Policy”.

Last October, a similar FOI request by Press Gazette turned up four cases of staff being disciplined for online behaviour between 1 September 2020 and 31 August 2021.

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BBC director-general Tim Davie came into office in September 2020 promising to reinforce the corporation’s commitment to impartiality, in part by issuing new social media use guidelines for staff. The guidelines instructed employees not to “virtue signal” online or post criticism of colleagues. 

The BBC does not give further information on staff disciplinary cases for data protection purposes. However, the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU) did publicly rule on three cases involving its journalists’ Twitter use in the relevant period, resulting in one upheld complaint, one partially upheld one, and one that was “resolved”.

Asked about the disciplinary proceeding, a BBC spokesperson said: “This is not simply about formal disciplinary action – which is just one factor of many – in deploying the guidelines.”

In November 2021 the ECU upheld a complaint against World Service gender and identity reporter Megha Mohan, who it said had “implied criticism” of former BBC Radio 3 editor Edwina Wolstencroft’s “relations with minority groups while at the BBC” in a Twitter interaction.

The complaints body said Mohan’s tweet violated the BBC’s social media guideline that “staff should also not post offensive or derogatory comments or content on social media and avoid abusing their position as a BBC employee in personal interactions”. The ruling “was reported to the management of BBC World Service and discussed with Ms Mohan”.

In August this year, the BBC upheld the impartiality portion of a complaint against presenter Jeremy Vine. The complainant, a campaigner against a low-traffic neighbourhood in Chiswick, West London, accused Vine of perpetrating “a campaign of abuse” against his campaign group and being inappropriately partial.

The ECU disagreed with the former accusation (“Mr Vine was entitled to object to such personal abuse”) but upheld the latter, saying Vine’s apparent endorsement of the controversial low-traffic zones “was inconsistent with the BBC’s editorial standards”. The finding, again “was reported to the management of BBC Content and discussed with Mr Vine”.

The BBC also emphasised that “the finding had no bearing on any social media activity in which Mr Vine simply expressed his personal enthusiasm for cycling or called attention to its potential benefits”.

And in June 2022, former Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis (who has since left for LBC owner Global) was the subject of an ECU ruling after she retweeted an opinionated statement from one-time Conservative MP Rory Stewart.

The ECU decided the issue under complaint was resolved, however, because “Ms Maitlis posted two follow-up tweets before the complaint came to the attention of the ECU, the second of which said ‘for the avoidance of doubt I accept I should have added extra context – it was retweeted in haste – and was wrong to do’”.

[Read more: BBC chairman says Emily Maitlis ‘completely wrong’ on Newsnight monologue complaint]

The BBC is not the only publisher to have buffed up its social media guidelines in recent years. In May The Guardian warned staff against public slanging matches or scooping the paper’s website in advice that followed a series of high-profile intra-Guardian News and Media spats.

[Read more: Guardian tells staff not to publicly slate each other on social media]

Outside of impartiality, the BBC’s political editor Chris Mason received pushback on Twitter over the weekend for repeating the unsubstantiated claim former prime minister Boris Johnson had received the support of enough MPs to appear on the Conservative Party leadership contest ballot.

The day after Mason’s tweet – and similar other reports from across the UK media – Johnson dropped out of the race, although his camp claimed he obtained 102 backers, enough to get on the ballot.

Times columnist Jenni Russell accused Mason of “acting as [a] propaganda loudspeaker for Boris Johnson” with the tweet. Byline Times, the Peter Jukes-founded news site frequently critical of the Conservatives, charged that Mason “risks trashing the BBC’s reputation” with the tweet, as well as a BBC push notification containing the same claim.

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