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September 3, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:33am

New BBC director-general tells staff to work elsewhere if they want to share opinions online or in columns

By Charlotte Tobitt

The BBC’s new director-general has made renewing its commitment to impartiality one of its four priorities as he warned staff over their social media use.

Tim Davie, the former chief executive of commercial arm BBC Studios, told staff in a maiden speech that they must urgently “champion and recommit” to impartiality.

He said research indicated “too many” people view the BBC’s output as being shaped by a particular perspective.

Davie said: “To be clear, this is not about abandoning democratic values such as championing fair debate or an abhorrence of racism. But it is about being free from political bias, guided by the pursuit of truth, not a particular agenda.

“If you want to be an opinionated columnist or a partisan campaigner on social media then that is a valid choice, but you should not be working at the BBC.”

The BBC has commissioned its former director of global news Richard Sambrook to carry out a review of its social media use and how it can maintain impartiality.

Davie told staff to expect new guidance on how best to abide by impartiality guidelines, new “rigorously enforced” social media rules, and “clearer direction on the declaration of external interests”.

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There will also be training “to explore the tough, but interesting dilemmas that the modern world presents” while Davie said staff should spend more time outside the BBC hearing what people think.

Part of the reason for the drive, Davie said, is that despite huge audiences during the Covid-19 pandemic there is “significant risk” that “if current trends continue we will not feel indispensable enough to all our audience”.

“We must evolve to protect what we cherish.”

Former head of BBC Westminster Sir Robbie Gibb warned earlier this year social media “terribly distorts the way supposedly impartial journalists operate”.

Will Lewis, the former boss of Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal, and ex-Financial Times editor Lionel Barber have also both spoken out about journalists’ “unbecoming” use of social media to share their opinions and exclusive content.

Davie’s three other priorities in the short term are a focus on “unique, high-impact content” instead of spreading resources too thinly, doing more online, and building commercial income.

Davie said: “Of course, this will happen alongside our investment in providing trusted news globally via the matchless World Service and World News channel.

“We will continue to invest in these services but our ambition is to go further, and with the support of government, to reach a billion people globally over the next decade, further building the reputation of the UK and the BBC.”

Davie, who began his new role on Tuesday, also confirmed he will not push for a subscription BBC service “that serves the few”.

Paul Siegert, national broadcasting organiser for the National Union of Journalists, welcomed most of Davie’s words but said he can’t see how plans to cut journalist jobs, including 600 across the four nations and 520 in BBC News, “will help the BBC maintain its position as the UK’s most respected source of news or make the output world-beating and utterly distinctive”.

He went on: “If Tim Davie is making the case for further cuts down the line, then I cannot see how his vision for a more diverse BBC and one which provides a service for all its viewers across the nations and regions will be possible if  grassroots programming and journalism is further eroded.

“It’s the staff who make all this possible and they should be at the heart for any plans for the future and not have to face more cuts.”

Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

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