The BBC no longer wants its employees to share their personal opinions on social networks and has just issued new “guidelines” on this subject. These very strict rules, which if not respected could lead to dismissal, were accompanied by other instructions which are particularly reactive: the prohibition to participate in demonstrations or Pride Marches. Beyond the questions that this poses about the freedom of expression of journalists, and on the alleged neutrality that they are supposed to embody, we sought to know why the beeb is so fiercely attacking its woke staff.
Neither opinion nor criticism
The document, which is addressed to BBC collaborators, both salaried and freelance, lists a number of common-sense recommendations such as: “be open and respectful of a wide spectrum of opinions”, “do not publish when your judgment may be biased ”,“ do not sacrifice thoroughness for haste ”,“ do not share a link if you have not read it ”or even, very relevantly:“ do not consider social networks as reflections of the public opinion, your audience is mostly elsewhere ”.
But among all these recommendations, some seem particularly radical. If journalists follow this new regulation to the letter, they will now have to:
◼ Stop expressing personal opinions on political or “controversial” subjects.
This rule is valid for both their professional and personal accounts.
◼ Pay attention to their likes, RTs and even their following (tracked accounts).
They are considered as so many manifestations of the opinion of journalists, they are therefore to be watched and taken care of: “think about what your likes, shares, RTs, hashtags and those you follow say about you and your personal opinions and prejudices ”.
◼︎ Think before sharing an emoji
Because their use “may – intentionally or not – undermine an impartial publication”.
◼ ︎Avoid “virtue signalling” (a pejorative U.S term).
Basically, that they avoid showing their moral opinions, demonstrating that they are “good people”, as well as “RTs, likes or joining an online campaign to express your personal opinion, even if the cause is just”.
As a linguistics professor at the Guardian confirms, the use of such a term “in official documents is unexpected because it is loaded with meaning and used to criticize left-wing people”, and to add “What you’d usually expect to hear from the BBC or another media organisation is about maintaining objectivity. Instead, they’ve chosen to use this type of language, which feels a little bit sinister”.
◼︎Do not publicly criticize your colleagues nor your employer
Which effectively means “being corporate”. Not publicly criticizing one’s colleagues can be inferred as a prohibition on contradicting them, even if it means nipping any debate in the bud in order to give the illusion of a homogeneous BBC.
The beeb adds that there is “no difference between the way personal and official accounts are perceived on social networks” and that disclaimers such as “these tweets are only bind me” are not enough. And to add that the “personal mark” of journalists on social networks “will always be secondary” to their “responsibility towards the BBC”.
It is also specified that these rules also apply to content published in “private groups” or on accounts in private profiles. So even in the context of a private Facebook group on a subject far from the news or the subjects it covers, employees will now have to behave as BBC journalists and inflict neutrality on themselves as if they were perpetual spokespersons for the channel. This precision seems particularly abusive because it condemns in a certain way all these collaborators to give up part of their freedom of expression. In order to take no risks, they have to create anonymous accounts, or even abandon social networks.
On Twitter, some of the network’s journalists showed their finest sarcasm to comment on these particularly restrictive announcements, others boldly explained their refusal to adopt these rules:
Imbroglio and waves of indignation
In the wake of the publication of these new guidelines, inews.co.uk revealed that the BBC teams had also been instructed not to participate in certain types of demonstrations.
David Jordan, the director of the editorial policy of the group, announced on Wednesday October 28 in front of the executives of the company, that the new rules of impartiality implied “not to attend political demonstrations such as those of the movement Black Lives Matter or LGBT protests on pain of receiving a warning or being suspended ”reports I(news). This is confirmed by a former journalist of the channel.
Benjamin Butterworth, the reporter who follows the case for I(news), reports on Twitter that he has asked the BBC for details on the ban. The response from the audiovisual group only added to the confusion. The latter told him that there was no problem going to a Pride if it was considered a “celebration”. While these are political and protest events for the LGBTQI+ community, we can say – at least – that this is an oddity. Worse still: the journalist is told that the staff (who deal with current affairs) must not take a position in “the debate around the rights of trans people”, implying by this that there is debate on the subject.
The announcement of this additional restriction and these pyromaniac fireman’s explanations have aroused much indignation: in the LGBT + community, among fellow journalists, or even among unions, who regret not having been consulted before these announcements were made and are calling for a meeting as quickly as possible with the management of the BBC to clarify the situation. The news also elicited a reaction from some political figures.
BBC Director General Tim Davie then attempted to clarify the situation in an internal email: writing in black and white “There is no ban on attending Prides” but re-iterating that the rules were different for news reporters: “there is no problem with staff participating in community events which are clearly celebrations or commemorations and do not compromise the perception of their impartiality (…) They must make sure they are not seen taking sides in a political or contested issue ”.
Precisions which did not further appease the spirit, on the contrary; some internet users have even shared the link to the BBC’s contact form to encourage indignant people to complain to the network (like here or here).
If these announcements seem to target in particular certain stars of the group whose behavior on and off the air may have been the subject of controversy, it does not appease internally either. A journalist from the World Service (who wished to remain anonymous), told us that she did not intend to comply with these new rules which she describes as “an attack on [her] freedom of expression, which came out of the blue” and that her colleagues were also extremely upset.
“LGBT staff have told me of their incomprehension at the management’s very late update and feel that it has arrived too late to erase the anger and resentment caused”.
Rhammel O’Dwyer-Afflick, Director of Communications for Pride of London, also expressed concern, saying Davie’s words had created an ‘ambiguity’ over whether BBC employees could publicly show their support for the rights of LGBTQ + people, and add that:
“All BBC employees should feel free to attend events supporting the trans community, like Prides, as well as Black Lives Matters protests, without fear of the repercussions of such behavior.”
Finally, lawyers stepped up, arguing that such measures violated the Equality Act (UK anti-discrimination law):
The following week (November 5), Tim Davie sent a new message to his staff in an attempt, again, to appease the spirits:
“I was asked if the BBC supports its gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender colleagues. Let me be clear: we support you unconditionally ”.
Davie admitted that there had been an internal blunder and that managers had misdirected the directives. He also returned to the previously used term that had aroused the ire of transgender people: “It is not controversial to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, neither at nor off work”. And to recall that there is no issue with attending Pride or Trans-pride, but that it is “not appropriate to parade alongside a political party or a group calling for political changes ”.
Despite these efforts at clarification and appeasement, some employees of the BBC still seem worried about certain points of the new social media policy; on the vagueness surrounding the term “controversial subjects” (this vague term has also recently been used to justify the ousting of a journalist of a Ubisoft game), the ban on practicing “virtue signaling”, or on the fact of having to follow on Twitter people “who only reflect one point of view on a subject”. They shared their concerns with Pink News, especially on the subject of transgender rights or equal rights in Northern Ireland where the subject is particularly tense.
BBC under 🔥 by criticism
Given the stated restrictions, woke journalists are clearly in the sights of UK public broadcasting executives. Why impose such drastic and extremely restrictive measures on its employees ? And why target precisely a certain type of person, rather than just recalling the elementary rules of journalistic ethics or issuing guidelines, reminding in a neutral way of the restraint expected of journalists?
To understand management’s motivations, it is necessary to review the context of these decisions.
This national and international behemoth, often taken as an example of journalistic rigor and impartiality, is watched, read or listened to every week by 91% of Britons who warmly nickname it “Auntie”. Its reach, compared to that of other European public media, makes one realise its “elevated” status:
But today, the public group is being criticized from all sides. Target of the conservatives for a long time, it is now also being attacked by the opposition, in particular since Brexit1 in 2016, as Jean Seaton, professor of media history, reminds Le Monde: “Since Mrs. Thatcher, the conservative governments have regularly tried to cut its funding but what is dangerous at the moment is that Labor is also attacking the BBC”. One would tend to say that when a media receives criticism from two opposing camps, it is rather the sign of relatively neutral and impartial news treatment, but in this case, this contributes to its weakening.
The sacred BBC is also accused of not being representative enough of the population and too “London-centric”. However, as a public institution, and in exchange for its financing by the license fee, it is required to present a certain impartiality in its treatment of information and to speak to all audiences.
An observation shared by Jeremy Stubbs, specialist on the United Kingdom, former representative of the British conservatives in France and currently deputy director of Causeur magazine:
“It is clear that the BBC now no longer shares its original mission. We expect from it an impartiality that other channels do not demonstrate, but the BBC has strayed from its original mission. The public noticed this and it provokes a lot of anger”.
This global “turnaround” follows several warning signs: upon his arrival last September, the new Director-General of the BBC, Tim Davie, announced that he intended to impose new and stricter rules on his journalists:
“If you want to be a narrow-minded columnist or partisan social media activist, it’s a respectable choice, but you shouldn’t be at the BBC”
The former PepsiCo Executive and member of the Conservative Party had announced his firm intention to work “without political bias” and “guided by the search for the truth rather than by a particular agenda”. A speech from a public broadcasting group which that can surely be heard loud and clear.
A little less trivial – but nothing to condemn – the Daily Telegraph had revealed at the same time that the new director intended to recruit right-wing comedians to counterbalance its left-wing tendencies. Asked about the subject at the time by Le Figaro, Jeremy Stubbs answered a point that could help us understand Tim Davie’s current strategy:
“If ordinary people are against the BBC, it will not be able to survive thanks only to the liberal elite. Reducing the proportion of ‘leftist’ humor is purely strategic”
Finally, during a conference held during the Prix Italia award ceremony in September, BBC News and Current Affairs Director Fran Unsworth also warned of the danger that “online culture wars” weighed on public service channels and mentioned the importance for journalists to take hindsight: “We need to talk to each other and not get carried by social media bullies.”
BBC under threat from power
But the most threatening criticisms come from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has declared war on what he calls the “Brexit Bashing Corporation”. During the legislative elections of 2019, he launched a frontal attack against the TV license:
“You have to ask yourself whether that kind of approach to funding still makes sense in the long term (…). The system of funding out of effectively a general tax bears reflection. How long can you justify a system whereby everybody who has a TV has to pay to fund a particular set of TV and radio channels?
Reinforced by his strong parliamentary majority at the end of these legislative elections – and convinced once again that the BBC had been biased against the party – he had accelerated the pace by asking his ministers to boycott certain programs of the network, such as the Today show (very popular flagship Radio 4 BBC program), and by asking the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Rishi Sunak, to review the financing of the public network.
Mark Thompson (Director-General of the BBC from 2004 to 2012) confided to Le Monde last February that it was a “battle for democracy” which was underway for the public group:
“The threats the BBC faces are the most serious since its inception a century ago”
And indeed, to attack the financing of the beeb (which must be re-discussed anyway in 2022), is to threaten its survival, since license fees represent 3/4 of its budget. Johnson is also seeking to “decriminalise” the non-payment of the latter, while the BBC will probably reinstate its license-fee payment from over 75s in 2021. An obviously very unpopular measure, therefore a gift for its detractors to use.
Even though the lockdown and its coverage of the pandemic have allowed it to regain its central role in British life, and have led to a minor pacification of relations with the government, the BBC remains threatened and is trying, more or less subtly and effectively, to get out of the line of fire of criticism to which it is regularly exposed.
The reason for these new drastic rules therefore seems above all strategic-economic (since the two are linked), as a source inside I(news) confided, saying that “this change is obviously made to please the Daily Mail (conservative newspaper) and keep the BBC away from criticism”. The journalist we interviewed made more or less the same observation: according to her, the BBC thus seeks to respond to criticisms regarding lack of impartiality and shows “demagoguery” by adopting a “populist pattern”. For her, the audiovisual group must have wokes on board because it is “the price to pay if they want diversity”. Jeremy Stubb’s analysis of the situation is mirrored in reverse. For him, the BBC is implementing a “survival strategy” to respond to criticism and “try to regain the middle ground”.
In both cases, the result is the same; it is much less out of ideology or out of desire to tackle a typical employee profile than out of strategy that the beeb has enacted these new rules. An analysis shared by some Internet users, like this “Oliver R Mills”: “It seems to me to be an attempt to appear anti-woke and to repair the poor relations that the BBC has with Brexiters and the right”.
Note that in a context where – as we have just seen – the over 75s will be asked to start paying a license fee that they have not paid for 20 years, and even though they may be able to refuse to pay it without running any great risk, the BBC has every interest in winning back its senior audience – generally conservative – and in satisfying it.
Whilst we can imagine that the public channel had anticipated the reactions that this would provoke, how to interpret the blunders and the bad management of this “crisis”? What looks like amateurism could be explained by the network’s particular bureaucracy and the “disconnected” profiles of the directors, according to the journalist from the World Service, who wished to remain anonymous. For Jérémy Stubbs, “the controversy serves the cause” of the BBC since it leads to the mediatisation of the decided changes… However, it is possible to doubt that the network can rejoice in the earful that it has taken internally and externally.
A small step towards the door?
It is difficult to say if the strategy will really pay off. Turning BBC journalists’ Twitter accounts into bland and smooth news sources, meaning without added value or more interest than the channel’s accounts, does not appear to be a sound strategy, nor beneficial in the long run. At a time when more and more journalists are “brands” in their own right, a cynical mind could almost see a way to ensure that they lose value.
When the group’s new guidelines were announced, a French journalist mentioned the possibility of a more vicious strategy on Twitter; that of pushing people out by adopting drastic rules, in order to save money. The future will tell if he was right.
Meanwhile, just a few days after these controversies, the channel was already seeing its first “backlash” following the use of the term “virtue signaling” in its new rules. Like every year, in the days leading up to November 11, the poppie was worn as a sign of support for the families of soldiers who died or were wounded in action during the First World War. A distinctive sign, which one could consider as a sign of “virtue signalling”, which did not escape many Internet users. The channel reacted quickly, by arousing, suddenly, the anger of other TV viewers. We can only advise it to apply its own guidelines to itself next time: “do not consider social networks as reflections of public opinion, your audience is mostly elsewhere” 🤪
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