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Will Twitter destroy the BBC?

Not unusually, the BBC came under fire last week for a supposed lack of impartiality – look on any day ending in a ‘y’, and you’ll find someone having a go at the corporation. What is interesting, though, is where this criticism came from. Two senior figures, former Head of BBC Television News Roger Mosey and Panorama’s former lead investigative reporter Tom Mangold, both spoke out against the BBC, and their criticisms carry weight. They’re worried about the direction of the corporation, and they both singled out Twitter as one of main reasons for this. What effect is Twitter having on the BBC, and will it prove fatal?

In his article, Mosey described a “battle” between older hands, who want to stay true to the BBC’s commitment to fairness and impartiality, and younger recruits who want to make it “more of a campaigning organisation in which journalists shape the agenda to harmonise with their personal views”. He blames “Twitter culture” for the rise of the latter – journalists who are deliberately speaking to their own narrow echo chambers, the kind that Twitter facilitates all-too easily.

Look on any day ending in a ‘y’, and you’ll find someone having a go at the corporation

Mangold’s piece was similarly damning. It focused mainly on a segment on the News at Ten which presented a hugely one-sided picture of Winston Churchill, but it asked a lot of wider questions too. He wrote that the corporation’s “bizarre obsession with youth, diversity and the ever-growing pressure of woke argument” is a colossal act of “self-harm”. He wonders why the BBC is chasing “Twitter trolls, the social media addicts, the young, the immature and the often daft” to become its “recruitment and audience target”, particularly as such people are a “minority audience”. He also quotes Trevor Phillips, who said that “the BBC has to recognise social change, sure, but it is not the institution’s role to lead it”.

The corporation seemed to hit a breaking point in April of last year, when director of news Fran Unsworth ordered staff to stop sharing political views on social media. In an email, she said: “We all have personal views, but it is part of our role with the BBC to keep those views private. Our editorial guidelines say BBC staff must not advocate any particular position on a matter of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or any other ‘controversial subject’. That applies to all comments in the public domain, including on social media. There is no real distinction between personal and official social media accounts.”

In a perfectly impartial news network, you wouldn’t know where the presenters stood on any issue, and that’s certainly not true at the Beeb

She added: “We are living in a period of highly polarised opinions on a range of subjects and the BBC frequently faces criticism for the way we report and analyse events, with our impartiality called into question. Many of these criticisms are unfounded and we are prepared to defend ourselves robustly where necessary. We also need to make sure our own house is in order.” In May, Richard Sambrook was appointed to review BBC presenters and programmes’ use of social media, and whether it breached impartiality guidelines.

Many BBC journalists on Twitter include a disclaimer that retweets and likes are not endorsements, but that simply doesn’t go far enough. It’s clear by looking at the Twitter feed of many presenters exactly where they stand on many of the big issues, and that makes it harder to see them as impartial figures. Take someone like Jon Sopel – he’s the BBC’s North America editor, and a look at his Twitter feed makes it very clear that he doesn’t like President Trump. That’s fair enough – a lot of people don’t – but it does invite the question of whether this animosity seeps into his news reports? (For the record, it does, and often.) In a perfectly impartial news network, you wouldn’t know where the presenters stood on any issue, and that’s certainly not true at the Beeb.

In May, Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis made the news with a controversial monologue about Dominic Cummings. It received hundreds of complaints, and the BBC eventually admitted that it did not meet their standards of impartiality. Maitlis was unrepentant, sharing and liking comments defending her throughout the proceedings, but several BBC figures were appalled by what they had witnessed. At the time, Mosey said: “The BBC’s traditional restraint has been swept away in the age of social media. On-air staff have been actively encouraged to engage with their audiences and to show their personality.”

BBC journalists can either be impartial journalists or social media stars, but I don’t see how they can be both

Meanwhile, former Newsnight editor Peter Barron wrote: “People at the BBC are concerned that journalists are more interested in breaking stories on Twitter than their own platforms. The nature of Twitter is driving broadcasters to be more eye-catching and that is leading into problematic territory.” This is completely true – journalists are often insulated in their own echo chambers, producing content that will appeal to their followers, and making what Matthew Syed calls “the tragic mistake of conflating the virality of its social media posts with the credibility of its analysis”.

BBC journalists can either be impartial journalists or social media stars, but I don’t see how they can be both. And as a large number of its employees are turning to the latter option, it’s threatening to shatter what Mangold calls the “holy contract” to be impartial. By essentially letting Twitter govern its output and producing material for a small demographic that doesn’t watch it anyway, the BBC is distancing itself from the country it is supposed to reflect. Criticism of the corporation has never been greater and the number of people turning away from the BBC has never been higher – this is the moment to act, yet the corporation doesn’t seem to even recognise the problem.

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