The new BBC guidelines are a threat to a healthy democracy

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The BBC faces criticism from people across the political spectrum for perceived bias. The left accuse it of being full of Conservative Oxbridge graduates; the right accuse it of being stuffed with do-gooding lefties. Remain voters shame it for giving Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson a disproportionate voice; Leave voters are convinced that its coverage verged on making it a campaigning tool for Remain. On the whole, this suggests that the BBC gets it broadly correct. I myself feel it leans too much towards a sort of moderate conservatism, but then as a proud liberal leftie myself, I suppose that’s only natural.

The question of what exactly can be considered political is an interesting one. On the face of it, introducing new rules to ensure political impartiality in an era when it has never been easier to inform the world of your views makes perfect sense. But the reality of this, and the extent of Tim Davies’ new rules, are nothing short of a chilling attempt to placate a government that wants to be set free from the constraints of scrutiny and criticism.

Perhaps most headline-grabbing of these guidelines is the ban on BBC journalists attending LGBTQ+ marches, on the grounds that it is a ‘controversial’ issue. It is shocking that in 2020, supporting equal rights for LGBTQ+ people is considered controversial. That in itself is a political statement, and a phenomenally illiberal one.

Then consider how inappropriate it is that a white, Cambridge-educated male who has previously stood as a Conservative councillor is telling his staff that they can’t attend Black Lives Matter demonstrations or express their support for the movement. That is arguably more of a political statement than allowing staff the freedom to express their opinions in a personal capacity. I’m sure that sixty years ago, expressing support for the civil rights movement in America would have been considered controversial. Two hundred years ago, opposing the slave trade might have been seen as overly woke, hand-wringing liberal nonsense.

Much like the Section 28 laws, which were rarely enforced, the new guidelines have the potential to act as an effective deterrent to anyone affiliated with the BBC who wants to offer a critical opinion of the government or the prevailing political winds. Will writers now self-censor to avoid topics that may be seen as controversial? Will presenters feel pressured into soft-balling their way through interviews with ministers for fear of being seen as overly opinionated? We don’t yet know, but it is easy to see how this could happen. Impartiality does not mean amorality, and presenting a balanced argument does not mean an obligation to air hateful views simply because they are in opposition to someone else’s views.

What the BBC are trying to do is maintain the status quo in the face of not-so-veiled threats from right wing Conserative politicians who have always seen a publicly funded broadcaster as an unacceptably statist principle. But what is maintaining the status quo if not a solid and active commitment to small-c conservatism?

At best, the new rules are well-intentioned but dangerously misguided. At worst, they are a threat to free speech and a healthy democracy.

 

* David Gray is a musician, actor and writer based in Birmingham

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20 Comments

  • BBC staff are free to support BLM or any other movement once their salary costs and highly generous pensions aren’t forcibly funded by a licence fee. That’s the difference.

  • um…

    @PJ

    That’s a bit like saying that MPs, MPs staff etc can’t express a view because they are paid from the public purse.

    The test should be is rheir role one where political partiality would compromise their role. Civil servants for example. BBC news journalists for example.

    The situation for other BBC staff is more complex. Arguably they have their platform because of a compulsory levy on UKIP voters, Labour voters, Tory voters, lib dem etc.

    But “I am a militant free speecher”! The original article points out some of the ways that curtailing it is detrimental. But remember that some people found homosexually morally repugnant.

    We can help if next time there’s an opinion we find morally repugnant, we condemn it and argue against it but don’t demand the person be sacked

  • “That’s a bit like saying that MPs, MPs staff etc can’t express a view because they are paid from the public purse”

    MPs are elected. They are representative. That they hold particular views is the reason they’re MPs.

  • John Peters 30th Oct '20 - 6:15pm

    No one would give these people’s views a second thought if they didn’t work for the BBC. They are trading on the BBC’s (lost) reputation to espouse their views.

  • Steve Trevethan 30th Oct '20 - 6:45pm

    Is impartiality possible?
    Is it in the interests of a well informed populace and of democracy?
    Might it be more efficient, engaging and honest to encourage allegedly impartial journalists to show their real beliefs, attitudes and behaviours and to encourage them to join protests and so forth?
    Might such bring them more into the “Real World” economy/environment in which much the most of their audience live and from which they are detached by their remarkably high salaries?

  • Renata Jackson 30th Oct '20 - 11:58pm

    The dogs on the street know which social groups are overrepresented in the BBC and which ones are heavily underrepresented.

    LGBTQ+ marches are political. I have been to London gay pride in the last decade and, despite the commercialisation, there are still political aspects.

    Would a Countryside March be political? A lot of supporters would say it is not political, for exactly the same reason that supporters of LGBTQ+ marches would say they’re not. However, a good rule of thumb is that if it’s something called a “march” then it is political.

    Of course lines have to be drawn. Of course it is not always easy to see whether something is political or not. But a little humility from people like David Gray in recognising that their view on this is coloured by their own overton window would not go astray.

    It’s unnecessary of David Gray to highlight that the BBC Controller General is a “white, Cambridge-educated male”. Are we to preface every reference to Ed Davey with the words “white, Oxford-educated male”? This needless and pointless identity politics is the reason that the LibDems are now polling below the SNP in some UK-wide opinion polls.

  • In around 1987 only 10% of people said there was nothing wrong with same-sex sexual relations. It was only in 1985 that the Labour party had adopted pro gay rights policies and pro-gay rights views were regularly villified in the newspapers and used as political tactics.

    What is now mainstream was seen as quite revolutionary at the time.

    It’s also worth noting that acceptance for same sex-relationships fell for the first time since the AIDS crisis in 2019. But of course there is no culture war so that’s OK.

    https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jul/11/acceptance-gay-sex-decline-uk-first-time-since-aids-crisis

  • john oundle 31st Oct '20 - 3:04am

    PT

    Agree, I don’t care what the BBC does provided I am not forced by law to pay for it.

  • Fiona White 31st Oct '20 - 8:46am

    It looks to me as though the Conservative Party placeman at the head of the BBC is doing his best to destroy the corporation, probably at the behest of his political masters.

  • Anonymous bbc staff 31st Oct '20 - 9:42am

    As an engineer who drives a satellite truck I’m no longer allowed to protest (on my own time) outside of parliament.

    Are nurses banned from marching? Are teachers banned from taking a political stance? Are people working for ordnance survey banned from putting “vote lord Buckethead” on their Facebook profiles?

  • We will have to be extremely wary of the BBC becoming the mouthpiece of a dictatorial government, it is, with all it’s faults, still an important source of information and entertainment free from the endless adverts on other broadcasters output. Mind you there is plenty of room for improvement.

  • David Garlick 31st Oct '20 - 12:23pm

    When the BBC can no longer report on Political or political news then we are already in deep trouble.
    You may not pay directly for so called ‘independent’ viewing but remember that the shareholders set policy and advertisers support ‘popular’ material. The viewer has less control over content in the independent sector than it does over the BBC, little though that is.

  • Mario Caves 31st Oct '20 - 2:26pm

    Whatever happened to the “Freedom of the Press”?
    In a free society there should be no restriction on what topics any publisher or broadcaster should be able to speak. They should be subject to the normal laws of decency and not inciting violence for example, but those laws apply to everyone, including journalists.
    An individual can choose to not read, watch or listen to a particular commentator, but to censor journalists in any way is dangerous for the nation, truth and liberty.

  • john oundle 31st Oct '20 - 2:57pm

    Fiona

    Nope, the BBC has been successfully destroying itself for some time.

  • Ianto Stevens 31st Oct '20 - 5:53pm

    Thank you David Gray for your thoughtful contribution.
    Many of the comments so far illustrate well how much the BBC is under politically motivated attack and how much it needs people (of many contrasting shades of political opinion) to defend it robustly.
    I pay the licence fee. Journalists employed by the print media – The Guardian, The Spectator, The Sun etc are regularly brought onto, and participate in, BBC discussion and news items. Why should the views of Peter Hitchens or Owen Jones be thrust upon me?
    Most people shout at BBC programmes (or even turn them off!!) because offensive views are expressed. The strength of the BBC is that we are ALL offended SOME of the time and are brought into contact with the views of fellow citizens with whom we disagree. Given the pressures upon them, the BBC usually do a good job.

    Perhaps the licence fee has become, in times of media plurality, a weakness. People like @PT can moan that they are forced to pay if they own a television, so should have a veto on BBC activities. In my illiberal moments, I wish I had a veto on the activities of The Daily mail.

  • Ianto

    But unlike the BBC you are not forced by law to buy the Daily Mail.

  • Ianto Stevens 1st Nov '20 - 12:23pm

    That is why my last paragraph doubted the future of the licence fee, based as it is on owning a TV, even if you never watch the BBC. (I have never encountered such a person, living as I do in a liberal, small l intended, ghetto.)
    Perhaps we should move to a system where there was an automatic grant of x£/subscriber, index linked by law, paid by the treasury to any media organisation that had a minimum of y subscribers in the previous financial year. That would be a more level playing field. It might be even better and fairer if this grant was ONLY payable to organisations that could show they were not funded, like most national media, by one or a few large donors or owners.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 1st Nov '20 - 1:55pm

    David is correct here, but we really do not gain from referring to someone’s gender, colour, education. The willingness of leftish men to do that, is why so many women on the centre right but progressive thought spectrum, sound so refreshing today whether we agree with them or not on issues.

    The BBc is destroying itself. Non public broadcasting as its norm, endless silly programmes and a prison sentence for non payment of a nastily enforced compulsory monopoly funded levy, is what, in an era of self broadcasting on you tube et al, has destroyed its importance.

    We need a slim public broacasting BBc funded from tax via the Culture department, like our National theatres and galleries and concert orchestras.

    The BBC are an doing worse damage to their already tarnished image, with these pathetic new guidelines.

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