We expect our news organisations and their reporters to be impartial but, as Stephen Parker writes, social media posts are undermining the long held convention.
The BBC, widely regarded as the international standard-bearer for public broadcasting, has disciplined four of its journalists for breaching social media guidelines that ban virtue signalling.
While unprecedented, it’s not surprising under the leadership of the relatively new BBC Director-General Tim Davie who said in recent weeks “culture wars are raging” in the BBC and it “has work to do” to on its impartiality.
It’s relevant here as our government approaches a decision on whether to merge TVNZ and RNZ into a new, mega, public broadcaster. And, issues of trust and impartiality in the media generally are being raised as the Government roles out its $55 million package to support public interest journalism.
Most local journalists, and particularly political reporters, are active on Twitter. Many are willing to advance a personal view on an issue, policy or personality. That said, the political editors of TVNZ and RNZ are careful to play it with a straight bat.
The BBC has provided scant details about the disciplining of four of its journalists for breaching the new guidelines than ban virtue signalling on private social media accounts.
It came down to the UK industry publication The Press Gazette to use an official information request to gather the information.
It revealed the four journalists in the BBC’s public service broadcasting division were formally dealt with under the BBCs disciplinary employment guidelines.
The term “virtue signalling” is used to describe moral grandstanders who tell others they strongly support a cause but don’t actually do anything to bring about change.
According to The Guardian, “BBC guidelines define it more narrowly as retweets, likes or joining online campaigns to indicate a personal view.”
The newspaper says: “BBC journalists have also been warned to avoid attending most protest marches, even in a personal capacity, to avoid the perception of bias.”
Undoubtedly it’s a result of the BBC’s new Director-General, Tim Davie, who’s been in the job a year.
From the start, Davie said “impartiality” was a pillar of his management and immediately set new social media guidelines for news and current affairs staff, and senior management.
“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,” he said at the time.
It means editorial staffers are required to treat personal Facebook and Twitter accounts as if they are BBC output complying with its strict editorial standards.
And BBC staff were told to be wary of “revealed bias”, whether through likes or reposting other people’s posts so that a bias becomes evident, and “inferred bias”, where loose wording in an otherwise impartial post can allow readers to infer bias where there is none.
News of employment disciplining of four BBC reporters under the virtual signalling guidelines came after the BBC Director General and the Board Chairman appeared before the House of Commons Media committee last month.
Davie was again frank about his editorial strictures.
“I have been very open about the fact that we are vulnerable, like every institution, to groupthink and having a certain type of person. This is a really big topic in terms of the BBC’s culture, but I want a deep sense of belonging for different views and different people.”
“Culture wars are raging. We have a real battle on our hands,” he said.
While the BBC Director-General was arguing for BBC impartiality at the committee, he and the Board Chairman at the same time faced controversy over perceived political interference from the Conservatives.
Questions were raised about whether a BBC board member with Conservative Party links had attempted to veto the employment of a 3rd tier newsroom manager who had previous tweeted criticism of Boris Johnson and Brexit. The BBC board denies inappropriate influence (The newsroom manager got the job but deleted 16 thousand personal tweets).
And Davie himself, who has a long employment history with the BBC’s commercial operations, faces many detractors because he once stood as a Conservative candidate.
The culture wars are indeed raging within the BBC. It is not difficult to imagine the fire soon spreading to our own media companies.