Why the BBC needs a social media overhaul

Until its social media guidelines apply to those at the top, the BBC deserves to be on the receiving end of criticism.

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The BBC is, you could say, having a bit of a weird one. Concerns about the impartiality of some of its most prominent faces have long been a semi-regular topic of conversation among viewers, Twitter users, and indeed BBC staff – but such calls were largely ignored, with complaints typically either too niche or too weak to warrant penalising anybody. But ever since the start of this election, some of the BBC’s most senior staff have begun to creep into the territory of questionable partiality and have clearly landed themselves in the space of social media cluelessness.

This morning came a fresh new example from this election’s the worst offender, Laura Kuenssberg. On Twitter, the BBC’s political editor claimed that Boris Johnson lying about checks at the Irish border was a deception equivalent to that of Jeremy Corbyn pretending to watch the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day. Her tweet has garnered more than 2,000 replies, despite its meagre 70 retweets.

This is not the first tweet that Kuenssberg has come under fire for in this election, she previously did so for calling the outrage about the Tories' decision to rebrand their press office’s Twitter as fact-checking service “daft” and for a thread undermining documents uncovered by Labour that revealed that the Conservative Party is seemingly prepared to use the NHS to negotiate a US trade deal. Kuenssberg has since updated her Twitter bio to read “I know it's fashionable, but even in 2019 there is nothing big or clever about shooting the messenger.”

Although Kuenssberg has one of the most serial cases of fat finger syndrome in this cycle, there are plenty of others making their way to centre stage. Andrew Neil, who is often lauded for his impartiality when grilling politicians from all parties, has a Twitter feed that is almost exclusively composed of retweeted content from the Sun and the Spectator – the latter of which he sits on the board for. Even Emily Maitlis, who has mostly escaped this trap, posted an extremely biased tweet on Thursday, heavily criticising the Gender Recognition Act and taking a stance on gender self-identification. She was also spotted today liking a tweet criticising Boris Johnson, saying his rhetoric was “fuelling racism in British society”.

There is an increasingly prevalent social media problem emerging at the BBC. And the problem isn’t strictly in the staff guidelines themselves (although their lukewarm vagueness doesn’t help). No, the problem at BBC is not that the rules are especially vague, but that senior broadcasters consistently flout them.

When it comes to impartiality, the BBC’s staff rulebook lists a few basic principles: not stating who you voted for, not advocating an opinion on policy or “controversial subjects”, and not endorsing one side of a political issue that is currently hotly contested.

“Expressions of opinion on social media can take many forms – from straightforward tweets or updates, sharing or liking content, following particular accounts or using campaigning or political hashtags,” it reads. “If for example a member of staff repeatedly likes or shares, without comment, content reflecting a particular point of view on a matter of public controversy it might create the impression that individual agrees with that view. Likewise, if a member of staff only follows social media accounts reflecting one point of view on a matter of public controversy that might create a similar impression.”

While you may genuinely believe a blatant lie about one of the most contentious issues around Brexit is just as bad as not watching the Queen talk while you eat your turkey, excusing anti-Tory criticisms as “daft” or not a big deal doesn’t help your “don’t shoot the messenger” case. And even if you want to say Andrew Neil’s role at the Spectator isn’t a conflict of interest, or that his feed full of political takes from the right-wing magazine’s UK and US teams doesn’t compromise his role at the state broadcaster, he regularly violates duty of care rules.

“We should consider whether we should post particular content to our social media accounts where we think it could put contributors at risk of significant harm – particularly when they are young or vulnerable,” the guidelines read, and a look at Neil’s timeline shows he repeatedly quote-tweets people with small follower-counts, to argue their presumably critical opinions (Neil, it’s worth remembering, has a follower count of over 996K). I say presumably because nearly all the accounts he quote-tweeted in the last month have disappeared – a reliable sign that the person was getting so much abuse that they locked their account, deleted the tweet, or deleted their Twitter entirely.

There are numerous other examples of slightly lesser offences, like Kuenssberg infamously messing up the definition of shitposting at the start of this election, or sharing the Twitter account of a man who called out Boris Johnson in a hospital to her one million followers because he had a history of campaigning for Labour. And, sure, while I might expect the younger members of staff to be better native users of social media than the BBC’s 70-year-old stalwarts, it doesn’t mean those broadcasters deserve to get away with it.

The BBC needs to learn to do one of two things: either sharpen its rules or enforce the ones in place. And until the rules at the BBC apply to those at the top, the broadcaster deserves whatever amount of red-faced criticism it’s currently receiving.

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Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.