BBC presenters challenge crackdown on bias and 'virtue signalling'

Bill Gardner
·7-min read
File photo dated 11/05/16 of the logo of the BBC, which is reportedly set to introduce a Parliament-style register of outside earnings for its stars. PA Photo. Issue date: Thursday October 29, 2020. New director-general Tim Davie will bring in the rule as part of a crackdown on alleged bias at the broadcaster, according to the Daily Telegraph. See PA story MEDIA BBC. Photo credit should read: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire - Anthony Devlin/PA Wire
File photo dated 11/05/16 of the logo of the BBC, which is reportedly set to introduce a Parliament-style register of outside earnings for its stars. PA Photo. Issue date: Thursday October 29, 2020. New director-general Tim Davie will bring in the rule as part of a crackdown on alleged bias at the broadcaster, according to the Daily Telegraph. See PA story MEDIA BBC. Photo credit should read: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire - Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

BBC presenters appeared to undermine a new crackdown on political bias and “virtue signalling” only hours after the new rules were introduced.

A number of BBC staff and contributors challenged the new guidelines, that are supposed to “ensure the highest possible standards of impartiality” on social media, following heavy criticism.

Under the rules, those in news-related roles must avoid “virtue signalling” that could indicate a personal or political view, “no matter how apparently worthy the cause”.

James Wong, who makes regular appearances on Countryfile and Gardener’s Question Time, responded to the announcement (see below) by tweeting: “I am making a new series for BBC World News, so I guess these directives apply to me? To confirm, if they do, I won’t be following them.

James Wong - @Botanygeek, I am making a new series for BBC World News, so I guess these directives apply to me?, To confirm, if they do, I won’t be following them., ‘Virtue signalling’ isn’t an objective concept. It’s a weird alt-right insult. Pandering to it deserves no place in public broadcasting. - News Scans/News Scans
James Wong - @Botanygeek, I am making a new series for BBC World News, so I guess these directives apply to me?, To confirm, if they do, I won’t be following them., ‘Virtue signalling’ isn’t an objective concept. It’s a weird alt-right insult. Pandering to it deserves no place in public broadcasting. - News Scans/News Scans

"'Virtue signalling' isn’t an objective concept. It's a weird alt-right insult. Pandering to it deserves no place in public broadcasting.”

The term 'virtue signalling' was first coined by the Spectator magazine to describe those who say things to portray themselves as “admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded” without “actually doing anything virtuous”.

BBC News journalist Brian Whelan replied to Wong with: “Hi James. For balance, can you please now also tweet the opposite of what you believe?”

Radio 5 Live presenter Nihal Arthanayake tweeted: “Looks like I won't be calling racists rude words anymore.“

Earlier this week, Mr Wong criticised a potential inquiry into the National Trust following its controversial review into links to the British empire and slavery, posting: “An organisation dedicated to history is facing investigation for, well, teaching history.”

Other BBC presenters appeared to take issue with new guidance against using emojis for fear of revealing an opinion on a political or controversial issue.

The newsreader Huw Edwards, who has frequently spoken out on issues including the teaching of the Welsh language in schools, responded by defiantly tweeting a string of Welsh flag emojis, adding: “The BBC’s new social media guidance says that the 'use of emojis can – accidentally, or deliberately – undercut an otherwise impartial post.'"

Faisal Islam, the BBC’s economics editor, and Aled Haydn Jones, the head of BBC Radio 1, were among staff members who tweeted their own emojis in support.

Meanwhile, the Radio 4 presenter Sangita Ryska ended a stream of tweets supporting a statue of the nurse Mary Seacole by saying: “I’ll stop now. Who knows, I’m probably breaking the BBC’s new social media guidelines on impartiality... Grrrr.”

A BBC source said of the apparent backlash: “Some of it is just banter. Some of it will be pushed back. If nothing else, it shows why we needed to tackle this issue head on.”

The new guidelines are part of an attempt by the BBC’s new director-general Tim Davie (see video, below) to tackle repeated accusations of political bias at the BBC following a review led by Richard Sambrook, a former BBC executive.

Those who break the rules face “possible termination of employment in serious circumstances” while freelancers and contractors will face “consequences including non-renewal or termination of contract”. 

All BBC employees including freelancers are bound by most of the rules although the toughest guidelines apply only to staff in news-related jobs.

However, Gary Lineker, the freelance Match of the Day host criticised for attacking Brexit and the Conservative government, is likely to face further pressure to stop airing his views as part of a new category of high-profile presenters with “additional responsibility to the BBC because of their profile on the BBC”.

“We expect these individuals to avoid taking sides on party political issues or political controversies and to take care when addressing public policy matters,” the guidance states.

A BBC source said: “We’re not naming names but it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to work out who these rules might be aimed at.”

Last month Lineker (below) claimed the BBC had never asked him to tone down his tweets, and recently posted a letter written by a grateful refugee invited to stay at his home, who wrote: “I was worried that you might be unfriendly and conservative but it was all reverse to what I thought.”

EMBARGOED TO 0001 WEDNESDAY JUNE 19 For use in UK, Ireland or Benelux countries only Undated BBC handout photo of Gary Lineker, who will ask why his grandfather was branded a "D-Day Dodger" in a new Second World War documentary for BBC One. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Wednesday June 19, 2019. The Match Of The Day host's grandfather "risked life and limb" on the front line in a key campaign in Italy. See PA story SHOWBIZ Lineker. Photo credit should read: BBC/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: Not for use more than 21 days after issue. You may use this picture without charge only for the purpose of publicising or reporting on current BBC programming, personnel or other BBC output or activity within 21 days of issue. Any use after that time MUST be cleared through BBC Picture Publicity. Please credit the image to the BBC and any named photographer or independent programme maker, as described in the caption. -  BBC/PA Wire
EMBARGOED TO 0001 WEDNESDAY JUNE 19 For use in UK, Ireland or Benelux countries only Undated BBC handout photo of Gary Lineker, who will ask why his grandfather was branded a "D-Day Dodger" in a new Second World War documentary for BBC One. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Wednesday June 19, 2019. The Match Of The Day host's grandfather "risked life and limb" on the front line in a key campaign in Italy. See PA story SHOWBIZ Lineker. Photo credit should read: BBC/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: Not for use more than 21 days after issue. You may use this picture without charge only for the purpose of publicising or reporting on current BBC programming, personnel or other BBC output or activity within 21 days of issue. Any use after that time MUST be cleared through BBC Picture Publicity. Please credit the image to the BBC and any named photographer or independent programme maker, as described in the caption. - BBC/PA Wire

Other new rules adopted by the BBC included a ban on journalists criticising their colleagues on social media, and using disclaimers like “my views not the BBC’s” to escape accusations of bias.

Journalists and presenters must also take care not to put their “personal brand” on Twitter ahead of the BBC’s reputation, and should avoid making their views known even on private WhatsApp groups.

“Do not mistake social media networks as accurate reflections of public opinion; your audience is overwhelmingly elsewhere,” the guidelines warn.

The rules also tell staff working in news, current affairs and factual journalism production, such as Countryfile, The One Show and Woman’s Hour, and as well as all senior leaders, that they may not reveal how they have voted or express support for any political party.

Journalists have also been told they must not support campaigns, such as through the use of hashtags “no matter how apparently worthy the cause or how much their message appears to be accepted or uncontroversial.”

The BBC will also introduce a Parliament-style register of outside earnings for staff making money on the side from hosting corporate events.

Tim Davie, new Director General of the BBC, arrives at BBC Scotland in Glasgow for his first day in the role. PA Photo. Picture date: Tuesday September 1, 2020. The former chief executive of BBC Studios, the corporation's commercial production and distribution arm, is expected to set out his plans for the broadcaster in the coming week, with impartiality a key focus. See PA story MEDIA BBC.  - Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Tim Davie, new Director General of the BBC, arrives at BBC Scotland in Glasgow for his first day in the role. PA Photo. Picture date: Tuesday September 1, 2020. The former chief executive of BBC Studios, the corporation's commercial production and distribution arm, is expected to set out his plans for the broadcaster in the coming week, with impartiality a key focus. See PA story MEDIA BBC. - Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

A quarterly summary of these events will be published, starting in the new year, for all senior leaders, presenters and on-air staff working in journalism roles across the BBC.

Question Time host Fiona Bruce, BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty and North America editor Jon Sopel have all been previously criticised for taking on other paid work.

In an email to BBC staff, director-general Tim Davie wrote: “Impartiality is the foundation on which we deliver insightful, exciting and ground-breaking stories. These guidelines are intended to help us continue to deliver this, and build audience trust.