By Jim Waterson Media editor, The Guardian
Non-politicised participation allowed, Tim Davie says, as newsrooms call for clarity on new impartiality rules
BBC journalists are pressing for greater clarity on whether they are allowed to attend events in support of transgender rights or publicly back anti-racism campaigns, after the corporation was forced to clarify new rules on impartiality.
On Thursday, the BBC introduced fresh guidelines designed to improve the public perception of the impartiality of its news staff. They included telling news staff to avoid any online “virtue signalling” that could indicate a political view, and an explicit ban on attending most protest marches, even in a personal capacity.
Journalists in newsrooms across the UK were told by managers that, while Pride marches were not explicitly mentioned in the guidelines, they were likely to be covered by the new rules.
The BBC did not dispute that was what staff had been told but, after an outcry from politicians and LGBT campaigners, the director general, Tim Davie, clarified the rules and blamed “inaccurate commentary” for spreading concern. He told staff on Friday morning they would still be allowed to attend LGBT Pride marches, providing they remained celebratory and individuals were not seen to be taking a stand on any “politicised or contested issues”.
He said: “Attending Pride parades is possible within the guidelines, but due care needs to be given to the guidance, and staff need to ensure that they are not seen to be taking a stand on politicised or contested issues.”
BBC news staff and senior managers would be welcome to attend “community events that are clearly celebratory or commemorative and do not compromise perceptions of their impartiality”.
The definition of what counts as a “politicised or contested” issue in the context of a Pride march is less clear, especially given recent debate over transgender rights and the government’s decision to drop reforms to the Gender Recognition Act.
The organisers of Manchester Pride, who have worked closely with the BBC, said the warning about taking part in politicised aspects of Pride events “sends a message to people everywhere that LGBTQ+ rights are a matter of partiality.
“The lives of trans or black people are not up for debate, and supporting marginalised groups who face discrimination should be encouraged, not weaponised and considered political bias. We believe that organisations like the BBC should stand firm and recognise that anti-trans, like anti-L, G, or B, is not OK.”
BBC sources emphasised that the guidelines were an overarching framework and the judgment call on whether attendance at a march breached impartiality rules was likely to be made by managers on a case-by-case basis.
Some news staff were told by managers that showing support for Black Lives Matter rally in a personal capacity would be likely to count as a breach of the impartiality rules, although the BBC has not formally published guidance to this effect. Earlier this year the corporation blocked its sports staff from wearing Black Lives Matter badges, after deeming it was a political campaign.
Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, called for an urgent meeting with Davie over concerns the rules could “constrain individuals’ ability to meaningfully participate and engage in issues that matter to them”.
The policies reveal a clash between the BBC’s internal efforts to attract a more diverse workforce, and the external political pressure from Conservative politicians accusing its coverage of being too “woke”. This can lead to the corporation trying to recruit more LGBT staff or people of colour to its news division, while at the same time stopping them for speaking out on issues that directly affect their lives in case it is perceived to be biased.
Last year the BBC in Northern Ireland pulled out of official involvement with Belfast Pride after a politician complained its involvement could demonstrate bias in favour of same-sex marriage, which at that point had not been legalised in the region. Some prominent LGBT campaigners, including Peter Tatchell, have been campaigning for Pride marches to become more political.
BBC staff who do not work in the news, current affairs, or factual divisions are not affected by the ban on marches, although the interpretation of the rules is still being worked out.
Other BBC employees questioned managers on whether the ban on “virtue signalling” support for campaigns on social media, no matter how worthy, would extend to the Royal British Legion’s annual poppy appeal and topics such as the BBC’s Children in Need fundraising events.