BBC boss Tim Davie to crack down on staff airing views on social media
Tim Davie is to crack down on staff posting their views on social media in a move to restore the view of the BBC as impartial, and raised the question of slashing the corporation’s output by a fifth, cutting more jobs and potentially shutting TV channels.
The new director general said the BBC had to focus on impartiality to address accusations of bias from politicians on both sides of the political divide.
“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 in a speech to staff at the BBC’s office in Cardiff. Davie said staff would have to adhere to new social media rules that will be “rigorously enforced”.
“We urgently need to champion and recommit to impartiality,” he said. “In the age of fake news, social media campaigns, echo chambers of opinion, and noisy partisan media outlets, this, surely, is our time.”
In May, the BBC stepped in to defend its political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, after she was accused of defending Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham in a tweet quoting sources insisting it was no breach of lockdown rules.
In February, Andrew Neil was accused of bias after tweeting that a no-deal Brexit would be the “EU’s worst nightmare”.
In March Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, claimed the BBC was failing to reflect the changing views of the country, such as on Brexit, saying it needed to be more “genuinely impartial” and avoid a “narrow urban outlook”.
“Importantly, it is not simply about left or right,” said Davie. “It is about being free from political bias. This is more about whether people feel we see the world from their point of view. Our research shows that too many perceive us to be shaped by a particular perspective.”
In May, the BBC reprimanded the Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis over a monologue attacking the government’s handling of Cummings’ lockdown trip, which it said broke “due impartiality” rules and belonged on the pages of a newspaper opinion page.
Furthermore Lewis Goodall, Newsnight’s policy editor, was accused of bias over a piece for the New Statesman criticising the government’s handling of the exam crisis that ran with the headline “How the government’s ineptitude created a lost generation”.
Davie also said there would be a crackdown on stars using their status at the BBC to make money working for private companies, saying there would be “clearer direction on the declaration of external interests”.
He also raised the prospect of a significant cut to the corporation’s output, saying it had reached the peak of growth on traditional linear TV.
“We are surrounded by global players with monster budgets,” he said. “We must pick our battles carefully and make sure we get the biggest bang for limited bucks. We have been too slow to stop things that don’t work. I want us to consider what we would do if we could only make 80% of our current hours.”
The BBC currently spends £2.4bn annually on content for its TV, radio and online service.
“What would we stop?” asked Davie. “We have no short-term plans to shut channels or radio networks. But I do think this moment marks the end of linear expansion for the BBC.
“As we move further towards an online world we will not hesitate to close channels if they do not offer value to our audiences. The evidence is unequivocal: the future of a universal BBC can no longer be taken for granted. We have no inalienable right to exist. We are only as good as the value we deliver our audiences, our customers.”
The corporation is considering reviving the online-only BBC Three as a broadcast TV channel, after a run of hits from Fleabag to the lockdown obsession Normal People pulled in the youth audience with whom the corporation is desperate to connect. Meanwhile, the future of BBC Four, which attracts a small, niche audience of mostly older viewers, remains in doubt.
Davie said the corporation needed to become leaner, highlighting that staff numbers at the licence fee-funded BBC have increased despite a cost-cutting drive. Staff numbers at its public service operation grew 5.6% in 2019 to 19,231, a year-on-year increase of more than 1,000, according to the BBC’s annual report.
“The truth is that, despite some excellent work, we have actually increased our public service headcount over the last three years and we all feel there is still too much bureaucracy,” he said. “We will keep a focus on cost reduction, so BBC UK public service headcount will be smaller.”
One of the key issues Davie faces is the future of the licence fee as a funding model and, ultimately, what will replace it when the current royal charter ends in 2027.
Davie said he did not believe in a Netflix-style subscription model for the BBC. “We could make a decent business out of it,” he said. “And I suspect it could do quite well in certain postcodes, but it would just make us another media company serving a specific group.”