Newsrooms should apply social media policies fairly

The BBC was last week plunged into turmoil due to the backlash resulting from their decision to remove Gary Lineker, a celebrated sports personality, from the airwaves. Lineker, who hosts the popular Match of the Day programme, was suspended after using his Twitter account to criticise the UK government’s asylum policy in response to plans to prevent migrants and refugees from crossing the Channel on small boats.

The tweet stated: “There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”

The consequences of Lineker’s suspension were extensive. His co-presenters and commentators boycotted the flagship sports programme, disrupting BBC scheduling. As a result, BBC’s director-general, Tim Davie, was compelled to apologise to license fee payers.

What was wrong with Lineker’s tweet?

Like many other newsrooms, the BBC adheres to editorial guidelines and social media policies that govern the content and regulate the conduct of its employees on social media. The broadcaster expects its staff to maintain impartiality on political matters and comply with strict social media guidelines.

One of the provisions in the guidelines  asserts that “Everyone who works for the BBC should ensure their activity on social media platforms does not compromise the perception of or undermine the impartiality and reputation of the BBC, nor their own professional impartiality or reputation and/or otherwise undermine trust in the BBC.”

The policy highlights that those employed in news and current affairs, factual journalism production, and senior leadership positions within all Divisions hold “a particular responsibility to uphold the BBC’s impartiality through their actions on social media, and so must abide by specific rules set out in this Guidance.”

Consequently, these individuals are expected “to avoid taking sides on party political issues or political controversies and to take care when addressing public policy matters.”

The BBC deemed Lineker’s social media activity a violation of their guidelines, suspended him from hosting the programme and advised him to avoid taking sides on political controversies or party political issues. The controversy has since been resolved with an apology from the broadcaster and a commission to review the guidelines.

Questions have been raised regarding why Lineker, a freelance employee and not a news journalist or political presenter, is subject to the same strict guidelines.

According to a BBC article addressing the issue, Mr Davie has consistently emphasized impartiality to ensure that the BBC, funded by license fee payers, is for everyone. As a result, both staff and on-air talent are expected to leave their personal opinions outside the workplace.

The article explains that BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit has previously ruled that although Lineker is not a political presenter or news journalist and, therefore, not required to uphold the same impartiality standards as BBC journalists, he has “additional responsibility” given his profile.

The ruling emphasizes that high-profile individuals like Lineker are expected to be cautious when discussing public policy matters and to avoid taking sides on political issues.

Why the uproar?

Despite being informed by established guidelines, the BBC’s decision generated a hostile reaction. At the center of the debate is the issue of fairness in applying guidelines that ostensibly aim to uphold impartiality. Many commentators expressed concerns about double standards, pointing out instances where BBC presenters have been allowed to express similar opinions.

Former Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis notably referenced the case where Lineker was permitted to speak out about human rights in Qatar during the World Cup coverage. Maitlis questioned why Lineker could liberally express his opinions on Qatar’s human rights record with the BBC’s approval. Yet, he is not free to raise similar issues regarding human rights in the UK if it involves criticism of government policy.

These suggest that the application of impartiality guidelines may not be consistent.

Other cases from BBC’s complaints department have also been shared on twitter, where the broadcaster argued that a media personality who was the subject of a complaint was a freelancer, and therefore their twitter account was personal. In another instance, the BBC said that a freelance presenter’s twitter account had no connection to the BBC, and that “the constraints for a freelance presenter are not the same as they are for, say, a BBC news or current affairs presenter”.

These incidents have placed the broadcaster under intense scrutiny and sparked accusations of bias in implementing their guidelines, as well as concerns about free speech and a lack of clarity in the policy.

Role of guidelines

The BBC controversy has highlighted issues around social media policies for media houses.  Questions have been raised in some newsrooms about the significance of such policies when they have existing editorial guidelines that cover journalistic conduct in content production processes. However, with the growing use of digital tools in the news industry, media organizations design these policies to guide the conduct of their employees online.

In fact, many newsrooms encourage journalists to have online presence and promote the content of their news organizations.

While existing editorial guidelines might comprehensively cover journalistic standards, they may not address all the nuances of fast-evolving digital platforms. Social media policies thus help refine regulations around what newsrooms may regard as inappropriate online engagement.

These guidelines are designed to ensure that journalists maintain the same ethical standards outlined in editorial policies across platforms. In newsrooms, there are multiple layers of oversight, including editors at various levels, to ensure the content meets these standards. This is not the case for social media where individuals manage their content.

The growing influence of social media has also led to some journalists building strong online personal brands and consequently taking on roles as influencers for companies, promoting products, moderating dialogues, and hosting twitter spaces.

These options for journalists to earn extra income through social media gigs present challenges for newsrooms who may not approve the kind of content the journalists post. While they may be expected to uphold the same ethical standards as in traditional journalism, it is particularly difficult to police freelancers who largely earn peanuts and don’t enjoy the same benefits as staff journalists.

Still, some newsrooms closely monitor their journalists’ social media activity and impose strict penalties, such as suspension or termination, for policy violations. Many journalists are, therefore, aware of the benefits and costs of their social media use both personally and professionally.

When my former workplace introduced a social media policy around 2013, there was apprehension among journalists who saw it as an attempt to silence them on platforms that have become integral to their profession.

This is perhaps the case in other newsrooms and highlights the dilemma that newsrooms encounter when trying to implement such policies. For example, the BBC emphasizes the importance of using social media with appropriate regard for their values in their guidance, stating that “The reputation for impartiality is a huge benefit to the BBC, as well as an obligation, and should never be seen as a restriction, or as an inconvenience…”

How are the rules applied?

As demonstrated by the fallout between the BBC and Lineker, the creation and execution of such guidelines present challenges, particularly in cases where there is ambiguity in the clauses that specify their application to specific contractual obligations.

In a 2021 report by Columbia Journalism Review that assessed journalists’ experiences with newsroom social media policies, it was found that “Journalists believe their newsroom social media policies to be primarily focused on maintaining organizational credibility, specifically by discouraging journalists from sharing anything on social media that could compromise the perceived objectivity of the outlet as a whole.

That journalists feel their newsroom’s social media guidance is unhelpfully ambiguous and unequally enforced.”

In Uganda, newsrooms commonly rely on freelance reporters who do not receive the same benefits and protections as full-time staff, yet their social media activity may conflict with the guidelines of the media house they contribute to.

Such cases can indeed be challenging for media organizations to handle.

Nonetheless, guidelines play a crucial role in streamlining operations, but they should be fair, transparent, applied objectively and rationally across the board. Moreover, it is critical to periodically review these guidelines to adapt to the evolving social media landscape.

This is even more urgent for the BBC whose handling of the Lineker saga was not helped by the fact that two of its most senior executives have recently been linked to the ruling Conservative Party that felt the brunt of Lineker’s tweet.

It is perhaps time they do a review of the policies governing not just ‘tweeting presenters’ but the wider conduct in BBC governance.

The author is a journalist with keen interest in media development

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