“Ambiguity” around social media guidelines was to blame for the BBC Gary Lineker scandal, according to Ofcom boss Melanie Dawes, who was challenged on the “creeping politicization” of UK TV news during a committee hearing this morning.
Dawes, whose regulator has oversight of many elements of the BBC, said it is right that the corporation “retains responsibility for their own social media guidelines,” as the BBC prepares to launch a review into these guidelines as trade-off for Lineker returning to his Match of the Day hosting duties.
Speaking to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMSC) this morning, Dawes said there was “ambiguity” in the current guidelines that was “designed to give a degree of flexibility but didn’t achieve what the BBC wanted,” leading to the furore. Her comments came after Deadline revealed the BBC had failed to heed a recommendation three years ago that it examine rules for freelance presenters such as Lineker, which differ to the rules that news presenters must follow.
The chaos was caused by a Lineker tweet comparing the language around the UK government’s asylum policy to Nazi Germany. Lineker was stood down by the BBC, which led to mass walkouts and a heavily disrupted sports schedule over the weekend. Lineker yesterday said he would return to work and thanked BBC Director General Tim Davie, although sources within the BBC said Lineker had won out in the situation.
Dawes said “strict rules should be in place for news presenters but beyond that there are questions of freedom of expression.”
“This is a difficult issue which won’t be straightforward to fix and to some extent is about a level of trust, particularly with staff,” she added. “When it concerns freelancers, actors, presenters and contributors it is a different question. The BBC needs to weigh freedom of expression with impartiality.”
While Ofcom doesn’t oversee the BBC’s social media guidelines, Dawes said she had spoken with Director General Tim Davie over the weekend to “offer support that might be appropriate.”
She backed Davie to keep his post, calling him a “very effective DG,” but refused to be drawn on whether Chair Richard Sharp should resign, as many have urged in the wake of the separate Boris Johnson loan scandal.
Ofcom is preparing to unveil the BBC’s new Operating Licence next week, which will set out the quotas that the corporation needs to achieve in areas such as news, current affairs and children’s programing, while outlining how it can meet its mission and public purposes.
Some of these onerous quotas will be stripped back to help the BBC adapt to an online world and competition from deep-pocketed streaming services but Dawes said the BBC will instead be given fresh responsibilities to be clearer when it wants to make a change to its services.
“The BBC is not always great at explaining what it is doing,” she added. “Things can come out quite randomly so we are asking them to set out these changes upfront much more clearly.”
“Creeping politicization” of news
During a wide-ranging DCMSC hearing, Dawes was pushed by committee member John Nicolson on the “creeping politicization” of the UK’s TV news channels such as right-leaning GB News.
In spite of Ofcom’s rules preventing politicians from interviewing other politicians on news programs, Nicolson highlighted how Conservative MPs Esther McVey and Philip Davies will interview Conservative Chancellor Jeremy Hunt over the weekend about his budget, which Nicolson described as a “clear breach.”
“We are seeing a creeping politicization and ‘Americanization’ of news and it’s ridiculous to see [former Culture Secretary] Nadine Dorries interviewing [former Prime Minister] Boris Johnson [on Talk TV],” he added.
Dawes refused to comment until the Hunt interview program airs but stressed that politicians can interview politicians on non-news shows as long as due impartiality is met.
Separately, GB News was found in breach by Ofcom last week for anti-Covid-19 vaccination comments and Steyn resigned a few weeks ago over fears he would have to pay the fines out of his own pocket, at which point he referred to GB News’ in-house compliance officer as “Ofcom’s bitch.”
Dawes, however, welcomed the newly diverse nature of the UK’s TV news landscape.
“It’s a good thing to see more diverse media on radio and TV and a massive growth of what’s online,” she added. “They are challenging the more traditional players. When you compare what you get in UK with U.S. they are very different.”