The BBC needs to update its social media guidelines for the modern world, Ofcom’s chief executive has told MPs after the row over Gary Lineker’s tweets.
Although the corporation’s editorial guidelines are ultimately outside Ofcom’s remit, Dame Melanie Dawes, the regulator’s chief executive, said that the row cut to the heart of questions about its editorial independence.
“They need to … to look at those guidelines and see whether they’re still right in a world of increasing use of social media, and look again at what they ask of contributors, as well as their staff,” Dawes told the Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee.
“There needs to be very strict rules for news presenters, but once you’re looking beyond that, questions of freedom of expression do become relevant. The BBC board needs to work out how they draw that line to safeguard the reputation of the BBC – including for impartiality.”
Dawes had consulted the BBC director general, Tim Davie, “a couple of times over the weekend”, she revealed, “just to find out where they were”, but ultimately gave the executive, who has come under his own accusations of bias because of his history as a local Conservative party deputy chair, her seal of approval.
Asked by the SNP’s John Nicolson whether he could survive as director general, she said he thought he had been “very effective. It is a hugely difficult job. The BBC have not had a great week, clearly. They are trying to find their way forward, and I hope that’s what they manage to do”.
But the Ofcom boss declined to give the same backing to the BBC chair, Richard Sharp, who has similarly come under fire for his role in arranging an £800,000 personal loan to Boris Johnson while Johnson was prime minster. “I don’t think I can comment on individuals like that,” Dawes said, adding that Ofcom “doesn’t have any role on BBC appointments”.
Dawes also committed to looking into a GB News decision to broadcast two sitting Conservative MPs, Esther McVey and Philip Davies, interviewing the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, on the Saturday before the budget. Citing Ofcom rules that say “no politician may be used as an interviewer or a reporter on any news programmes unless exceptionally or editorially justified”, Nicolson asked how the TV channel could be in compliance.
Whether GB News is found in breach of the broadcasting code depends on whether the interview counts as a “news programme”, Dawes said, or a wider programme in “current affairs”, to incredulity from Nicolson, who asked: “Two MPs are interviewing on a news channel, a Tory chancellor, about the news. That is a news interview?” Ofcom would look into the complaint, Dawes said.
MPs also quizzed the chief executive on the online safety bill, expected to be passed into law before the summer recess. For the first time, Ofcom committed to publishing its code of practice on the day the law is passed.
That code, which will regulate on how the largest social media sites moderate content on a variety of topics including child sexual abuse, hate speech, terror and intimate image abuse, is one of the most controversial parts of the bill, a mammoth piece of legislation. Technology companies are worried that a broadly drawn code could have a chilling effect on free speech. If the code is too strict, they say, they might be compelled to remove content if there’s even a fraction of doubt that it’s legitimate.
Other providers, such as Facebook’s WhatsApp, have cautioned that Ofcom has said little about the role of encryption in social media services. If the code requires even encrypted messaging apps to take action against illegal content, it could functionally work to outlaw encryption in the UK – an outcome that the WhatsApp boss, Will Cathcart, said would put the messaging app’s future in the country in doubt.