The BBC continues to tie itself in knots as it seeks new ways to avoid applying the BBC Editorial Guidelines to presenter Chris Packham. The latest rule it has invented threatens to greatly reduce the subjects on which campaigning presenters can discuss, but the BBC has already refused to enforce it. The fiasco once again raises questions over why Mr Packham is subject to a bespoke package of unenforced rules, while other presenters are governed by the BBC Editorial Guidelines.
The BBC has previously claimed many reasons for exempting Mr Packham from the BBC Editorial Guidelines, including claiming that he is not a “regular BBC presenter”, instead choosing to apply unique rules that do not apply to other freelance presenters, such as a period of campaigning silence either side of his programmes. The latest rule was announced in a letter from Tom McDonald, BBC Head of Natural History and Specialist Factual Commissioning (16th November 2017), who said: “If Autumnwatch (or Springwatch, or Winterwatch) were to cover the issue of trail hunting then Chris [Packham] would not be permitted to present that item.”
Mr Packham has campaigned on a range of rural issues, and a restriction on discussing any of them would greatly limit the subjects on which he is now allowed to present on for the BBC. However, this new restriction was breached on the 24th October, three weeks before Mr McDonald wrote his letter, when Mr Packham presented an item on BBC Autumnwatch in which he took a stridently anti-glyphosate and anti-neonicotinoid position. He said: “in June of this year a certain group of pesticides, neonicotinoids, was proven to have harmful effects on bees, both honey bees and wild bees. And entirely separately, another controversial chemical, glyphosate, has also shown to be harmful to insects.”
The science is by no means as clear as Mr Packham suggested during this BBC broadcast, but no balancing view was offered and no efforts were made during the broadcast to highlight Mr Packham’s recent history of campaigning on this issue. As recently as 11 days before this broadcast, a Daily Express article entitled “Now EU wants to ban weed killer chemical” (13th October 2017) noted that “A ban is backed by the Green lobby and BBC Springwatch presenter Chris Packham.” Mr Packham’s campaigning on this issue was reported in the Farmers’ Guardian back in February in an article entitled “BBC presenter Chris Packham calls for glyphosate ban and brands NFU ‘anti-environmental lobby group’” (13th February 2017).
Given the new BBC position that Mr Packham is not permitted to broadcast on issues on which he has campaigned, the Countryside Alliance has asked why he was allowed to broadcast his personal campaign as if it were scientific fact on a BBC programme. The BBC’s Complaints Director Colin Tregear responded (4th January 2018) that “In light of comments Mr Packham has made previously about the use of pesticides such as glyphosate, I think it would have been better if he had not presented this section of the programme”, but went on regardless to assert “I do not believe there was a breach of the Impartiality guidelines on this occasion.”
Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Tim Bonner said: “The BBC has essentially given Mr Packham an enormous license fee-funded platform for his campaign against glyphosate, on the day the EU were voting on the issue. The whole debacle reinforces the fact that they simply need to enforce the BBC Editorial Guidelines consistently and fairly for all presenters. The BBC has issued public censures to other freelance BBC presenters such as Jenni Murray and Adam Rutherford, but despite inventing new rules it refuses to accept that Mr Packham is a threat to BBC impartiality and is unwilling to do anything to curb his campaigning.”