Yesterday, in a speech broadcast internally, new Director General of the BBC, Tim Davie, told BBC staff that: “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”. His words echoed almost exactly the challenge I made to the BBC about its star presenter Chris Packham five years ago.
Then, in response to a fairly outrageous comment piece in BBC Wildlife Magazine in which he branded everyone engaged in farming, shooting and hunting as “the nasty brigade”, I wrote that whilst Chris Packham was entirely entitled to his views and should be able to express them, he should not be able to use the position gifted to him by the BBC to promote a partisan agenda. He should therefore either refrain from inflicting his extreme views on the rest of the population or the BBC should stop employing him. This would not seem to have been a particularly radical comment since the BBC claimed to have strict editorial guidelines which guaranteed that its impartiality could not be challenged. The response, however, was extraordinary as Mr Packham posted tearful videos on YouTube, every animal rights extremist on social media leapt to his defence and newspaper columnists were wheeled out to condemn the idea that the state broadcaster should exert some control over the output of its highly paid presenters.
We launched an official complaint about the original article in which a BBC presenter, Chris Packham, attacked the rural community in a BBC magazine. The complaint was, of course, rejected by the BBC and ended up with the ‘independent’ BBC Trust which, at the time, was the court of appeal for complaints to the BBC. The Trust had a problem in that the complaint was well founded and Mr Packham was clearly in breach of BBC editorial guidelines. It therefore decided that the guidelines did not apply because Mr Packham was a freelance contractor - rather than a BBC employee - and he was ‘recurrent, not a regular, presenter’.
This tortuous logic would have been amusing if it was not so serious and had not given Mr Packham free rein, which he has taken, to say anything he likes. If you own a gun you are a ‘psychopath’, if you are a farmer in a badger cull area you are a ‘brutalist thug, liar and fraud’, and if you are engaged in any activity which comes under the spotlight of animal rights extremists he will be supporting their campaign. This behaviour has led, amongst other things, to a worrying detachment between the BBC and the countryside.
The new BBC Director General has made very clear that he thinks such activities are unacceptable, and now he must follow through. Despite the manufactured rage that will undoubtedly ensue he must ensure that every BBC presenter is governed by clear rules on partisan campaigning whatever their employment status. Rebuilding the BBC’s reputation in the countryside can only start when the running sore of activist presenters has been addressed.