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Tim Bonner: Packham, Lineker and a crisis of the BBC's own making

In the summer of 2013 the Government was introducing badger cull trials to tackle the growing scourge of bovine tuberculosis. The political debate became increasingly ugly, particularly on social media, and at its height, Chris Packham, who described himself in his Twitter biography as a "naturalist and BBC broadcaster" tweeted that the farmers and wildlife managers who were about to carry out culls were "brutalist thugs, liars and frauds [who] will destroy our wildlife and dishonour our nations reputation". The Alliance thought that statement was both intemperate and that coming from a self-described BBC broadcaster it was likely to do significant harm to the BBC's reputation for impartiality. We raised the issue with the BBC which responded with the first of a series of obfuscations which laid a path directly to the corporation's current crisis over Gary Lineker. The response included this memorable sentence:

"Although [Chris Packham's Twitter account] identifies Chris as a BBC presenter, this does not imply BBC endorsement of the views aired on the account".

Think about that for a moment. The BBC did not deny that Chris Packham was a BBC presenter, it just stated that the views of a BBC presenter are not the views of the BBC. Which begs the very obvious questions of who does represent the views of the BBC if not BBC presenters and how on earth is anyone watching the BBC supposed to know that the people appearing on it and presenting its content do not represent its views?

Having created this hole for itself the BBC only kept digging when, in 2015, Chris Packham wrote an article for BBC Wildlife Magazine in which he described people who shoot and hunt as "the nasty brigade". This was a step further even than his tweet about the badger cull in that a BBC presenter was expressing partial and intemperate opinions from a BBC platform. We again complained citing BBC Editorial Guidelines on impartiality and were determined that this blatant breach would not go unchallenged. The BBC complaints process is Byzantine and designed to grind down even the most determined complainant, but the Alliance was not going to be deterred and we stubbornly pursued the issue all the way to the BBC Trust, which was at the time the final point of appeal for BBC complaints. Well over a year after the original article was published it ruled that Chris Packham was not required to abide by BBC Editorial Guidelines because he was a freelance presenter not an employee, a recurrent presenter, not a regular one (despite working for the BBC for 119 days in the previous year), and because debates about rural policy were apparently academic, not political. The BBC Trust might have thought that this blatant suspension of logic was a clever way to avoid upholding our complaint, but in reality it was just storing up problems for the future.

Firstly, it gave a free pass to Chris Packham who predictably responded by ramping up his rhetoric describing legal gun owners as "psychopaths" and promoting the disruption of lawful activities by animal rights extremists.

Secondly, it undercut any attempt by BBC management to tackle perceptions of partiality. When, for instance, the new Director General Tim Davie said in a speech to BBC staff: "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", those of us who had been following the debate knew that this statement was completely meaningless in relation to freelance presenters (who include many of the corporations most high profile figures) because the BBC Trust had already ruled that they are not covered by BBC Editorial Guidelines.

Thirdly, it set a precedent which meant that the BBC had little or no control over what its freelance presenters say on social media or elsewhere. In the context of the BBC Trust ruling it is difficult to see how the BBC could ever have justified its suspension of Gary Lineker for tweeting about the Government's immigration policy, even before the backlash against the decision. He is a freelance presenter, football has an off season so he does not present Match of the Day 'regularly' and football is not a political issue. In addition, the BBC's Editorial Guidelines even specify that a sports presenter offering an opinion on an unrelated area like politics is less likely to be at risk of breaching social media guidelines than a presenter giving an opinion in their own area of interest as Chris Packham had done.

The BBC's backdown was therefore inevitable, but it does beg the question as to where it goes from here. The concern is that the Lineker case will only now lead to a confirmation of the illogical approach taken by the BBC Trust and that freelance BBC presenters will be given a free pass to express whatever opinions they like in which ever form they prefer, whatever the impact on the reputation of the BBC. This would be a dangerous route for the BBC to take and whilst it has severely weakened its position over the Lineker affair the only sensible way forward is to add clauses to freelance contracts to require freelance presenters to adhere to BBC Editorial Guidelines in the same way that BBC employees have to.

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