BBC could restrict journalists’ use of Twitter
Executive said to be considering move after rows during election campaign
The BBC is considering restricting its journalists’ use of Twitter. If the plan is approved, top correspondents will be told to move away from using online platforms to break stories or offer instant analysis.
The proposal follows criticism of online comments made by staff during the election campaign. Political editor Laura Kuenssberg was attacked by some Jeremy Corbyn supporters for repeating, along with other pundits, a false allegation that a Tory minister’s aide had been punched by a Labour activist. North America editor Jon Sopel has meanwhile been accused of tweets that reveal a critical stance on Donald Trump.
Now Fran Unsworth, the director of news and current affairs, is believed to be keen to persuade journalists to end the practice of frequently posting on politics and current affairs.
“She said that it was likely she would meet some resistance, but that she wants to start a debate and was now contemplating asking correspondents to come off Twitter,” said a BBC journalist. Unsworth is thought to have outlined her plans at a party held in the BBC Council Chamber in old Broadcasting House.
This weekend, those close to Unsworth say she would only have joked about banning Twitter use altogether, but that she is believed to be serious about at least applying the BBC’s social media guidance more stringently. Speaking to the Guardian last weekend Unsworth acknowledged the journalistic effectiveness of Twitter and said: “We just need to reinforce our social media rules. But I don’t think it’s viable to say take a step back.”
Last week, Channel 4 reportedly banned non-political staff from tweeting about current affairs.
Phil Harding, the BBC’s former controller of editorial policy, welcomed the possibility of a review of Twitter’s place in BBC news coverage. “They need to take two steps back and make sure what they are saying is impartial and true, because we need that impartial service badly at the moment,” he told the Observer.
Harding, who also edited the Radio 4 Today programme during his years at the BBC, added that a review of coverage priorities was standard after any election. “The most important thing is that they hang on to the trust, which has fallen away a little. They have to consider whether they need to be in among the first reactors to an event. It is a difficult conversation, but they have to get the balance right,” Harding said.
Kuenssberg signed off from Twitter for Christmas on Thursday with apparent relish, writing “see you on the other side (follow @BBCPolitics and @BBCNews if you want to keep up, or sit on your sofa and eat Quality Street and come back in 2020)”.
The journalist, who has 1.13 million Twitter followers, has been subjected to a torrent of online abuse over the past month. Her festive good wishes were met by several suggestions her own break should be haunted by the ghosts of the Labour election victory that might have been.
Last Monday, Andy McDonald, a member of the shadow cabinet, claimed the BBC had played a part in Labour’s defeat.
Similar attacks on BBC impartiality led Huw Edwards, the election night anchor, to write an unprecedented defence of the standards of licence-fee-funded reporting: “Providing a fair and balanced account of a complex election campaign – with feelings running high on all sides – is difficult enough. Trying to do so while dealing with relentlessly vitriolic attacks is doubly challenging.”
Edwards warned that “toxic cynicism” about BBC output could undermine the broadcaster as it faces renewed threats from a strengthened Conservative government. Downing Street has promised to consider decriminalising the non-payment of the TV licence fee, making it equivalent to failure to pay any other utility bill, rather than a criminal offence.
Edwards also tweeted: “We are very far from being perfect at @BBCNews – but the bilge about ‘bias’ needs a response.” Channel 4’s decision follows mistakes, including an online subtitling error on tweeted video footage that wrongly suggested that Johnson had questioned whether “people of colour”, rather than “people of talent”, should be allowed into the country under Conservative immigration policy.