The BBC’s reputation is on the line in the “difficult” process of coming up with new social media guidelines amid the Gary Lineker controversy, the head of Ofcom has said.
Melanie Dawes, chief executive of the media regulator, said the impartiality row goes “straight to the heart of the BBC’s wider reputation beyond its news and current affairs coverage”.
The Ofcom boss said the corporation would have to weigh freedom of expression with impartiality when reviewing guidelines following the “difficult episode” with Lineker.
The Match of The Day presenter was taken off air after a tweet comparing Tory asylum rhetoric to 1930s Germany sparked an impartiality row and a boycott by several regular pundits and commentators.
On Monday, BBC director-general Tim Davie apologised for “the potential confusion caused by the grey areas” of social media guidance and confirmed a review was being undertaken.
Ms Dawes told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee that she welcomed a review of the guidelines to “see whether they’re still right in a world of increasing use of social media”.
Dame Melanie said the BBC’s social media guidelines are not a matter for Ofcom but for the broadcaster’s board to “draw that line” in order to safeguard the BBC’s reputation.
“There is ambiguity in there. I think that was probably designed to give a degree of flexibility. I think it’s fair to say that it didn’t achieve what they wanted,” she told MPs.
She added: “But I think this is a difficult issue for them, I don’t think this is going to be straightforward, and to some extent is going to be about a level of trust, particularly with their staff.”
The Ofcom boss said all organisations face questions of what they require of staff. But she said with freelancers and actors on the BBC “it’s a slightly different question and I think they need to be weighing freedom of expression alongside the wider reputation they have for impartiality.”
Dame Melanie said she spoke to BBC director-general Mr Davie a “couple of times over the weekend” during the Lineker developments.
It comes as Labour’s culture secretary Lucy Powell accused Tory ministers and MPs of orchestrating a “cancel campaign” which saw Lineker pulled off air – comparing it to Vladimir Putin’s regime.
“What does she think it looks like to the outside world that a much-loved sports presenter is taken off air for tweeting something the government doesn’t like? It sounds more like Putin’s Russia to me,” she added.
But Tory culture minister Julia Lopez fired back – arguing that any comparison with Moscow’s authoritarian regime was “disgraceful” and “way off the mark”.
Gary Lineker swarmed by reporters after BBC reinstates him on Match of the Day
Meanwhile, the Ofcom boss also said the impartiality row with Lineker will not play into the licence fee debate, confirming a “new operating licence” for the BBC will be published next week.
The report will include details regarding the BBC’s local radio cuts, which were announced in October as part of its new strategy to create a “modern, digital-led” broadcaster.
Speaking about the BBC cuts, Dame Melanie said: “I don’t think that was their finest hour in terms of public communication, there was a lot of concern about those changes.
“Behind the scenes … it was quite hard to get the information we needed from them. We’ve sought real detail in the case of those local radio changes, understanding the evidence that underpinned why they were changing things in particular times of day.”
During the meeting, Dame Melanie refused to answer questions about how the BBC can operate with a chairman who is “so compromised” – referring to BBC chairman Richard Sharp after it was revealed he had been involved in facilitating an £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson.
She later refused to answer questions relating to impartiality in the case of broadcaster Fiona Bruce who was accused of trivialising domestic violence during a discussion about Stanley Johnson while hosting BBC’s Question Time.
Tory MP Sir Bill Cash suggested establishing a new independent “adjudicating body for impartiality” to monitor BBC impartiality alongside Ofcom during a debate in the Common.
Ms Lopez noted the mid-term review of the BBC charter is examining the complaints system and editorial standards and impartiality.