The BBC’s hardening stance on its employees’ social media posts is a reflection of increasing interest in the area by businesses, a legal expert has warned.
David Lorimer, director at Fieldfisher, said: “While the BBC’s pressures and impartiality are at its core, employers are increasingly concerned about the impact on their brand of posts, comments and likes that can generate unwelcome controversy and almost instant repercussions.”
BBC director general Tim Davie has raised the issue of sacking presenters who make major breaches of impartiality guidelines on social media. He said new social media rules would be announced in the coming weeks, and would apply to all staff.
Despite the blurring of lines, employees still have a legitimate expectation of privacy” – David Lorimer, Fieldfisher
“I am prepared to take the appropriate disciplinary action, all the way to termination,” Davie said.
He said he would also be able “to take people off Twitter” if necessary.
Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker, who regularly shares his opinions on political issues on Twitter, responded by saying “I think only Twitter can take people off Twitter.”
Davie told MPs on the House of Commons digital, culture, media and sport select committee: “Enforcement actions will be very clear, we will be able to take disciplinary action, we’ll be able to take people off Twitter. I know people want to see hard action on this.”
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Pressed on how people could be removed from Twitter, he clarified that in some cases he would ask staff to suspend their Twitter accounts if they wanted to continue working for the BBC.
Lorimer at Fieldfisher, however, warned employers: “They need to tread carefully when considering dismissals in connection with social media activity.
“Despite the blurring of lines, employees still have a legitimate expectation of privacy (often more so on some platforms than others), and ought to be afforded an opportunity to explain their position.
“Employees might also assert that, regardless of the perceived (lack of) taste and decency, they are protected because their activity relates to or bears out a core belief which is protected as such under discrimination law.
“None of this is to say that employers are prevented from acting decisively to protect their reputation, but in most cases they will do well to ensure all of the relevant factors are considered before acting hastily.”
Davie told the MPs that action would be cautious. “I know some people would like me to fire [people] immediately [when] there is a foot fault,” he said.
In the past, there have been a few tweets and a few incidents from BBC staff and presenters that in my mind have not furthered the BBC’s reputation for impartiality” – Tim Davie
“I’m sure over your career and my career, sometimes we have not acted perfectly. So there will be a range of enforcements. Sometimes someone just needs a talking to. Other times there will be more serious matters.”
He said those who were “the face of the BBC” had to be particularly careful.
“Social media guidelines will make clear where the lines are. If someone is a face of the BBC, I think entering into party politics seems to me not the right place to be.”
He added: “In the past, there have been a few tweets and a few incidents from BBC staff and presenters that in my mind have not furthered the BBC’s reputation for impartiality.”
The MPs also questioned Davie over the pay of star presenters, querying the high rate paid to Zoe Ball on the Radio 2 breakfast show, for example.
He replied that historical rates were influential in the salaries for certain positions, and added: “I’ve inherited some of this. You’ve seen what we’ve done with Gary [Lineker]. I want to make sure that we are getting as best value as we can in the market, and better value where we can.”
Lineker agreed to take a 23% pay cut and curb his use of social media after agreeing a new five-year contract with the BBC in September.
Yesterday (30 September), another leading BBC presenter, Andrew Marr, told the Guardian “there is a drive to destroy the BBC. They’ve clearly got their supporters in government and its a very difficult moment for the new director general Tim Davie.” He said he supported the impartiality agenda: “The BBC is in a very dangerous place at the moment, and people like me have a special duty to be careful about what they say.” He added that he thought Rupert Murdoch’s publishing business was “trying to push us towards a world in which the BBC is pretty marginal”.
Of his own £360,000 a year salary, Marr said it had always been determined by the marketplace and in the past he could have been paid more by going elsewhere.
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