Guidance: Impartiality and Racism

Impartiality and Racism - Guidance note

A number of colleagues have raised questions about BBC impartiality in the context of events following the killing of George Floyd and the scope for personal action in response to the anti-racism protests and demonstrations taking place across the UK and the world. Questions have also been raised about use of social media.

This guidance note sets out the BBC’s position with reference to the BBC Charter and Editorial Guidelines.

The BBC is not impartial on racism.

The position that the BBC is not impartial on racism reflects the BBC’s underlying commitment to fundamental democratic principles. This informs the BBC’s approach to all its output.

The BBC’s public purposes are set out in the Royal Charter. The first public purpose is:

"To provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them: the BBC should provide duly accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming to build people’s understanding of all parts of the UK and of the wider world."  (Article 6 (1))

Our Editorial Guidelines sets out what is meant by 'due impartiality':

"Due impartiality usually involves more than a simple matter of ‘balance’ between opposing viewpoints. We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring that the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected. It does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic principles, such as the right to vote, freedom of expression and the rule of law." (4.1)

Opposition to racism is a fundamental democratic principle, reflected, for example, in the fact that incitement to racial hatred is a criminal offence in the UK. It is therefore fully consistent with our guidelines.

Campaigns

While the BBC is opposed to racism, it is not a campaigning organisation.

Campaigns frequently advocate for legitimate social or policy change. However, the BBC must retain its independence in relation to them. There is, to take just one example, the current debate about what should be done with statues and street names honouring slave traders and others associated with racism. There are a range of views on such issues, many starting from a position of opposing racism.

The Impartiality section of the Editorial Guidelines on Campaigns and Initiatives says:

"The BBC must remain independent and distanced from government initiatives, campaigners, charities and their agendas, no matter how apparently worthy the cause or how much their message appears to be accepted or uncontroversial." (4.3.17)

While the BBC does not join campaigns, it does have a responsibility to raise awareness of important issues. This is done both through our journalism, which has always highlighted injustice in the UK and around the world, and through wider content and programming.

Personal opinions

Judgement is clearly required to decide whether a particular post on social media or other expression of a personal opinion is likely to bring the due impartiality of an individual or the BBC into question. If in doubt, advice should be sought before expressing an opinion publicly.

The Conflicts of Interest Guidelines on Public Expressions of Opinion set out the position for all BBC staff:

Where individuals identify themselves as being linked with the BBC, or are programme makers, editorial staff, reporters or presenters primarily associated with the BBC, their public expressions of opinion have the potential to compromise the BBC’s impartiality and to damage its reputation. This includes the use of social media and writing letters to the press. Opinions expressed on social media are put into the public domain, can be shared and are searchable. (15.3.13)

The risk is greater where the public expressions of opinion overlap with the area of the individual’s work. The risk is lower where an individual is expressing views publicly on an unrelated area, for example, a sports or science presenter expressing views on politics or the arts.

Taking a public position on an issue of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or any other ‘controversial subject’ is likely to be incompatible with some BBC roles. Advance discussion with line managers is essential in all genre areas. (15.3.14)

For those in News and Current Affairs and for some Factual programmes, expressing personal opinions on controversial issues should generally be avoided given the nature of their work.

This is explained in the Editorial Guidelines:

" … our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal opinions of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area. They … may not express personal views on such matters publicly, including in any BBC-branded output or on personal blogs and social media.” (4.3.11)

The Conflict of Interest Guidelines give more detail on guidance for staff in News and Current Affairs and some Factual programmes:

Individuals involved in the production or presentation of any output of this nature have additional restrictions and must not:

  • state or reveal publicly how they vote or express support for any political party
  • express a view for or against any policy which is a matter of current party political debate
  • advocate any particular position on a matter of public policy, political or

industrial controversy, or any other ‘controversial subject’

  • exhort a change in high-profile public policy
  • speak or write publicly about the BBC without specific, prior approval from the relevant head of department. (15.3.17)

The BBC News social media guidelines say that:

"You shouldn't state your political preferences or say anything that compromises your impartiality. Don't sound off about things in an openly partisan way. Don't be seduced by the informality of social media into bringing the BBC into disrepute."

Non-News and Factual staff can express views or republish the views of others on social media, as long as it is in a way that will not bring the BBC in to disrepute.

There is guidance on the use of social media at this link.

Participating in marches or protests 

The Editorial Guidelines sections on Impartiality and Conflicts of Interest make it clear that different considerations apply depending on what you do for the BBC. 

Members of staff outside News and Current Affairs and some Factual output may attend marches, demonstrations and protests as private individuals.

Staff are also able to participate in some parades, marches or gatherings, including events such as trade union rallies, under the banner of the BBC group to which they belong, but not representing the organisation as a whole.

BBC News and Current Affairs staff and some Factual staff, as set out in the Guidelines, should not participate in public demonstrations or gatherings about controversial issues. As with social media, judgement is required as to what constitutes a controversial march or demonstration. If in doubt, advice should be sought before attending.

Last updated June 2020

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