Common Sense Champion: Tim Davie

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James Knell
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This week’s Common Sense Champion is new Director General at the BBC, Tim Davie, for his drive to improve impartiality and also defending the wearing of poppies on-screen for remembrance.

Concerns about the BBC’s impartiality are nothing new. The political and ideological persuasions of the organisation and its staff have long been scrutinised and criticised – and rightly so! After all, it owes its existence to the British taxpayer and the largesse of successive governments. It has both a moral and legal obligation to remain impartial, especially in its coverage of social and political issues.

This matters greatly during a time of lockdowns, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion and so on, where sentiment too often displaces facts in reporting. This is amplified  by the fact that so many of us watch the BBC and rely on it as an objective source of news – over 90% of the UK population every single week.

In light of concerns about bias, Mr Davie kicked off his new job highlighting the need for BBC staff to remain impartial. This is long overdue.

On so many issues, what should be objective coverage has veered worryingly off course. Whether it is biased coverage of Brexit, presenters courting controversy for expressing political views on Twitter, or programmes that discuss contested ideas without balance – on too many topics, it seems to have forgotten that it exists to “inform, educate, and entertain”, not evangelise or indoctrinate.

We are heartened that Mr Davie has put impartiality at the top of his agenda. Few of his predecessors appeared to recognize the gravity of the problem and the extent to which metropolitan groupthink dominated the organisation. For this alone he deserves recognition.

Even more strikingly, alongside broad guidance warning BBC journalists not to “virtue signal”, Mr Davie has publicly said that he would be prepared to sack presenters who make major breaches of impartiality guidelines on social media. Cue dramatic overreaction and confusion and a row about the wearing of poppies, with some executives and presenters questioning whether wearing a poppy counted as the expression of a personal view. Mr Davie later clarified that “clearly celebratory or commemorative” would not constitute a breach of impartiality guidelines. Common sense you might say!  

We regularly run polls to get a sense of where public sentiment lies regarding the BBC. On bias – a whopping 96% of respondents believed that the BBC is biased. On whether the license fee should be scrapped, some 22,000 people responded and the margin was massive, 92% of respondents were in favour of the BBC licence fee being scrapped for pensioners.

We applaud Mr Davie in identifying impartiality as one of the key challenges for the BBC. In doing so he has drawn the attention of not only his own staff but the wider public to this issue. A spotlight on the issue will help to keep up the pressure required to engender meaningful change. Importantly, Mr Davie is doing something about it in a constructive and inclusive way and, whilst clearly there is a lot more to do, we have every confidence that he will sort it out.

Hopefully the BBC can become again a truly diverse organisation: in thoughts, opinions, and experience, not simply legally protected characteristics. It is a range of views and knowledge that enable quality programming, not the sex or sexuality of those involved in its production.

It also makes places truly inclusive. Questions must be asked as to why so few people from non-graduate or provincial backgrounds are prominent in the BBC. One has to wonder if a Brexiteer or person of traditional faith views would feel comfortable working there and sharing their beliefs? What about those who are in favour of strong controls on immigration, or think that sex-based rights should trump gender identity?

That certain views, not generally held by most of the population, have become so dominant in the BBC is unacceptable, and will require a huge amount of effort to be put right.

If Tim Davie can pull it off, he will not only make the BBC a more inclusive and trusted organisation, but help the country to better address sensitive issues and bring people together. We wish him the very best of luck in his endeavours!

James Knell

Research Director

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