Since the BBC is a public institution, employees who work in current affairs and factual journalism are required to be impartial – but what this impartiality looks like in the internet age is a source of constant debate.
Yesterday, the BBC announced its new social media guidelines, dictating that the accounts of its employees should be considered subject to public scrutiny. While the news that an organisation has released an internal HR document might sound a little dry, it has caused huge uproar. This is mostly for two reasons: first, the suggestion that BBC employees would be banned from attending LGBT+ Pride; second, the use of the term “virtue signalling”.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the announcement was the claim that these new guidelines could effectively ban BBC employees from attending LGBT Pride events, on the basis that doing so could be taken as evidence of impartiality. This was reported yesterday in The I, but a number of sources have since disputed it.
BBC reporter Christian Hewgill tweeted, “There is a story doing the rounds that the BBC is banning gay journalists from going to Pride events. It's not true. See you in 2021 for a dance and bit of glitter. (All being well).”
Benjamin Butterworth, who broke the story in The I, said on Twitter: “Asked for clarity on confusion, BBC said pride is fine if it is seen as a ‘a celebration’, but if the ‘trans issue’ (as it was described) is involved then it passes as a protest and news and current affairs staff should not attend.”
According to Butterworth, the BBC Press Office repeatedly failed to deny that staff could be suspended or given a warning for attending Pride.
According to The Guardian, “One BBC journalist said their manager had been told that growing media and political opposition to trans rights in the UK meant public LGBT pride events were now more likely to count as controversial events, meaning they would not be able to attend even in a personal capacity.” The same, too, could apply to Black Lives Matter marches. The guidelines don’t enshrine these rules exactly, but do seem to leave it at the discretion of individual managers.
Cara English, Head of Public Engagement of trans youth charity Gendered Intelligence, tells VICE News: “We're all still very much left in the lurch when it comes to understanding what the BBC has stated, and what it ultimately means for its staff. There are some conflicting lines out there, from this being an attempt to streamline neutrality rules to what amounts to McCarthyism-lite. That there is such confusion and fear shows that the BBC has failed to address meaningful concerns about the neutrality of its output.”
She continues, “From the BBC's editorial decision to describe this charity's Head of Public Engagement as ‘a trans activist’ on BBC News, to the apparent stance that ‘the trans issue’ is a contentious one, there appears to be a monolithic, reductive viewpoint of trans people at the institute, where our existence is in some way controversial, debatable. Our heart goes out to trans and non-binary BBC staff members, many of whom we're sure – through either an active ignorance or a passive lack of attention to communication from higher-ups – will now believe their identities and associations are to be monitored. It is pressing that the BBC clarifies what it's demanding from staff either way, as right now the confusion is helping absolutely no one.”
Today, the BBC sent an email to its employees clarifying its stance that there will be no ban on news and current affairs employees attending “community events that are clearly celebratory or commemorative”. However, “they must be mindful of ensuring that they do not get involved in matters which could be deemed political or controversial… staff need to ensure that they are not seen to be taking a stand on politicised or contested issues.”
This, however, might be of limited comfort to trans employees, who find their very existence a politicised and contested issue.
The second aspect of the guidelines to prove controversial was the insistence that BBC employees should refrain from “virtue signalling”, defined here as “retweets, likes or joining online campaigns to indicate a personal view”. According to a Spectator article in 2015, written by the person who claims to have coined the term, “virtue signalling” refers to people who write and tweet things to signal how “admirably non-fascist, leftwing or open-minded they are”.
Crucially, the author defines virtue-signalling as something that “does not actually require doing anything virtuous”. It’s supposed to be about low-effort posturing, but this is actually a far cry from the popular usage of the term today, when it’s used to describe so many things it’s become virtually meaningless.
Kim Kardashian throwing in an obligatory reference to “privilege” while posting pictures from a private island could be described as virtue signalling, but the term is also applied to Jeremy Corbyn visiting a homeless shelter at Christmas, or the very tangible, co-ordinated effort of Marcus Rashford to ensure that children in poverty don’t starve. This week, Rashford asked Twitter – perhaps sarcastically – what the term means:
It’s now just a right-wing insult to be aimed at activists, volunteers and often simply anyone who cares about other people. As such, it’s an ironically impartial term for the BBC to use in its own guidelines on impartiality.
As Cara says, “The BBC are rehashing an alt-right line about virtue signalling that basically amounts to ‘don't say anything remotely fitting of 2020 in case it upsets people’. This is not neutrality, this is cowardice.”