Broadcasters’ right to free expression will become more restricted

Here’s a  worrying report by Breda O’Brien in the Irish Times which will  give RTE and public service broadcasters everywhere a headache.

 McGuirk, PR consultant and former Libertas communications director (and prolific tweeter himself), recently compiled a list of journalists and producers who tweeted that they were taking part in a pro-choice march, or calling for support for it. He gave up at 37. There were some names associated with RTÉ, and nine from this newspaper (although The Irish Times is not a public service organisation). Of course journalists and producers are entitled to their personal opinions, but if you work for a public service broadcaster, how does calling for support for a pro-choice march “ensure that in their use of social media they avoid damaging perceptions of their own or RTÉ’s impartiality”?

Excellent question. If true, RTE personnel are leaving a huge hostage to fortune if they think that the duty of impartiality and fairness is limited either to the job they‘re paid to do, or the hours when they’re paid to do it, regardless of whether they express  a controversial opinion on the streets or digitally. No doubt social media has made the problem far more acute, when opinions that might have been confined to the pub, kitchen or a host’s dinner table  now can go viral.

What about the impact of social media on the people tweeted about?   Ms O’Brien points out the “flaw” of omitting the impact of Twitter in the Leveson report on the UK free market press. With every sign of it being a deliberate tactic on his part, the judge has in fact discussed the impact of social media but he has done so separately from his Report, when he recommended some sort of privacy law in a lecture he gave in Australia. 

But the impact of social media poses unique problems for public service broadcasters, whose duty of impartiality isn’t shared by the rest of the media. RTE and the Irish political system were badly bitten over Tweetgate , one of two gaping flaws exposed in the state broadcaster’s editorial guidelines and procedures in recent months which were every bit as glaring as the Saville affair in the BBC, though without RTE’s top management suffering such dire consequences. (I must admit when I heard about Prime Time and Mission to Prey I thought to myself “ this sort of breakdown could never happen inside our own dear Beeb – and look how wrong I was).

Even the BBC guidelines leave a black hole in which  to hide a  ticking time bomb in cases like the above. Nothing should be done to bring the BBC into disrepute the editorial guidelines say, but they add elsewhere:

• . Blogs, microblogs and other personal websites which do not identify the author as a BBC employee, do not discuss the BBC and are purely personal would fall outside this guidance. • New and existing blogs, microblogs and other personal websites which do identify the author as a BBC employee should be discussed with your line manager to ensure that due impartiality and confidentiality is maintained

That imposes  an obligation on managers which none will relish  in the nervous post-Saville climate.  New RTE editorial guidelines have been issued but guidelines on tweeting by RTE staff are due only in the New Year. In the meantime, according to the Indo the word has gone out for RTE tweeters to be careful. The subject remains a minefield. A complete ban on airing opinions may be contrary to human rights but leaving it to individual judgment is sure to cause more rows – and as far as I can see –  leave the public broadcasters- , the organisations and the actual people who do the talking- very vulnerable.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London