Tim Bonner is Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance.
Over a year ago Chris Packham wrote an article for the BBC Wildlife magazine in which, amongst other things, he branded everyone involved in hunting, shooting and wildlife management “the nasty brigade”.
He had a record for this sort of behaviour, having previously described farmers involved in the government’s badger cull trials as “brutalist thugs, liars and frauds”.
The Countryside Alliance complained to the BBC arguing that that Chris Packham, described by himself and everyone else as a ‘BBC presenter’, was abusing the position given to him by the state broadcaster and was clearly in breach of the BBC editorial guidelines.
However, I also warned at the time that the BBC would probably use its usual excuses about contracted employees and Packham not presenting BBC programmes ‘at the moment’.
The BBC rejected the complaint almost before it was made by stating in the media that Packham was ‘entitled’ to express views outside of his employment on BBC Natural History programmes. Last week the BBC Trust finally got round to issuing its response to an appeal against the BBC’s decision.
That BBC Trust ‘finding’ is extraordinary only in that it is such a blatant whitewash as to be risible. The new editor of BBC Wildlife Magazine, Sheena Harvey, was of the view that Mr Packham’s comments were “flippant” and that she would not have published them, but as I predicted the BBC reverted to its usual excuses.
The BBC Trust ruled that “the amount of time contracted and the amount of time on air did not make MrPackham a ‘regular’ BBC Presenter”, even though he worked for the BBC on 119 days, or well over half the working year, in 2015. This, apparently, means he is a ‘recurrent’ BBC Presenter not a ‘regular’ one.
The Trust decided that Packham was not anyway ‘associated with public policy broadcasting’ because, for instance, an interview with campaigner and journalist George Monbiot about the future of farming in the uplands and ‘rewilding’ was an ‘academic’, not a ‘policy’ discussion.
So it seems that as Packham is not a BBC presenter at all, let alone one associated with public policy, he is free to take the BBC’s money whilst abusing whoever he likes, which mostly seems to be our supporters.
We are lucky to live in a liberal democracy where people are able to hold any number of bizarre views. There is no issue with people voicing such opinions, but using the position granted by a public service broadcaster to promote an extreme agenda is a different thing entirely.
Either the BBC has rules and applies them, or has no rules at all. What is entirely unacceptable is a perverse interpretation of those rules to protect its ‘talent’.
The Government has now announced plans, which we welcome, to abolish the BBC Trust and move its regulatory role to Ofcom. In a Westminster Hall debate two weeks ago on BBC Impartiality our Chair, Simon Hart MP, raised a point that is of particular relevance to this issue:
“Does the Minister accept that there might be a fear among BBC management that taking on a high-profile, popular figure who is a public favourite can be difficult?”
In response, Culture Minister Matthew Hancock said the government’s plans “made it clear that impartiality and accuracy are absolutely central to the future role of the BBC”. We will hold him, and the BBC, to that commitment.
The BBC Trust has largely failed to address the concerns raised two years ago in its own review into rural coverage, which found that the BBC has a “metropolitan bias” and its failure to address Packham’s behaviour has done further damage to its reputation in rural communities.
More than that, this decision has encouraged him to be even more aggressive in his campaigns, and will undoubtedly encourage many others who are not ‘regular’ BBC presenters, or who do not broadcast on public policy issues, to use the platform given to them by their association with the BBC to campaign on whatever issues they feel fit.
The BBC Trust may have thought that it was being clever in finding a way out of this complaint, but it might only have created greater problems for the BBC.