NUJ rails against new BBC crackdown on off-air commentary

Updated BBC guidelines which appear to stop BBC journalists doing outside work and even writing letters to their local paper prompted the National Union of Journalists to call an "urgent" meeting with the corporation this Friday.

The guidance, distributed last week, requires staff to get permission from managers for a range of off-air activities.

The NUJ's broadcast organiser, Paul McLaughlin, said: "This thing was just announced without any conversation, without any consultation and without any debate, and, as such, it is just another case of the BBC deciding behind closed doors to change things and not bothering to check with the people involved whether these things are a good idea or not."

The seven-page document, which was circulated to BBC staff, contractors and freelances, gives additional guidance for those working in news and current affairs areas where the BBC's reputation for impartiality is crucial and where there are particular sensitivities about off-air activities.

Regular columns and sports columns are prohibited, and columns on "non-controversial issues", such as Andrew Marr's weekly Notebook column in the Daily Telegraph, are subject to copy approval by the head of the relevant department.

The document does not cover "factual and topical programmes that are not primarily related to news and current affairs output", so BBC presenters who are also columnists — such as Jeremy Clarkson, Mariella Frostrup and Vanessa Feltz — are exempt from the guidelines.

The BBC says that its journalists risk compromising their editorial or on-air role if they publicly express personal views off-air on controversial issues.

It goes on to state that its journalists must not publicly disclose how they vote or reveal support for any political party.

And it also forbids those working for the BBC in news and current affairs from promoting a particular position on issues of current public debate and from arguing for a change in public policy.

It states: "Care should be taken with appearances related to charities, particularly if they are a campaigning organisation, and no impression should be given of BBC endorsement of one charity over another."

Media training is also a forbidden activity as the document states: "There are considerable dangers of a conflict of interest if BBC people train individuals or organisations in how to present themselves on television, radio or online."

McLaughlin said: "We think it is completely unacceptable to issue draconian guidelines without any explanation or proper understanding of what it is all about, and clearly a lot of people are wondering what sort of BBC this is."

A BBC spokesperson said: "They are not new guidelines. It is updated guidance on the existing guidelines.

"There is no particular trigger: we review guidelines all the time. What the additional guidance is about is reminding people about what they can and can't do in terms of off-air activity, and the kind of necessary permissions that they would need internally if they are going to undertake any kind of offair activity."

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