The BBC Trust has has cleared a column in BBC Wildlife magazine by presenter Chris Packham that the Countryside Alliance claimed breached corporation guidelines on bias.
In his monthly column in the BBC magazine, the Springwatch host said that some wildlife charities were “hamstrung by outdated liaisons with the ‘nasty brigade’ and can’t risk upsetting old friends”.
The column specifically named the RSPB and the Wildlife Trust for not speaking out against what he said was the “UK government’s attempt to make hunting foxes with packs of dogs in England and Wales … easier.”
Countryside Alliance chief executive Tim Bonner subsequently accused Packham of “blatant political bias” over the article and called on the BBC to sack him.
At the time the magazine, produced under licence from the BBC by Immediate Media and obliged to follow BBC editorial guidelines, strongly defended Packham, saying it was not controversial.
“The column was highlighting criminal activity. It was not controversial. He was saying that we all need to do more on the illegal killing of wildlife and that no one should be standing by when criminal acts [were taking place]. Packham was doing something of real value,” said the then editor Matt Swaine, who has since left.
However, the Countryside Alliance lodged a complaint with the BBC which was considered by the trust’s editorial standards committee.
In its ruling the trust said Packham was a freelancer and did not count as staff or a regular BBC presenter or reporter, nor was he working in news or current affairs, and thus was not bound by strict rules against expressing opinions on public policy issues.
It also said the piece had been clearly labelled as opinion, that the publication’s new editor would not have used the term “nasty brigade” and that both the organisations named by Packham had been given the right to reply prior to publication.
The trust also rejected claims by the alliance that a subsequent YouTube video Packham had made in response to a petition calling on the BBC not to sack him had breached conflict of interest rules. In the video, Packham thanked the public for the support and urged them to sign a petition against grouse shooting and consider joining organisations including the RSPB and the League Against Cruel Sports.
The BBC Trust said: “Having considered carefully the instances cited by the complainants, it was clear that Mr Packham had been expressing his personal views as an individual, and that there was no implication that the charities and other causes he supported were endorsed by the BBC.
“Accordingly, trustees did not consider that Mr Packham had undermined the BBC’s reputation for impartiality.”
The Trust also said that the BBC’s Natural History Unit, which makes shows featuring Packham including Springwatch and Autumnwatch, had carefully managed potential conflicts between Packham’s presenting and campaigning, and the presenter had regularly referred potential conflicts to editors.
However, it said the BBC and Packham would need to regularly assess his work and campaigning to ensure it does not undermine the impartiality of his work at the BBC.