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Richard Price
| 24TH MAR 2023

Zeno Thinks: Has the BBC really banned TikTok – or is it buying time?

Here’s a riddle for you. Q: Who has 5.6 million TikTok followers but doesn’t have the app on his phone? A: Tim Davie.

OK, I’ve massaged the facts and figures a little there. Technically those people are following the BBC, not its Director General. But hey… tomayto tomarto.

Here we have the nation’s – nay the world’s – biggest news broadcaster cutting itself adrift from the fastest growing source of news on the planet. Quite a conundrum.

All, however, is not how it seems. Look closer and there is a key qualifier at play. Guidance sent to BBC staff on Sunday urged them to remove TikTok from all corporate devices. Then came the key sentence: “If you do not need TikTok for business reasons, TikTok should be deleted.”

Given that the BBC is a business – and a big chunk of that business is news – for large swathes of the corporation TikTok is going nowhere. Because for anyone under the age of 25, the Chinese-owned social media platform is a highly significant news source.

Don’t take my word for it. Ofcom’s latest report tells us that two years ago TikTok was used by just one per cent of the population as a source of news, but by the end of 2022 it was one of the nation’s top 20 news sources, reaching almost four million people (seven per cent).

About which, three points:

  • From a standing start, this is an extraordinary rate of growth.
  • Without doubt, that audience share is already substantially higher.
  • More than half of TikTok users are aged 16-24.

A Gen Xer myself, TikTok is installed on both my work and personal phones (though I never post anything). I came to the platform out of curiosity and stayed for the news. Through my Gen Z children I have slowly come to recognise its importance – and that it is here to stay.

While I grew up on a diet of newspapers and BBC Radio in its many guises, my frighteningly well-informed teenage children get their news from TikTok, with a bit of Instagram thrown in for good measure.

This tallies with the data, which tells us that a minority of the younger generation get their news from traditional media, while live TV’s audience is in chronic decline. For Gen Z, TikTok is their window on the world, and we ignore this at our peril.

News organisations get it. Sky News (News Channel of the Year for the past six years running) has shifted to a wildly successful digital-first strategy, blazing a TikTok trail with their brilliant posts on the Ukraine conflict.

Even the BBC can’t ignore this, and Auntie is – albeit with some reluctance – following suit. The fact that on TikTok Sky (3.8M followers) significantly outperforms BBC News (1.2M) tells you something about what is at stake here.

Sunday’s message to staff has its own internal logic, tallying as it does with the Government’s own concerns regarding data privacy and security. Under its unique charter, the BBC is compelled to act differently from commercial news organisations.

But it does not herald the end of the BBC’s relationship with TikTok. For the corporation’s 3,500-strong news department, TikTok is going nowhere. And you can bet your bottom dollar that the marketing department will continue to trail shows on the platform. It would be folly to do otherwise.

Because this is the new reality for the BBC, for businesses and brands. For all of us. Social media behemoths such as TikTok are not a dumbed-down carbuncle on the backside of mainstream news – they are mainstream news.

As such they represent a huge communications opportunity for any organisation. One which should not – indeed cannot – be ignored.