EVERY so often a news story comes along that quickly turns into a cultural anchor point. Certain events act like touchpaper and capture public interest in a way that most day-to-day news doesn’t.
Last week, Gary Lineker was given the first yellow card of his career after tweeting criticism of the UK government’s ‘stop the boats’ refugee policy.
The Match of the Day host, who has previously housed refugees at his home, took exception to the government’s Illegal Migration Bill and the language that surrounds it. Speaking out candidly online, as he has done on a range of different topics before, Lineker offered a counter-argument to the government’s position.
He wrote: ‘There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s…’
After a few days of hand-wringing by the BBC, Lineker was suspended from presenting duties on Friday after the organisation said he had breached the terms of its guidelines on the use of social media. His Match of the Day co-presenters, Ian Wright and Alan Shearer, refused to do Saturday’s show without him.
The whole affair has been spectacularly mishandled by the BBC and appears to have exposed the uncomfortable pressure its leaders must surely have faced last week from Downing Street or ministers – something that has been denied by BBC director-general Tim Davie. I guess we’ll have to wait for Isabel Oakeshott to get her hands on the relevant WhatsApp messages before we know the truth…
Clearly large organisations these days need to have social-media guidelines. For the BBC those rules differ depending on whether a presenter is considered an employee and whether they work on news programmes. Gary Lineker is a freelance host of a popular sports show.
Writing online, former BBC editorial complaints unit worker Andy Bell highlighted the relevant section of the company’s guidelines that apply to the ex-England international.
He tweeted this: ‘[Guideline] 15.3.13. Where individuals identify themselves as being linked with the BBC, or are programme makers, editorial staff, reporters or presenters primarily associated with the BBC, their public expressions of opinion have the potential to compromise the BBC’s impartiality and to damage its reputation. This includes the use of social media and writing letters to the press. Opinions expressed on social media are put into the public domain, can be shared and are searchable… The risk is greater where the public expressions of opinion overlap with the area of the individual’s work. The risk is lower where an individual is expressing views publicly on an unrelated area, for example, a sports or science presenter expressing views on politics or the arts.’
There might be a tiny gap within these words to decide that Lineker’s comments went too far. All the decision-makers have at their disposal is their own sense of what was said in relation to the phrasing of the BBC’s policy.
However, others were very quick to point out that the BBC’s own editorial complaints unit had rejected criticism of other presenters in similar situations.
Following a complaint about tweets written by BBC presenter and naturalist Chris Packham, the complaints unit said:
lHis Twitter account had no connection to the BBC.
lThe BBC’s editorial guidelines for freelance presenters ‘are not the same as they are for a BBC News or current affairs presenter’.
l‘We believe that our audience is able to separate Chris’s presenting work for the BBC from the personal views he shares outside of BBC programmes.’
In response to a similar complaint about broadcaster Andrew Neil, the former host of a number of BBC current affairs programmes, the organisation said his ‘Twitter account is a personal one – the BBC is not responsible for its content’.
Why the double-standard for Lineker? Why are his personal views a problem for guidelines interpreters (ultimately the BBC’s bosses) while others are given a longer lead?
The only reasonable conclusion we can draw is that the BBC’s leaders either sympathise with the Conservative government or want to actively help shape its success, perhaps following a persuasive WhatsApp message or two. If they did not, they would have treated everything differently – much as the corporation did with Packham and Neil – and the whole thing would have lasted a day at most.
It’s worth, at this point, having a quick look at who holds positions of power within the organisation.
The chairman of the BBC is Richard Sharp, who served as Rishi Sunak’s boss when both men worked at Goldman Sachs. He is under investigation for being appointed to the role after helping secure Boris Johnson an £800,000 loan. He has also donated £400,000 to the Tory Party.
BBC director-general Tim Davie stood as a councillor for the Conservatives in Hammersmith and has warned staff to avoid ‘virtue signalling’.
Board member Robbie Gibb was the head of communications for Theresa May; his brother is a Conservative MP. Mr Gibb was accused by former BBC newsreader and journalist Emily Maitlis during a lecture of being a ‘Tory agent’ who had actively influenced editorial policy. He is a Brexiteer who, in an article for the Daily Telegraph penned before he joined the BBC’s board, wrote: ‘The BBC has been culturally captured by the woke-dominated groupthink of some of its own staff.’
Following the turmoil, Mr Davie apologised to viewers that Match of the Day had become a hostless, 20-minute show and stated that there had been no ‘pandering’ to any political party following accusations that BBC executives had bowed to pressure from Downing Street and ministers over Lineker’s anti-government tweet.
Ultimately the BBC backed down and it was announced yesterday that Lineker would resume his presenting duties and that the organisation would review its guidance on the use of social media.
But the whole thing simply stank. Moreover, it overshadowed other important news stories, such as Boris Johnson’s second attempt to nominate former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre for a peerage.
It’s been a sad period for the BBC, which has been left looking like an extension of the government’s communications department, rather than the independent operation it should be.
Among the things pointed out online in the wake of Lineker’s removal was that the BBC tends to mould itself in the style of the government of the day. That has the rough ring of truth about it and there are probably many examples of it leaning to the Left while New Labour was running the country.
But despite the sensible conclusion to Linekergate, as some quickly called it, the BBC appears to have done itself great harm. The corporation’s leaders should visit the statue of George Orwell that stands outside Broadcasting House. On the wall next to it are words taken from an unused preface to Animal Farm: ‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’