We need to rethink BBC impartiality in wake of Lineker debacle
Richard Norrie, 24 March 2023
The recent Gary Lineker debacle has brought the issue of BBC impartiality back into the spotlight. Impartiality is vital for the BBC in order for it to command confidence as well as justify the licence fee. Allegations of bias against it are widespread and the BBC has tacitly admitted it has a problem. Yet, some smell a rat and regard BBC director general Tim Davie’s initiative to restore impartiality as an attempt to undermine BBC independence. They point to links between the Conservative Party and recently installed senior BBC figures such as Richard Sharp and Robbie Gibb as well as Davie’s brief and historic association.
If there is a political turf war going on over the BBC, this should not obscure a wider issue of BBC bias, which is one of culture and values. As Davie has said, ‘it is not simply about left or right. This is more about whether people feel we see the world from their point of view.’ Ofcom research has shown how the BBC tends to reflect the lives of those who are upper-middle class more often and more favourably, or at least, that is the perception. Certainly, Brexit caught many in the BBC by surprise with critics pointing out it simply did not understand the views of much of the country despite being bound to represent them. Perhaps this is why Lineker’s liberal views on migration have clearly struck a nerve in that the BBC is sensitive to being seen as representing those who can afford to take in immigrants into their own homes rather than those who must compete with them for basic services such as healthcare, housing, and schooling.
BBC staff are obliged to maintain impartiality on social media because their conduct there reflects back on their employer, which must maintain impartiality. A convenient fiction has set in that the BBC’s social media guidelines are vague. For instance, Lineker’s agent Jon Holmes wrote in the New Statesman, ‘BBC guidelines on social media use for staff and freelancers are – let us say – a bit vague, and Gary is self-employed.’
Whatever vagueness there is, none of it is sufficient to let Lineker completely off the hook for his tweet comparing government rhetoric to that ‘used by Germany in the ’30s’. In the section of the BBC’s guidelines headed ‘Rules and expectations of social media use for all colleagues (employees, contractors and freelancers)’ there is no mention of avoiding taking sides on party political issues or controversies for those who do not work on news or current affairs and perhaps even the tacit permission to do so. The rules are:
- Always behave professionally, treating others with respect and courtesy at all times: follow the BBC’s Values.
- Don’t bring the BBC into disrepute.
- If your work requires you to maintain your impartiality, don’t express a personal opinion on matters of public policy, politics, or ‘controversial subjects’.
- Don’t criticise your colleagues in public. Respect the privacy of the workplace and the confidentiality of internal announcements.
Since Lineker’s work in presenting sports does not require political impartiality or even football impartiality for that matter since everyone knows he supports Leicester, under Rule 3, he could claim his tweets were within the rules. However, it is also arguable that he broke Rules 1 and 2, through treating the Home Secretary with great discourtesy through apparently comparing the approach of the Home Office to Nazi Germany and in doing so bringing the BBC into obvious disrepute. Had he merely stated his disagreement with the policy, he would have had a case.
Supporters of Lineker point to double standards, in that other BBC employees were let off, including Andrew Neil and Alan Sugar. The problem with this argument is that the names mentioned are invariably irregular or occasional presenters who according to the rules, ‘would not be required to apply the full requirements of the Editorial Guidelines to their social media use.’ Moreover, ‘actors, dramatists, comedians, musicians and pundits who work for the BBC are not subject to the requirements of impartiality on social media.’ Andrew Neil’s time at the BBC scarcely overlapped with the guidelines on social media use as they currently stand – he left in November 2020 while the guidelines were introduced just a month before.
The only defence for Lineker will be any exemption in his contract with the BBC, since the rules state ‘the extent to which a non-staff member, contributor or presenter is required to comply with the Editorial Guidelines [on social media use] will be set out in the BBC’s contractual relationship with them.’ Lineker’s agent has claimed he ‘had a special agreement with Tim Davie… to tweet about these issues.’
Ultimately, this is where the rules breakdown since they cannot survive under the impression there is a smorgasbord of rules depending on the person in question. A review is thus welcome. In any case, an agreement to tweet about immigration does not obviate Lineker’s obligation to conduct himself well and avoid bringing the BBC into disrepute. There is also the unaddressed problem of well-paid pundits going on strike, disrupting broadcasting, in a manner that would only serve to influence an internal BBC disciplinary matter.
As things stand, there is a hierarchy whereby news and current affairs presenters must observe strict impartiality online, while others must in essence conduct themselves well while enjoying more freedom to write about what they care about. These apply to freelancers as much as anyone. Occasional presenters or pundits as well as creative talent are largely exempt. While we might be sympathetic to Lineker in that no one seriously expects him not to have an opinion because he presents football, on which his political views have no bearing, there is still one often-overlooked problem.
Every time he appears on television courtesy of the BBC, his profile is enhanced and his social media following is potentially increased. He can then use his considerable following to sway political opinion or heap pressure on elected politicians. Lineker currently has around 8.9 million followers on Twitter, making him a significant player. His production company further produces political podcasts featuring the divisive commentator Alistair Campbell which he promotes on Twitter. The question that the BBC must address, in addition to ironing out whatever inconsistencies there are in its policy, is what to do about this problem of the licence fee payer subsidising presenters with a political clout they can then use to their own ends. Impartiality includes being impartial to Gary Lineker as much as the modest and reasonable expectations it imposes on him.