Gary Lineker saga exposes weakness at the heart of the BBC

Gary Lineker saga exposes weakness at the heart of the BBC
Опубликовано: Tuesday, 14 March 2023 06:34

National broadcaster in humiliating climbdown after bitter impartiality row.


Gary Lineker 1, BBC 0.

That was the consensus in Westminster on Monday as the U.K.’s national broadcaster was forced into an apology and an embarrassing climbdown following a bitter impartiality row with its star football presenter.

It followed a week in which what initially seemed a brief Twitterstorm was allowed to snowball into a far-reaching saga that gripped the watching public, drove a wrecking ball through Britain’s treasured weekend sports coverage, and raised broader questions about BBC impartiality, the role of social media and the broadcaster’s murky links to senior Tory figures.

It was announced Monday that Lineker, a former England striker who is paid more than £1 million a year by the BBC, will be back presenting Britain’s long-running football show Match of the Day this weekend, having been abruptly taken off air ahead of last week’s program.

The brief suspension came after Lineker triggered a social media storm by comparing the U.K. government’s language around its new immigration policy to that of Nazi Germany.

Lineker had argued that, given he is employed only as a freelance sports presenter, his personal Twitter feed is not subject to the BBC’s strict impartiality rules. Critics, including senior Tory politicians and influential right-wing columnists, vehemently disagreed. The BBC said Monday it will review its social media guidelines as part of the deal to get him back on air.

But worryingly for the BBC, the farcical saga — which saw star football pundits and commentators go on strike in solidarity with Lineker, causing the curtailment or cancelation of multiple sports shows over the weekend — has exposed serious weakness at the heart of one of Britain’s most recognized international institutions.

BBC bosses found they were effectively outmuscled by a handful of ex-footballers and commentators who used Twitter accounts and WhatsApp groups to sink some of its most high-profile programs Saturday and Sunday.

BBC Director-General Tim Davie, who made the call to suspend Lineker last Friday before backing down 72 hours later, has been left looking indecisive and with his authority badly diminished.

Tory MP and ex-Culture Secretary John Whittingdale said Lineker’s refusal either to delete the offending tweet or apologize was undoubtedly a “challenge to the director-general.”

“I think there may be a perception that Gary Lineker has challenged the leadership of the BBC and got away with it,” Whittingdale said.

Frustrated BBC employees, meanwhile, paint a picture of internal chaos and dysfunction as the broadcaster’s own news programs became dominated by the internal row through the course of last week.

“I don’t know why they obsess about this shit. Nobody is surprised about [Lineker’s] politics … and he’s just an (overpaid) sports presenter,” one BBC employee said.

Picking fights

Taking on one of England’s greatest-ever footballers over his political views appeared a strange fight for BBC bosses to pick, given the context of the past few months.

The BBC’s own chairman, a politically-appointed role, has been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks after the Sunday Times revealed he had helped facilitate a large personal loan for ex-PM Boris Johnson.

Richard Sharp was appointed to the high-profile role by Johnson’s government just weeks after the £800,000 loan was organized. An inquiry has since been launched. Critics suggested Sharp — who remained silent during the Lineker crisis — was unable to speak out in support of the BBC because his own position had become politically compromised. Opposition leaders called for him to resign.

There are also questions around the Conservative Party connections of Davie, an ex-deputy leader of a local Tory association, and BBC board member Robbie Gibb — the former Downing Street communications director to ex-Prime Minister Theresa May.

The saga also raises broader questions around the ability of BBC management to police the impartiality of its biggest non-journalistic stars, like Lineker, especially when their power and reach is inflated by large social media followings.

“Davie and Sharp have gone out of their way to be the enforcers of a specific model of impartiality that has fallen at the first significant challenge, and now look totally exposed,” a second BBC insider said.

“It’s not clear how they restore any credibility out of this, and there’s disbelief at how absent Sharp has been as this crisis has played out.”

Former BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis, who left the broadcaster last year to host The News Agents podcast, told POLITICO that “the last few days has exposed organizational weakness” at the Beeb.

“Gary Lineker was not unusual in his expressions of his political priorities — we literally see it the whole time from people who make money from the BBC — so the management has to explain why it turns a blind eye to some examples and holds others up to scrutiny from the tabloid papers,” she said.

Multiple critics of the decision to suspend Lineker have pointed to the example of Alan Sugar, a former businessman who fronts BBC show The Apprentice, and who frequently airs political views on social media.

The broadcaster’s social media guidelines say “actors, dramatists, comedians, musicians and pundits who work for the BBC are not subject to the requirements of impartiality on social media,” but that there are caveats for high-profile names.

But Whittingdale, who helped write the most recent BBC charter when he was a minister, argued that the guidelines were written with figures like Lineker specifically in mind.

“I think the director-general was right three years ago to say in the guidance issued that people who had a very high profile … bore some additional responsibility and should avoid getting into political controversy,” he said. “Gary Lineker, as the very highest-paid person by the BBC, is undoubtedly in that category.”

Political pressure at home and abroad

The decision to suspend Lineker — whose comments had been criticized both by Downing Street and by Home Secretary Suella Braverman — came after years of pressure on the broadcaster from successive Conservative governments over what some Tories view as the liberal-leaning tone of much of the broadcaster’s coverage.

Former PM Johnson and his ex-Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries would frequently castigate the BBC as a bastion of left-wing groupthink, and had threatened to radically alter its funding model by ending the mandatory license fee for all TV users.

Maitlis said the BBC had not been forceful enough in defending its coverage against government attacks.

“The BBC can’t be taking lessons in impartiality from the government of the day,” she said.

“As a presenter [for the BBC], I was told by a Cabinet minister that I wasn’t being ‘patriotic enough’ in the questions I was asking on air. That was over Brexit negotiations several years ago — alarm bells should have been ringing then.”

But Davie, in a BBC interview Monday, insisted he was “absolutely not affected by pressure from one party or the other.”

In truth, recent events have made BBC bosses look helplessly squeezed between increasingly critical government ministers and their own high-profile presenters, now empowered by social media platforms.

And the only loser, it seems, is the BBC itself.

“I’d say today’s announcement is a 5-0 win for Gary Lineker,” said former BBC director-general Greg Dyke, speaking on LBC’s Tonight with Andrew Marr.

Craig Oliver — a former communications director to ex-PM David Cameron, and a former senior BBC editor — noted: “The government will also feel it has won, and that the BBC can be pushed around.”

Davie and his executive team will doubtless just be happy for the news cycle to swiftly roll on. But they will do so wary that the Lineker row leaves the corporation in a far weaker position the next time it has to battle a high-profile star — or indeed a senior member of the government.

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