The BBC and impartiality
Henry Parker reviews the impartiality background of the recent Gary Lineker BBC scandal and it’s consequence for the government’s impending asylum legislation.
New asylum plans have recently been unveiled by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, announced with a bold new phrase: “Stop the Boats”. The reform intends to prevent small boats from crossing the English Channel to make asylum claims, making it illegal for any unprocessed migrants to exist in the country. Illegal migrants are instead deported on a one-way-ticket to a “safe third” country like Rwanda to have their asylum claims processed there, a policy which is still being legally challenged because of how it conflicts with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and the 1951 Refugee Convention that was signed by the UK after the Second World War.
The legislation has been praised, criticised, and condemned.
Current Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who previously resigned from this job after a record low 43 days after she was found to have breached the Ministerial Code, released a video saying “enough is enough. We must stop the boats”, which one critic, Gary Lineker, responded to online, calling it “beyond awful”.
An influx of reaction came in, further igniting what has already been a very fierce debate
The former Men’s England Footballer disagreed with the government’s position on the severity of the issue of channel crossings, saying that there is “no huge influx”, then ending the tweet with the now infamous line that “this is language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 1930s”. The message was sent out, and an influx of reaction came in, further igniting what has already been a very fierce debate.
Media reactions from the Right of British politics, led by papers like the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, called on the BBC to take action, citing how, as the highest paid BBC presenter of flagship show Match of the Day, Lineker must have breached the impartiality guidelines.
The current director-general of the BBC, Tim Davie, highlighted impartiality as the most important focus for him when he came into the role. As a freelancer, Lineker would have signed a new BBC contract and so, and like any figure with a large platform, he would have to use his language responsibly to not sow seeds of distrust between the BBC and the license-fee paying public – an adherence to the so-called “Lineker clause”.
Others came to the former striker’s defence, for what he said or just his right to say it. Piers Morgan has expressed his support, despite their long history of disagreements and his own issue with the comparison to “what Nazi Germany did”. Other voices supported his specific reference to the 1930s, notably Joan Salter MBE, a child survivor of the Holocaust who recently confronted Braverman about the language that was being used to describe migrants, highlighting their concerns and questioning “when does rhetoric overflow into action?”
The story of his reaction began to eclipse the legislation itself, becoming the lead story of the BBC Ten O’clock News.
The cheery looking Lineker made clear that he had every intention of hosting Match of the Day as usual, but that changed when the BBC put out a statement on March 10th saying that he was stepping back from future programming. This set off a reaction that the BBC could not possibly have expected. MotD co-hosts Ian Wright and Alan Shearer announced their intentions to stand in solidarity with Lineker and not appear on Saturday’s programme – resulting in a weekend of sport like no other. Matches were played without commentary or analysis, and it seemed for a short while that the entirety of BBC Sport was about to come crashing down.
Gary Lineker is back in his MotD post like nothing happened, the leadership of the BBC apologised but saw no changes in leadership, and the government has not wavered from its path
Lineker’s suspension from BBC programming would only last until Monday however. In a short BBC interview, Davie apologised for the disruption caused but maintained that this was no U-turn and that he and Lineker had been in talks and now will “look forward with this agreement… to resolve things and get back to business as usual”.
So, what was it all for? Gary Lineker is back in his MotD post like nothing happened, the leadership of the BBC apologised but saw no changes in leadership, and the government passed the second reading of the asylum bill through the House of Commons with no Conservative MPs voting against it. It may go on to face further legal challenges and changes from the House of Lords, but for now the government has not wavered from its path.
By contrast, the BBC has appeared to do nothing but waver, raising more questions about their impartiality than answering them. Appearing to cover for the government by censoring its critics is never good for the BBC, especially in light of recent scandals that have already been circulating for some time now.
Most notably the current chairman of the BBC, Richard Sharp, is currently under investigation for having facilitated an £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson, before he was appointed by the then Prime Minister. He denies that this posed a conflict of interest, but Leader of the opposition Keir Starmer has raised the question of whether his “position is still tenable” given the circumstances.
The BBC is seen as a global beacon of journalistic integrity, but the increasingly polarised media environment back home poses an existential threat to the corporation
But we may not have to look to BBC personnel to see how the corporation may be pressured to act in compromising ways. A recent report suggests that the BBC has decided to not air an episode of the new David Attenborough series Wild Isles, that documents the human impact on Britain’s ecology, for fear of ‘right-wing backlash’ spurred on by papers like the Telegraph.
The BBC is seen as a global beacon of journalistic integrity, but the increasingly polarised media environment back home, where competing new organisations credit themselves by discrediting the BBC, poses an existential threat to the corporation. For faith in the impartial model to survive, it cannot break the promise of the publicly serving broadcasting company it set out to be, for once trust is lost, it does not easily come back. It cannot afford to create more issues for itself and must have the strength to pull through these problems with its sense of truth and fairness intact.