The broadcaster has been rocked by a scandal involving Gary Lineker, one of its most popular and highest-paid presenters. The controversy has sparked a fierce debate about the role and relevance of the BBC in today’s media landscape. Some say the BBC is outdated, out of touch, and out of order. Others say the BBC is essential, trusted, and independent. Who is right?
The trouble started when Lineker, a former England footballer who hosts the Premier League highlights show ‘Match Of The Day’, tweeted his criticism of a new government immigration policy. The policy, proposed by Home Secretary Suella Braverman, aims to deter asylum seekers from crossing the English Channel in small boats by making their claims inadmissible. The policy has been condemned by human rights groups, lawyers, and the United Nations as unlawful, inhumane, and ineffective.
Lineker retweeted a video of Braverman explaining the policy, saying: “Good heavens, this is beyond awful.” He also retweeted a post that claimed the policy was incompatible with human rights laws. But it was his reply to a user who accused him of being “out of order” that caused the most outrage. Lineker said the policy was “immeasurably cruel” and “directed at the most vulnerable people, in a language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”.
The BBC, which has strict guidelines on impartiality and editorial standards, said Lineker’s tweets were a breach of its rules and asked him to step back from presenting ‘Match Of The Day’ until an agreement was reached on his social media use. The BBC said it expected its presenters to “keep well away from taking sides on party political issues or political controversies”.
The decision sparked a backlash from Lineker’s fans, colleagues, and fellow celebrities, who defended his right to free speech and praised his compassion. Many of them also criticised the BBC for trying to silence him and for being out of touch with its audience and its values. Some of Lineker’s co-hosts and other BBC sports presenters announced they would not take part in their shows in solidarity with him, forcing the BBC to apologise for the disruption and the disappointment of its viewers.
The BBC’s chief, Tim Davie, said he would not resign and hoped to find a way for some presenters to have opinions on certain issues. He said he was committed to impartiality and wanted to restore trust in the BBC. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who backed the immigration policy, said he hoped Lineker and the BBC could sort out their problems. He said it was their problem, not the government’s.
The Gary Lineker saga has exposed some of the deep-rooted problems and challenges facing the BBC. The BBC is facing increasing competition from other broadcasters, streaming services, and social media platforms, which offer more choice, flexibility, and interactivity to the audience. The BBC is also facing increasing scrutiny from the government, which sets its funding and its charter, and from the public, which pays for its licence fee. The BBC is also facing increasing pressure from its own staff, who want more freedom, diversity, and creativity in their work.
So, if the BBC is facing a crisis of identity and credibility, then it is of its own making. Why did someone at the BBC make the decision to publicly wade into the Lineker controversy? Was it a genuine concern for the BBC’s reputation and standards, or was it a political move to appease the government and the critics of the BBC? Was it a fair and consistent application of the BBC’s guidelines, or was it a selective and arbitrary enforcement of the rules? A wise and strategic response to the situation, or a hasty and ill-advised reaction that backfired?
Does the decision set a dangerous precedent if another personality makes a statement on his own personal social media account? Does it mean that the BBC will monitor and censor the online activities of its presenters and journalists, regardless of their relevance and impact on their work? Will the BBC stifle and suppress the opinions and expressions of its staff, regardless of their validity and value? Does it mean that the BBC will alienate and antagonise its audience and its talent, regardless of their loyalty and contribution?
The BBC needs to rethink its role and its value as a public service broadcaster. It needs to adapt to the changing media landscape and the changing needs and expectations of its audience. It needs to respect and support its journalists and presenters who tell it like it is and who challenge the powerful. Not only that, but it needs to regain its trust and its independence as a credible and reliable source of news and entertainment. The soul of the BBC hangs in the balance. But the answer is not straightforward.