If you were looking forward to enjoying Football Focus or Match of the Day on the 11th of March, you would have been disappointed. The BBC’s sporting coverage was in disarray at the weekend because of a boycott from some of its high-profile hosts and co-hosts who disagreed with the broadcaster for suspending Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker over comments he made on social media relating to the government’s immigration policy. The BBC said the tweet breached its Editorial Guidelines on impartiality.
Impartiality is something that the BBC prides itself on and has had to defend over its 100-year history. In its Editorial Guidelines, the BBC states that it “is committed to achieving due impartiality in all its output. This commitment is fundamental to our reputation, our values and the trust of audiences.” It also says “[we] must always scrutinise arguments, question consensus and hold power to account with consistency and due impartiality.”
This is complemented by in-depth guidelines which provides for ‘Controversial Subjects’ including ‘political controversy.’ For BBC staff and regular BBC presenters or reporters associated with news or public policy-related output, the guidance says that ‘it is not normally appropriate for them to present or write personal view content on…matters of political controversy, or ‘controversial subjects’ in any area.’
If that independence is found wanting, and if the allegations made by senior politicians, such as Keir Starmer – that the BBC pandered to the demands of Conservative MPs in relation to Lineker – are true, then the credibility, purpose and, potentially, the very existence, of the entire corporation will be undermined. The public, which funds the BBC through the licence fee, will question what distinguishes the BBC from other commercial broadcasters, and therefore why it should continue to be publicly funded.Dr Peter Coe, Associate Professor at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham
The BBC also provides Guidance on ‘Individual use of social media’. It provides that “anyone working for the BBC is a representative of the organisation, both offline and also when online, including on social media; the same standards apply to the behaviour and conduct of staff in both circumstances”. It adds: “Those working for the BBC have an obligation to ensure that the BBC’s editorial decisions are not perceived to be influenced by any personal interest or bias.”
The BBC’s decision to suspend Lineker was controversial for three related reasons. Firstly, questions were raised as to whether the guidelines apply to Lineker in general, and regardless, whether his tweet fell within the ambit of the impartiality section. This is because he is a freelance broadcaster, and not responsible for news or political content. The tweet was also published on his personal account, which does not include an official link to the BBC or Match of the Day.
Secondly, the BBC’s application of the impartiality guidelines sparked a debate about whether its application can (and should) trump Lineker’s freedom of expression rights. Under the current funding model, most of the the BBC’s income comes from the mandatory licence fee paid by UK households. Therefore, unlike non-publicly funded broadcasters, being seen to be impartial is critically important to the BBC, and to the trust the public has in it as an organisation, and in its news and current affairs coverage. This row has highlighted a grey area in the BBC’s guidelines that it needs to consider carefully and address; that is, how the application of the impartiality clause may conflict with an individual’s right to freedom of expression, particularly where that individual – in this case Lineker – is a freelance broadcaster. If this were tested in court, the application of the clause – as applied to Lineker – could well be found to breach the right to freedom of expression.
And finally, is the issue surrounding its independence from the government, and the senior BBC leadership’s alleged ties with the Conservative Party. The BBC’s reputation as a ‘trusted’ broadcaster, and what distinguishes it from other publicly funded broadcasters around the world, is its independence from government and commercial influence. This is enshrined within its Royal Charter and is a core aspect of its mission and purpose. If that independence is found wanting, and if the allegations made by senior politicians, such as Keir Starmer – that the BBC pandered to the demands of Conservative MPs in relation to Lineker – are true, then the credibility, purpose and, potentially, the very existence, of the entire corporation will be undermined. The public, which funds the BBC through the licence fee, will question what distinguishes the BBC from other commercial broadcasters, and therefore why it should continue to be publicly funded.
Although it appears Lineker and the BBC have secured a truce, ultimately, the BBC could have avoided the mess it has found itself in, and its resulting loss of credibility. This was a battle it was never going to win, at least publicly, by suspending one of its most popular ‘stars’ over such an emotive and controversial issue. By engaging Lineker in the way it did it has highlighted his cause, and in doing so it has exposed itself to further controversy and scrutiny surrounding its governance, its application of the Editorial Guidelines, and the extent of its independence from government, and in particular, the Conservative Party.