Britain's treasured BBC is engulfed in an impartiality storm of its own making
The jaunty theme tune to “Match of the Day,” the BBC’s flagship Saturday night soccer show, has been whistled by British viewers since its first edition aired in 1964.
But this weekend the program – typically a broadcasting staple and appointment viewing for fans of all ages – looked very different. Down to 20 minutes from its usual 90, it featured no branding, no commentary, no analysis and no trademark melody.
All because its presenter tweeted about the government’s new migration policy.
Gary Lineker, one of England’s greatest-ever footballers and for the past two decades its most prominent sports television presenter, has in the past week become a lightning rod in Britain’s culture wars and prompted a crisis at the United Kingdom’s cherished but troubled national broadcaster.
It began on Twitter when he likened a controversial new law aimed at blocking undocumented migrants from entering the country on small vessels, and its loaded “Stop the Boats” slogan, to language used in 1930s Germany – a comparison that drew an angry backlash from parts of Britain’s right-wing media and several lawmakers in its ruling Conservative Party.
Blanket coverage of the row overshadowed the government’s announcement; Lineker was suspended on Friday, but his colleagues refused to go on air without him, torching the BBC’s weekend sport schedule; the prime minister and leader of the opposition then weighed in, with neither backing the BBC; and Lineker was then reinstated on Monday, with a review announced into what freelancers outside of the corporation’s news arm (such as Lineker) can and cannot say on social media.
The BBC, as it so often does during moments of crisis, managed to anger almost everyone across the political spectrum during a days-long fit of self-flagellation.
Now, with Lineker back on air, it faces fresh questions about its complicated role in Britain’s national architecture – some of which reach all the way to those at the very top of the corporation.
The BBC holds a unique position in the British consciousness and remains both the model for and the envy of public service broadcasters around the world.
Millions of Brits get the bulk of their news, weather and entertainment from the corporation, and it frequently ranks among the institutions Britons are most proud of. But it just as often draws their ire, with any editorial decision it takes scrutinized by observers for even the faintest hint of political bias.
It has often been said by those associated with the corporation that, as long as both those on the left and the right complain their coverage is biased, it must be striking the right balance.
But those criticisms have become so thunderous in recent years that the BBC is struggling to assert itself. Some of its leading talents – who have jumped ship for competitors with deeper pockets and fewer restraints – fear it has become hypersensitive.
“We – journalists, management teams, organizations – are primed to back down, even apologize, to prove how journalistically fair we are being,” said Emily Maitlis, the former BBC “Newsnight” presenter whose interview with Prince Andrew doomed the reputation of the disgraced royal, during a lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival last year.
“If it suits those in power to shut us up – or down – they can. Critically, it’s lose-lose for the audience,” Maitlis said, warning that a fearful attitude risks the BBC becoming “mere clients of those in authority; cosy with those in command, disconnected from the very people we are trying to serve.”
Though independent in its coverage, the BBC’s funding is continuously reviewed by the government of the day and its chairman is appointed by the prime minister. It is funded by a £159 ($193) license fee, paid annually by every household that owns a television or watches streaming content.
It has toughened its long-winded rules on impartiality in recent years, and places stringent guidelines on journalists in its news department, who are expected never to let slip their views on matters of the day.
But the Lineker crisis was deepened by the gray area in which others involved with the network sit; the BBC has never quite defined, once and for all, exactly who on its payroll can and who cannot share an opinion – meaning that once the former footballer was suspended, his supporters found endless contradictions to hammer the BBC with.
Why was Alan Sugar, the host of “The Apprentice,” not disciplined for urging his Twitter followers to vote Conservative or lambasting former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as a “dangerous man?” What about his co-star, Karren Brady, who sits in the House of Lords as a Conservative peer? Why was Andrew Neil, the BBC’s longtime lead political interviewer, allowed to edit a right-leaning political magazine and share his own views online?
On Sunday, former Conservative minister Michael Portillo criticized Lineker’s “ego” on his GB News program, arguing that, “if those who are (the BBC’s) public face are party political, then the license fee becomes untenable.” But Portillo too presents a BBC program about British railways, and he was far from the only BBC collaborator to offer an opinion this week on the ability of other BBC associates to offer opinions.
“There is a long-established precedent in the BBC that if you’re an entertainment presenter or you’re a football presenter, then you are not bound by those same rules” on impartiality, former director-general Greg Dyke told BBC Radio 4 over the weekend.
The BBC will hope its newest review will close that quagmire of contradiction once and for all, but neither path forward is comfortable.
Either it will allow freelancers and entertainment personalities to have lives and opinions outside the company, opening itself up to further cases of public embarrassment and angry front pages when one is seen by some to have crossed a line. Or it will demand neutrality at all times from its lengthy list of collaborators, and no doubt invite an exodus of talent.
More problematic still is that the same thorny questions about impartiality extend to the BBC’s leadership.
Tim Davie, its director-general who defended his decision to suspend Lineker, ran for election as a local Conservative councilor in the 1990s; Robbie Gibb, who sits on the corporation’s board, was previously a director of communications for ex-Prime Minister Theresa May and assisted in the creation of rival, right-wing broadcaster GB News.
And Richard Sharp, the chairman of the BBC whose position is appointed by the government of the day, remains embroiled in his own impartiality scandal after it was reported he acted as a middleman when then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson was looking to secure a financial loan, weeks before Johnson appointed Sharp to his post. Sharp told lawmakers last month he “didn’t arrange the loan,” suggesting he acted as a “sort of introduction agency.”
“The real problem of today is that the BBC has undermined its own credibility” by suspending Lineker, Dyke told Radio 4.
“It looks like – the perception out there – is that the BBC has bowed to government pressure,” he said. “And once the BBC does that, then you’re in real problems.”
Both Sharp and Davie have rejected calls to step down from their posts as they became deeper embroiled by parallel scandals.
Davie was backed by Lineker himself on Monday, who noted “he has an almost impossible job keeping everybody happy, particularly in the area of impartiality.”
“I am delighted that we’ll continue to fight the good fight, together,” Lineker said.
But the uncertainty surrounding Sharp’s future has only increased. Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister who was likely frustrated to see a major policy announcement immediately overshadowed by the BBC scandal, refused to publicly back him when asked by reporters this weekend.
Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said Sharp’s role is “increasingly untenable” on Monday. “I think most people watching the complete mess of the last few days would say how on earth is he still in position and Gary Lineker has been taken off air?” Starmer said.
“When you sign up for a particular public post, you agree that there isn’t a conflict of interest or a perception of a conflict of interest,” former BBC Trust director Chris Patten told The Times.
“Different people clearly these days have a different view of what a perception of a conflict of interest is,” Patten said. “Plainly, Mr Sharp’s understanding of what it means is different from mine.”
However the current crises conclude, the BBC has taken another hit to its reputation at an inopportune time. It must again renegotiate its Royal Charter – a 10-year rolling agreement with the government that forms the basis of its funding model – by 2027, after thorny talks last time.
Ministers have chipped away at the corporation’s funding and Johnson’s government signaled a desire to scrap the license fee altogether last year, amid pressure from those on the right of the party.
Many of those same lawmakers eagerly cast Lineker’s comments as another sign that the BBC is overrun by left-leaning personalities, and sought to link it to their calls to end the license fee.
Some even went to pains to insist that Saturday’s paltry edition of “Match of the Day” – which did not even feature commentary after those who call the games declined to take part without Lineker’s presence – was an improvement on its usual offering. It “had all the goals in,” MP Scott Benton observed, to a chorus of ridicule.
But others urged the BBC to learn lessons from its own goal. “This is about much more than Gary Lineker,” Alastair Campbell, once spokesperson for former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, told the network on Monday. “There are lessons for the BBC: when you are subjected to this right-wing political pressure, you should resist it.”
In many ways, the scandal has held a mirror to Britain’s fractured political discourse, which is prone to several contradictions itself. Self-branded champions of free speech cheered Lineker’s removal for sharing his views on the migrant law; those labeled as cancel culturalists bemoaned his suspension.
But it is that partisan landscape in which the BBC must compete – a tall order for an organization founded on principles of impartiality, which has already lost on and off-screen talent to competitors without such strict procedures and threatens to alienate those who remain.
“It’s a mess, isn’t it?” former BBC executive Peter Salmon told the cooperation’s flagship political presenter Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday.
“He’s more than just a TV presenter, he’s a national figure,” Salmon said of Lineker. “He’s got views, he’s got passions … it may be that Gary has outgrown the job, and his role in the BBC.”