Recent events surrounding Gary Lineker’s temporary suspension by the BBC have highlighted issues that go to the very heart of the BBC. While Lineker’s tweet criticising the government’s migrant policy was clearly a catalyst for the events that followed, it is not the root of the problem. The real issue is a lack of impartiality within the BBC.
The BBC’s mission, as defined by Royal Charter is: “to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain.” Its primary purpose is to “provide impartial news and information”. But it also has a duty to “champion[ing] freedom of expression.”
The BBC’s Director General, Tim Davie, commented on reinstating Lineker that it was “difficult to balance the BBC’s commitments” to these two principles. This is perhaps an under-statement in the light of previous crises and scandals to beset the BBC, including the 2011 quashing of the Newsnight programme about Jimmy Savile.
Tim Davie, Director General of the BBC. Photo credit: James Cridland, CC BY 2.0.
Let’s look at the extent to which the BBC is breaching impartiality in its leadership appointments. In 2020, Tim Davie was appointed Director General. He was formerly an unsuccessful Conservative candidate and deputy chair of a London Conservative association in the 1990s.
The following year, Tory donor Richard Sharp was appointed as Chair of the BBC. This was shortly after facilitating an £800K loan to then PM Boris Johnson, but he did not declare this fact when applying for the post. Sharp’s appointment is now under review and he is under pressure to resign.
Given their evident political allegiances, it is not surprising that critics say the BBC is under undue pressure from the government and therefore unable to be impartial.
These senior appointments followed on from the appointment of Fiona Bruce as host of BBC1’s flagship current affairs discussion programme Question Time in 2019. In marked contrast with David Dimbleby, whose own political opinions were a closely-guarded secret during his 25 years at the helm of that programme, Bruce has been accused of favouring right-leaning speakers on Question Time and routinely giving them longer to make their case than speakers from other parts of the political spectrum.
It has, further, been alleged that Question Time has in the past actively courted extremist views, repeatedly approaching far-right Islamophobic and xenophobic groups to fill the audience. This, in combination with the tendency to invite more Conservative and other right-wing panel members to the show, has undermined a balanced reporting of key issues such as Brexit and immigration, as well as normalising Covid and climate change denial.
Based just on the programme mentioned above, the BBC is failing in this, but this is not the only programme, and Bruce is not the only presenter whose apparent political stance impacts their performance. The World at One was found by Ofcom to have breached impartiality rules in 2021 concerning the handling of harassment complaints against Alex Salmond, and Radio 4’s Today programme is constantly under fire from both sides of the political divide.
Hosts of political discussions must understand the difference between fact and opinion. They should insist upon the use of factual information as a starting point and have the skills to question and probe guests and experts with opinions from all sides of the political spectrum – regardless of their own position. The BBC is now often falling short of this. Not only is this not impartiality, it is also a failure of the BBC to operate according to its own Royal Charter.
Unequal treatment? Gary Lineker, Photo credit: David Woolfall, CC BY 3.0.
Unequal treatment of freelances?
Lineker’s suspension was made after he compared the language used by the government regarding refugees to that used by Germany in the 1930s. The BBC took issue with Lineker for breaching impartiality, yet an impartial BBC could be expected to question the use of terms like “invasion”, used by Suella Braverman, not seem to support it.
The question being asked by many: – why is freelance presenter Lineker expected to be politically neutral on his personal Twitter account when others such as Alan Sugar are not? Why were Sugar’s political tweets acceptable? If Lineker’s stance is not to be tolerated, what about Deborah Meaden and Sue Perkins? Will they all be expected to tweet only in support of the government, failing which the BBC will refuse to screen their programmes?
It seems as if the BBC is operating a definition of ‘impartiality’ that defaults to the position of only one political party. Given the BBC’s current senior management, it is easy to understand why.
Throughout my life, the BBC has been the benchmark of quality and impartiality. This is no longer the case. Yet the problem is not the BBC per se. It is the excessive intrusion of the politics of the party in government into the heart of the BBC.
Need for an impartial BBC
Contrary to now renewed calls of several Conservative MPs that the BBC scrap the TV licence, we do need an impartial state-funded public service broadcaster. In this time of division and ‘fake news’ we need a trusted broadcaster that bases news, current affairs and documentaries on scientific, historic and/or evidence based facts, and is enabled and encouraged to question the government of the day – simply because to do so is reasonable in a mature, functioning democracy.
We can only achieve this if steps are taken to prevent blatant political appointments to the BBC, and review the appointments within the BBC of those whose performance and decisions suggest they cannot comply. The real problem is not Gary Lineker, nor is it Alan Sugar. They are entitled to their opinions. The real problem is that perceptions of ‘neutrality’ and ‘impartiality’ are skewed within the organisation itself.