I remember him as a dashing schoolboy centre-threequarter on the rugby field. He won a scholarship to Oxford and then we heard he had caught poliomyelitis and was partly paralysed. It had been a nervous time for all of us, as in 1956 there was an epidemic and no vaccines had yet been invented – we were familiar with tales of contemporaries who had died or were living in iron lungs. There was little guidance on how to avoid catching the disease. However, one of the great heroes of medicine, Jonas Salk, introduced his vaccine the very year of that outbreak and refused to patent it, so it rapidly became available throughout the world. I was one of the first to receive the injection on arriving at university that year.
Within a few years, one of the most serious killers of young people had come under control in the western world. An oral vaccine introduced a year later by Albert Sabin proved even more effective and now the WHO is on the verge of eliminating the disease altogether, save in some war-torn outposts of extreme poverty.
I came across him again indirectly in 1973 when I read The Siege of Krishnapur
, which won the Booker prize that year and this led me to Troubles,
which had been published in 1970 and was to win the so-called Lost Man Booker in 2020, and The Singapore Grip
published in 1978. By 1979, JG Farrell had died, drowned in a fishing accident probably related to disability from his old polio, for which the vaccine had arrived just a year too late. The three books, known as the Empire trilogy, have a common theme, the decline of British rule, referring specifically to the Raj, the fall of Singapore and Irish independence, but I expect you have read them.
Those books must be among the best novels of the late 20th century. They paint a picture of life among ordinary families as the structures of society crumble around them and they have to reappraise their long-held views. Although they are set in historic periods, they can be seen as prophetic and a warning. Farrell, had he lived beyond 44, would have had plenty of inspiration from what has happened to Britain since. If you look up impartial
in the OED, you will find: 'Not favouring one party or side more than another'. There is an example of its use by Farrell: 'An objective and impartial justice was abandoned'. This is what reminded me of his books in this context.
Who among us can be said to be impartial, unbiased, or unprejudiced? We may think we are but, if so, have we really considered the evidence, the pros and cons? Scientists may formulate a hypothesis, but in doing so they immediately show a natural inclination to prove it true; for this reason, they are required to design experiments that could show that it is not.
Every organisation contains people who can be expected to have opinions that vary. Personal opinions are hypotheses and can be tested by argument, something that is wholly healthy within an organisation. Organisations (from a small company or school to the NHS, BBC and multinationals) have a corporate identity which requires them and their staff to behave in a certain ethical way. However, this can lead to clashes and these are best avoided by acknowledging differences and controlling damage to organisational reputation by employment contracts, agreement between employees and employer. Beyond this, fundamental disagreement between the two parties can lead to the employee being sacked.
You may not be surprised to know that I have some experience, in fact quite a lot. I spent 13 years of my career working for British Coal, running a research institute concerned with investigation and prevention of industrial illness, and our scientific staff had a wide range of political views from Marxist rightwards. We were seriously threatened from 1979 onwards by contraction of the coal industry and, over the years, had expanded our work sufficiently by 1990 to be contemplating a future without support from that industry. We had had several awkward moments when we found problems related to disease that would have made headlines, but these were always solved amicably by discussion with managers and trade unions leading to preventive action, and there was never any problem after this in publishing our results in the scientific press. But any approach to the non-scientific media was forbidden without sanction from the top.
Despite the efforts we had made, British Coal decided to close us and make all 120 staff redundant, sending a senior board member to visit us under the pretext of an inspection. As I showed him round explaining our work, he asked several of my staff what they would be doing with their redundancy money. Unsurprisingly, and without seeking permission or even telling me, one of them went to the local newspaper and it appeared that evening with a banner headline: 'Coal Board to close Edinburgh Research Institute'. Within minutes, I received a phone call telling me to clear my desk and nominate a successor to oversee the closure of the Institute.
Going to the press had been a very risky thing to do as the Coal Board was very sensitive to adverse publicity and relations with the unions, which were supportive of us, were extremely tricky. But it had a happy ending, as I was able to negotiate my reinstatement and obtain sufficient support in grants to enable the Institute to survive as a self-funding charity under new leadership. It is still going strong 33 years later. But as head of the organisation that had leaked the news to the press, my suspension was probably justified though unfair. Unusually in these circumstances, the consequences turned out to be beneficial to the Institute.
The case for an organisation controlling access of its staff to the media is primarily to prevent reputational damage. This can occur even in the best of organisations from someone with a grudge, and is avoided by clarity about guidelines and action to be taken if they are abused. The BBC is a huge organisation and operates in a very diverse range of areas. Moreover, its staff are highly articulate and can be expected to have a wide range of political views. It is one of the most trusted organisations in the world, a position envied internationally, and cannot afford to lose that trust. In a way, it is far more important and influential than any individual government, all of which can easily be replaced. And now it has to cope with the social media, at the exact opposite end of the spectrum of trust but from which millions of the innocent or unsophisticated derive their beliefs.
I doubt anyone was surprised by Gary Lineker's expressed views which, looked at rationally, were a hyperbolic way of pointing to the early steps occurring in the rise of fascism – organised groups denigrating other groups, implying they include rapists, robbers and paedophiles. He was right, as this is actually happening now with respect to migrants. Such language is a dog whistle which leads to hotels and immigrants being attacked.
To say such things is certainly demonstrative of bias, but against fascism which I hope we all share. But the BBC's immediate, if apparently hesitant, reaction was wrong even if justified. Such disputes are best settled by discussion out of the glare of the media and in this case I hope will result in clearer definition of the contracts of BBC employees and recognition that any views expressed in other contexts are not necessarily those of the employer.
The BBC does hold a special place in the UK, and our trust in the information it passes to us is essential. We know from the awful example of Fox News
in the USA how dangerous a right-wing bias can be and we know how all autocracies suppress alternative views. The BBC walks on a corporate tightrope, prone to be wobbled to left or right depending on the government in power. This is anomalous – it does not encourage objectivity if the chair and director general are political appointees! If this were not the case, it would be less sensitive to expression of political views by members of its staff.
The BBC and other UK broadcast media employ very talented political correspondents, interviewers and presenters, and in general they do a good job in exposing the plans, ideas and prejudices of our politicians. They also employ equally talented people in the sports and arts. All will have political views – in one group they must be controlled to avoid partiality in their presentations but in the others these hardly matter and are unlikely to damage the image of the organisation; the public can judge them according to our own biases.
Jim Farrell was an author who expressed his views in his work. In the 1970s, he questioned the role of the British Empire, a view in tune with the thinking of many educated people at the time but not a popular one. He was far from impartial, and that made great literature. In a different world and time, Gary Lineker is a very talented and engaging football broadcaster who holds liberal views which may not be commonly found either in crowds of football supporters or in the extremely wealthy. If this is correct, his views may cause some to change theirs towards a more sympathetic attitude to immigrants. We do not know how best to deal with the coming surge in climate and warfare migration worldwide, but he has done us a service in opening the matter to reasoned debate. All nations need to agree safe pathways for the needy and dispossessed.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own