There has been only one UK story these past few days, to the near exclusion of everything else: Gary Lineker and the BBC. A brief recap: Gary Lineker fronts BBC Match of the Day
(MOTD) for which he is paid £1.3 million, the corporation's highest earner while working for other broadcasters. Lineker has a very high social media profile and regularly tweets on public issues and controversies far removed from football. Last Wednesday, he tweeted on the UK Government's Illegal Migration Bill, saying that the debate around it had a 'language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s'.
This brought forth the usual outrage from Tory MPs, right-wing Daily Mail
who are on permanent BBC and Lineker watch. BBC head Tim Davie then suspended Lineker on Friday while they sought to reach 'agreement' between Lineker and the corporation. In the aftermath, the story took complete control of the media world over the weekend, leading to MOTD and MOTD2 (its Sunday equivalent) and all BBC football-related coverage being pulled as pundits and presenters acted in solidarity with Lineker. An interesting caveat is that no Scottish football folk saw this as grounds for solidarity – the likes of Stuart (Cosgrove) and Tam (Cowan) sailing on with Off the Ball
and the entire BBC Scotland weekend coverage.
On Monday, as this circus continued, Tim Davie announced a way forward; Lineker was returning to MOTD and the BBC would undertake an independent review of their social media guidelines. Why was Lineker suspended in the first place? What had been gained apart from bringing Davie's judgement into question? Had Davie, by his initial action, caved into right-wing pressure? Why didn't he just announce last week that the corporation were instituting the review he announced on Monday – rather than being pressurised by the right-wing mob out to get the BBC?
The Lineker case is not an isolated controversy. On the very same day that Lineker went on gardening leave, it was reported that Sir David Attenborough had a BBC programme on the environmental crisis pulled because it might offend right-wing opinion; it turned out not to be true. At the same time, the BBC issued a torturous statement after BBC Question Time
included a discussion on Stanley Johnson (Boris Johnson's father) and domestic violence, where presenter Fiona Bruce seemingly diminished it as a 'one-off'. And on the day that Lineker returned to the BBC, Bruce announced she was leaving her role as chair of the women's support organisation, Refuge.
All of this raises big issues about the BBC which are not going to go away. One is how the BBC manages the big talent names it employs. Many – Gary Lineker, Alan Sugar, Chris Packham and others – quoted in dispatches, are employed by the BBC as freelancers. They are not BBC staff, have work and public profiles beyond and independent of the BBC, and hence make public comments on various subjects not BBC-related.
Are BBC senior management and right-wing critics of the BBC really suggesting that the corporation should control public pronouncements of people with a BBC contract when they are not speaking for
the BBC? So much for the right's defence of 'free speech' and opposition to 'cancel culture'. One dimension of the right-wing campaign against the BBC is that it wants a future corporation cut down in size, bereft of big names and celebrities, shoehorned into news and current affairs.
There is also the issue of BBC guidelines and how they pertain to freelancers. The current guidelines, which were signed off in October 2020 by current BBC head Tim Davie (who was then one month in the job), say: 'There are also others who are not journalists or involved in factual programming who nevertheless have an additional responsibility to the BBC because of their profile on the BBC'. This became known at the time as 'the Lineker clause'.
A narrow interpretation of this has been BBC former senior staff saying that the Lineker case was caused by 'confusion' over 'the guidelines' – punted by former BBC Director General Mark Thompson. A view which makes the entire affair about internal BBC processes, management and the handling of talent a traditional BBC view that ignores external factors.
Another factor is BBC 'impartiality'. At the weekend, Tim Davie announced that he had 'a passion for impartiality' and when appointed BBC Director General declared this his number one issue. BBC guidelines on impartiality declare that it means 'reflecting all sides of arguments and not favouring any side'.
The wording of the concept of 'impartiality' becomes controversial when it comes into contact with the real world. How does one maintain impartiality on a subject such as climate change when there is inarguable evidence that human intervention has caused huge damage to the planet? Sometimes the BBC answer this by going for spurious 'balance' when there is none by offering equivalent space to climate change deniers. And that is only the most obvious example of a whole number of cases: the global assault on LGBT equality; the war on women and reproductive rights; the undermining of democracy and democratic legitimacy by the authoritarian right.
This brings us to the core of what the BBC is: its purpose and mission. The BBC in public profess that it stands ideologically neutral, impartial and for 'balance', but this is spurious and has never been true throughout the BBC's history.
The BBC occupies a clear ideological space that stands for liberal democracy, rights and values. The issue is that these values used to not be contested in the days of Lord Reith, allowing the BBC to tell us what its interpretation of these values were. Slowly in the post-war era, these became more debated and contested, and even in places democratised in the 1960s and 1970s. Subsequently, since the 1980s, these notions have become increasingly disputed and argued over and even in recent times – the very notion of liberal democracy itself – attacked.
The BBC has found itself at the centre of such controversies. BBC senior management find themselves genetically programmed to be unable to say explicitly that these are the liberal democratic values we stand for and unequivocally stand against the critiques of right-wing authoritarianism and their take of the world (which always comes in the UK with an assault on the notion of the BBC).
Pivotal to this is the relationship between the BBC and the right-wing media in the UK and the increasingly hysterical, hyper-partisan and ideology-driven commentary of the Daily Mail
, Daily Express
and Daily Telegraph
, along with GB News
. This has in effect become an orchestrated right-wing lie machine – a bitter, miserablist view of the world with enemies and threats everywhere, which include 'billions' of asylum seekers and refugees coming to the UK (Suella Braverman), 'woke' lawyers, the BBC, liberal civil service ('the blob' in right-wing discourse) and the thought police of universities.
The right-wing lie machine is out to get the BBC. It finds its liberal values offensive and because of this takes exception to the funding model of the BBC regarding its licence fee as a form of compulsory taxation. This assault on the BBC creates huge problems for its senior management and has done for years. Their innate instinct is to seek to bend, twist and appease this ongoing war – continually retreating, apologising and in so doing undermining the case for the corporation to the dismay of many BBC journalists and staff.
This dynamic happens all the time on small and large issues: Andrew Marr at the BBC being reprimanded for commenting on the 'smirk' on Priti Patel's face; or Emily Maitlis at Newsnight
given a dressing down for her comments on the evasions of Dominic Cummings and Barnard Castle. All of which comes at a cumulative cost to the BBC, how it does news and current affairs, particularly in the UK, and how it expresses its independence from government.
The way BBC senior management and most of their own coverage addresses the right-wing onslaught is to deal with it in as non-ideological way as possible. A recent example was provided by the BBC Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg
show, which had a total of four people talking about Gary Lineker: former BBC staff Mark Thomson and Peter Salmon, with a Labour and Tory MP. Not one of these four mentioned the assault on the BBC by the Mail
, and that they have been going after Lineker for years and were in an incendiary mode after his tweet the previous week.
The BBC has been browbeaten by the right-wing media onslaught. It has produced a craven BBC senior management who have time and again backed down and reprimanded BBC staff for content. They have in public dealt with these controversies in a managerial manner, not wanting to comprehend that they are in an ideological war. Former BBC manager, Roger Mosey, grasped this after the decision to put Lineker on gardening leave: 'By removing Lineker from MOTD, it looks as if the BBC has given in to one side of the culture war'.
After the Lineker controversy
Where does this end post-Lineker? As things stand, it is unlikely to end well. We are unlikely to see any change from a BBC senior management which continually appeases its right-wing critics. Even a change of UK Government is unlikely to alter this long-term dynamic.
This will contribute to further undermining the reputation of the BBC which is exactly what the right-wing lie machine want, aided by the cowardice and confusion of BBC senior management. They do not grasp that the BBC sits in that ideological space – one which is under attack globally from right-wing forces.
There are serious questions about whether the BBC can survive in its present form in an age of disruption. How can the BBC be truly independent of government given the top two posts in it – Tim Davie and Richard Sharp – are Tory sympathisers? This question of 'independence' goes beyond Davie and Sharp to the core issue of how the BBC is constituted and funded and how the latter is controlled by government.
A second major strand is how public service broadcasting as a principle is expressed, which is something bigger than the BBC. In an age of multi-media platforms and consumption, a debate is needed which goes beyond defending the status quo or calling for the privatisation of the BBC.
The BBC is an important part of the UK media landscape. That is why it matters so much to its critics as well as defenders. But, in a fast-changing media world, there has to be a debate which goes beyond the simplicities of defending the BBC as it is, demolishing it, or diminishing its role.
Rather than those three Ds, a fourth should be explored: democratising – getting the BBC to reflect more fully the diversity of life and society in the UK, including the nations and regions of the UK. Exploring that option could allow the BBC and with it a public Scottish Broadcasting Corporation to adapt and survive in a more varied, diverse media world. Without such dramatic change, it faces a perilous future where it will likely wither and decline.