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10 March 2023

When will the BBC get over its fear of the right-wing press?

The Gary Lineker affair has proved the corporation still takes its lead from the same papers that want to destroy it.

By Steve Richards

How to decide what a news story is? This timeless question should be asked more often. At the BBC a manager, or perhaps many of them separately, decided that Gary Lineker’s tweet on the government’s “stop the boats” policy was so significant that the story should lead news bulletins all day. Meanwhile every relevant interviewee was asked their opinion on the subject.

Here we have a football presenter tweeting in a personal capacity. Arguably it is vaguely newsworthy that Lineker tweeted his disapproval in such a vivid manner, comparing the government’s approach to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. But he is not a BBC figure responsible for any part of news and current affairs output, nor an elected politician seeking to sway a policy. Had a cabinet minister tweeted in the manner Lineker did, it would have been a dramatic news story. But Lineker has never expressed a political word on Match of the Day and would not consider doing so. So why did the BBC respond with such disproportionate hysteria?

A key factor in what the corporation decides should be given prominence on its many outlets is fear. Nervy editors are accountable to managers above them who are in turn answerable to layers further up the generously staffed BBC hierarchy. One of their eternal worries is that at the end of a programme or bulletin an intimidating question might be asked of them by one of their managers. Why did they not follow up a story in the Daily Mail or the Daily Telegraph? The manager posing that question may not have given much thought to the front page, but he or she will be reflecting a wider fear that binds them all together: a terror of being targeted by powerful right-wing newspapers and tweeters for being too “liberal” and for overlooking a “big” story as a result. The fear is heightened when they all know that at the top of the organisation sits a director-general (Tim Davie) unsubtly trying to appease a government that is no fan of the BBC, and a chairman (Richard Sharp) known to have been a Tory donor, and who has worked convivially and now infamously with Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson, respectively. 

In the face of all these apparent pressures, the main reason the BBC gave the Lineker story such excessive prominence is that both the Mail and the Telegraph placed it on their front pages, complete with screaming headlines. These two newspapers, along with the Times, are a mighty influence on the BBC’s news agenda. If the Mail and the Telegraph had not led on the Lineker affair, the story might have featured in news output but I doubt if even the BBC, with its tabloid instincts and its neurotic self-obsession, would have devoted such resources to it. Consider all the thorny questions arising from the government’s “stop the boats” plan. Interviews with Suella Braverman and Yvette Cooper could have lasted for hours. But before long, both were asked about Lineker, as if he was lurking in the wings as a political player ready to overturn the government’s approach, rather than preparing for the next Match of the Day.

The pattern is depressingly familiar. Several days before the Mail was fuming about Lineker it was whipping up a frenzy on its front page about Keir Starmer’s attempt to make Sue Gray his chief of staff. At 6.30 that morning the BBC news website did not feature the Gray story, having reported it the day before. By 8.30am the “story” was number two in the running order, and two hours later it was leading with the headline “Tory anger at Labour job for Partygate probe chief Sue Gray”.

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When the Mail led on the Durham police investigation into whether Starmer broke lockdown laws for day after day last year, the BBC soon joined in. There were slots on the Today programme exploring the same theme. There had been no new development in the actual story. The only twist had been the Mail suggesting that Starmer was at least as culpable as their hero Boris Johnson. What was the news story? There was not one. 

A dark dance ensues. In pathetically choosing to lead with the Lineker story for a day, the BBC gave the Mail plenty of material for the paper to put it on the front page the following morning. Nothing had happened but the two organisations were feeding off each other.

There are other factors. Some BBC managers sense they know what “the people” are interested in, an instinct that led them to hire a helicopter to fly above Cliff Richard’s house when he was being investigated for crimes he did not commit. The “people” are worked up about small boats and Lineker is more famous than most politicians. That is enough for some of them. They do not ask the question “what is a news story?”

One way of answering this question is to weigh up the significance of all the “stories” that erupt around us every minute of the day. The government’s “plan” for boats is hugely significant. Lineker’s views are not. The Mail and the Telegraph have reached a different judgement for their own well-known reasons. The BBC follows. The two papers and others will soon turn their fire on Keir Starmer as the election moves into view. They will influence the questions asked on BBC interviews and some of the analysis from their correspondents. The compliment will not be returned. The papers will continue their onslaught on the BBC.

Read more:

In defence of Gary Lineker

Gary Lineker interview: “The BBC can’t stop me talking about politics”

Gary Lineker’s pre-emptive strike against BBC head Tim Davie

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