A century has passed since the creation of the British Broadcasting Company. There are two principal obstacles to it enduring for another 100 years: hostile politicians who have long regarded an independent public service broadcaster as an inconvenience, and the BBC’s own ineptitude.
The Gary Lineker debacle has provided another demonstration of the latter. On 7 March the Match of the Day presenter tweeted that the UK government was using language “not dissimilar” to “Germany in the 30s”. He was commenting on the Sunak government’s Illegal Migration Bill, which is both unethical and unworkable. But comparisons with Nazi Germany invariably obscure more than they illuminate.
For the BBC director-general Tim Davie, who has made “impartiality” his lodestar, Mr Lineker’s comments were a political provocation. But the corporation could have responded by simply reiterating that the presenter is a freelancer rather than a staff member. Instead, taking its lead from the right-wing press, the BBC devoted absurd amounts of broadcast coverage to the story (the Today programme presenter Nick Robinson being a notable offender). The eventual suspension of Mr Lineker had predictably farcical consequences as BBC Sport programmes were cancelled or curtailed. Faced with this, Mr Davie sought to repair the damage by reinstating Mr Lineker and announcing a review of the BBC’s social media guidelines. By this time, the corporation had already shredded its credibility.
The problem is not merely the BBC’s treatment of Mr Lineker – shambolic as it was – but the contrast with its treatment of other high-profile freelance presenters. Alan Sugar, the star of The Apprentice, tweeted in praise of Boris Johnson and in condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn during the 2019 general election without reproach. When concerns were raised over the tweets of Andrew Neil, the chairman of the Spectator magazine and then a BBC politics presenter, the BBC Complaints Team replied: “Andrew is a freelancer and his Twitter account is a personal one – the BBC is not responsible for its content.”
But it is the presence of Richard Sharp as chair of the BBC that means the broadcaster’s protestations on impartiality are hollow. Mr Sharp, who was appointed in February 2021, has donated more than £400,000 to the Conservative Party and helped facilitate an £800,000 loan to Boris Johnson when he was prime minister – which he did not disclose during the appointment process. It is an outrage that Mr Sharp became chair of a publicly funded broadcaster and it will be a greater outrage if he survives.
The reason the suspension of Mr Lineker sparked such anger among BBC staff and freelancers is that the corporation plainly applies a different standard to Conservative supporters and right-wing presenters. Its board members include Robbie Gibb, the former director of communications to Theresa May, while Mr Davie himself was a Conservative councillor candidate in Hammersmith, west London, in 1993. Even if we assume they act in good faith, these close political associations are seriously unhealthy for a public service broadcaster.
The solution is not, however, for the BBC to adopt ever more rigid definitions of impartiality. As Andrew Marr, who worked at the corporation for more than 20 years, writes, “[Impartiality] has become a damaging way of thinking about modern politics. Fairness and openness are much more useful… Impartiality implies that there exists a virtuous, ‘side-free’ centre position that can fend off raucous partisan voices.”
Such thinking led the BBC to embrace “false equivalence”, with climate change deniers for so long pitted against scientific experts. Programmes such as BBC One’s Question Time indulged the tactics of the mob by assembling the most ideologically polarised panels available, rather than promoting intelligent, nuanced debate. It was the BBC that helped create the Manichaean media culture that now threatens its existence.
And yet, the BBC is an institution of which we ought to be proud. It occupies a vital intermediate space between the market and the state, and its founding mission to “inform, educate and entertain” is noble. In an era of fake news and hyperpartisan media, the rationale for a public-service broadcaster is stronger than ever. The problem, however, is how often the BBC falls short of this ideal.
This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe