Support 100 years of independent journalism.

Fear and loathing at the BBC

In an era of fake news and hyperpartisan media, the rationale for a public-service broadcaster is stronger than ever.

By New Statesman

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.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. Your guide to the best writing across politics, ideas, books and culture - both in the New Statesman and from elsewhere - sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

[See also: How much longer can Richard Sharp last as BBC chairman?]

Content from our partners
A better future starts at home
How to create an inclusive workplace and embrace neurodiversity
Universal Credit falls short of covering the bare essentials. That needs to change

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.

[See also: Fiona Bruce is being scapegoated for our ignorance]

Topics in this article : , , , ,

This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe