Most BBC “scandals” are not about the BBC. They are about a political controversy – around nuclear war in 1965, the dirty war against the IRA in 1979, the Falklands, Iraq and David Kelly – consuming the political class, who use the BBC as their magnifying glass, while being largely ignored by everyone else.
Then there are the cultural scandals, which draw much more attention – Jimmy Savile and paedophilia, most obviously, or Princess Diana and the Panorama interview. These are moments of BBC turmoil when the nation reflects on itself.
The Gary Lineker affair is a new category of BBC scandal, entirely of itself. Having been badly handled, the saga now seems to have been resolved – Lineker 1, BBC management 0 – but it leaves the corporation weakened after days of hard scrutiny of its underlying biases.
The story began with an argument over immigration on social media, and quickly engulfed the entire BBC sports department. In politics a good rule of thumb is that things get serious when the people who aren’t interested in politics start to notice. Drawing the football-watching population of the UK into a row about immigration and free speech was serious.
I’ve spoken to quite a few current BBC staff who think Tim Davie, the director-general, blew it and should now resign. He is relatively young, without broadcasting experience, a one-time Conservative and he can be cocky; and yet I don’t agree. If you look back over this century, the leaders of the BBC have had an even shorter and more perilous lifespan than the leaders of the Tory party. A culture of swift resignation in response to bad headlines has run alongside institutional failure. It might be time to move to: “lesson learnt; stay on and clear up.”
But Davie had run out of options for a successful end to this. The most sensible way out was first proposed by the former controller of Radio 4 and sometime New Statesman contributor, Mark Damazer. My edited version goes: Davie says to Lineker, “Look, we’ve both screwed up. Stay on Match of the Day until the end of the season at least. In return I’ll put all the impartiality rules out to a consultation, which will involve the staff (who mostly back you) and audiences (who seem to, as well). You will probably find the result cheering. In the meantime, pipe down.”
If Lineker had agreed Davie would have had a result – no more perilous tweeting, Match of the Day restored. If Linker had told the director-general to get stuffed, Davie could have given an interview saying “…and then he told me to get stuffed”. Lineker’s departure would have been about authority and Davie would be vindicated. Instead we have a terse armistice announcement, more on Lineker’s terms than the BBC’s, with much still to be resolved.
The essential unresolved issue is whether a new regime of discipline is now applied to Conservatives as well as the liberal left. Alan Sugar, to take one example, should be told that if he ever tweets again in the manner he did about Jeremy Corbyn he would be fired. The BBC chairman, Richard Sharp, Tory donor and friend of Boris Johnson, should resign, saying that he realises his appointment has damaged impartiality.
Of course, there are those in the Conservative Party who will try to continue their war against the BBC. But they would be ill-advised. It’s one thing to attack anonymous, “arrogant” BBC managers; it’s quite another to be responsible for mayhem in football, our strange national religion.
The question of whether a sixth programme in David Attenborough’s new series Wild Isles was removed from broadcast and confined to the iPlayer owing to fears of a right-wing backlash is much murkier. The BBC insists this isn’t the case. But again, tread warily, Tories. As the journalist AA Gill pointed out many years ago, Attenborough’s silk-and-pebbles voice is, for many people, effectively that of God, omnipresent and omniscient: “When Attenborough says something, it’s the truth. In a world of hype and puff and spin, his is the voice of absolute veracity.” If one was giving the Conservatives PR advice, I don’t think it would include taking on the national religion and God in the same week.
I worked inside the BBC for 21 years, then came out, and the experience has shown me conclusively that there are two separate realities. From the outside, the BBC really does seem vast, arrogant and metropolitan. From the inside, it feels mostly terrified, hemmed in on all sides by hostile rivals, and staffed by managers from the Midlands and north of England.
It treats Tory ministers and the Daily Mail with the abject, flinching nervousness of an abused spouse. It is masochistically keen to magnify any of its own supposed failures. Individual reporters manage to keep their spines vertical, but that’s the wider, corporate truth.
Davie sometimes seems to have staked his leadership on a single word – impartiality. But after attending innumerable BBC teach-ins on the subject, I have concluded that it has become a damaging way of thinking about modern politics. Fairness and openness are much more useful.
[See also: In defence of Gary Lineker]
To be partial is to take sides. It’s something all of us do, all the time, almost without noticing it. Clearly a public sector broadcaster can’t take sides in the sense of consistently backing one party-political position over the others. But everything in the news business is saturated with values. We select stories on the basis of our moral and emotional response to them. We instinctively perk up, notice and begin to think when we are told about dirty water and air, or violent crime, or war abroad – our values, our partiality, have been aroused.
Not to take sides in a general way implies a valueless, soggy vacancy – almost as if sides are rather vulgar. Impartiality implies that there exists a virtuous, “side-free” sensible centre position which can fend off raucous voices taking sides like a duchess in the street, quelling the oiks with her Daleky stare.
But there is no sensible-centre middle ground. The BBC should be thinking differently. Its job is not to pretend that values can be rinsed out of the news. Imagine that: an utterly dry, monotone newsfeed, rapping out facts without context. This is what some of the BBC’s enemies may nostalgically dream of. Dream on. It would be unlistenable.
The better metaphor is the old American one of the town square: a place where the country can meet itself, stand together and talk things through in an atmosphere of mutual respect. That, to my view, is what a national broadcaster – not a state broadcaster – should be. The BBC should aspire to the condition of a platform, a generous space, saturated with values, where everybody can be heard.
There is no doubt something nostalgic about that too, but it has never been more needed. That the Lineker affair began on Twitter is highly appropriate. Twitter exemplifies everything that a proper town square is not – short, stabby bursts of performative invective, designed to make you angry, not to make you think. It is where a lot of political debate is heading. Right-wing narrowcasters such as GB News are trying to push us further in that direction, mimicking everything that’s worst about the American media ecology.
That way lies disaster for the political culture. Where Lineker can be criticised is in his Nazi comparison. (I know some people riposte that he wasn’t making that point but what else does language “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 1930s” mean? Was Gary referencing Hermann Hesse, perhaps? Ernst Thälmann? Thomas Mann?) Whether on social media or down the pub, calling someone a Nazi is a way of closing debate, not opening it up. There is no reasoned response to the accusation of siding with the single most horrific act in human history. Fundamentally, it’s about starting a fight.
Had Lineker challenged, for instance, what the new legislation would do to the victims of people trafficking or challenged the Home Secretary to explain in practical terms how she intended to return people to Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen, or requested more detail on the so-called “legal routes” for migrants he might have helped shed light on this very bad legislation. But the Nazi comparison did what it was bound to do – it got wild cheers from the people who were always going to cheer, and boos from the Tories.
Polling confirms that voters hate a rule-breaking, uncontrolled migration system, but also that this isn’t about raw numbers, and that compassionate attitudes to migrants remain strong. Faced by those images of queues of exhausted people stumbling up beaches, our underlying, unresolved national hypocrisy on immigration was what made a single tweet by a sports presenter so incendiary.
And this is exactly the kind of policy conundrum which requires a national “town square” – a broad, calm space where the arguments can be taken apart. That is why we need the BBC – the antithesis of divided, raucous, my-side, your-side US-style broadcasting.
The Lineker affair took us in the wrong direction. But the defenestration of BBC managers wouldn’t actually help anything. This is the moment for the corporation to change its rules, be bolder about Conservative bullying and prioritise the search for truth, which is a far bigger thing than impartiality. The problem with these regular BBC scandals, intensified by its central yet contested place in the culture, is that one day it really will be “about the BBC”. And if it collapses in disgrace, just as if the NHS collapses – two British institutions which together define our gap with American civilisation – we will be irreversibly diminished.
This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe