The Match of the Day mutiny is over. According to reports, Gary Lineker is back, and apparently on his own terms, or at least terms he can live with. Football is a team game and here it was Gary’s all-stars v Tim Davie’s stragglers. In life, as in football, the stars tend to come out on top.
If there were awards for the art of turning an event into a crisis, the BBC would win every time. How many other organisations could turn a story about a government’s possibly illegal immigration policy into one about the tweets of a footballer-turned-TV pundit?
Davie, the BBC director general, cut short a trip to the US to deal with the mess he had left in the UK over Lineker’s suspension. The sanctions against the presenter, who had refused to apologise for calling the government’s “stop the boats” policy “immeasurably cruel”, provoked claims of hypocrisy and a boycott by so many of his colleagues that the corporation was forced to offer a robotic commentary-less 20-minute version of its flagship Saturday night show. The suspension, not the policy, led news bulletins and Saturday’s sad show just re-emphasised what happens when you subtract the humans.
“We’ve gone full W1A,” sighed one BBC employee, referring to the satire lampooning the corporation and its perceived “values”, shown, of course, on the BBC. Other staff members, furious at job losses, staff cuts and the controversy over the appointment of its chair, were less willing to see the funny side. “This is a mess of Davie’s own making,” said one journalist. “The mood is to not let management get off lightly on this one because they’re making the BBC look ridiculous.”
The issue of whether anyone paid by the BBC should have an opinion stirs up a hornets’ nest for a broadcaster trying to define impartiality in an increasingly partisan and political age. Davie, who introduced new guidelines on impartiality not long after he was appointed in 2020, has made an example of one of his best-paid presenters to prove his commitment to the cause. Yet he does so after a financial onslaught by government ministers and, far more damagingly, the appointment of a chairman who helped fix a loan for the then prime minister. The review into the appointment of Richard Sharp, with neither an obvious deadline nor a procedure, stands in stark contrast to the treatment of Lineker.
To be clear, using highly charged language to criticise government policy does breach the BBC guidelines, but only for those staff members who work for the corporation as journalists and whose job it is to hold politicians and others to account. If this weren’t the case, Alan Sugar would not be allowed to make awful social media comments and then go on to choose apprentices, and former Tory politicians such as Michael Portillo would not be able to travel round Europe at the expense of the licence-fee payer.
Most viewers and licence-fee payers know that these presenters have lives and views that are their own and have nothing to do with the BBC. The Mail on Sunday may believe Gary Lineker would be nothing without the BBC but, as his own Twitter account says, he once “kicked a ball about” and “now talks about kicking a ball about”. To state the obvious, he is not chairing Question Time.
There is a way through this mess. Once Lineker has returned to his Saturday night presenting duties, the BBC needs a policy that recognises that freelance presenters with careers outside the BBC do not speak for the BBC. As long as they are not in any way connected to news journalism, freedom of speech dictates that they can have any opinion they like, as long as it is lawful. In a social media age that increasingly monetises the “voice” of personalities, it is ridiculous for the BBC to feel it has to control them to prove its own impartiality.
A nuanced updated policy must be managed with clarity and respect, and it is the management that is the issue here. These scandals have now become so frequent that they are distracting from the very real issues that matter – not just migration, but so much more.
Davie, a man committed to the BBC at a difficult time, is not the issue here, but his chairman is. The spotlight on Lineker has caught Sharp in its beam, a man who can offer no real guidance or support on the issue, as his predecessors may have done, because his own position is so obviously compromised. It really does not matter how good he is at finance or networking, nor how much he cares about broadcasting – the chairman’s position is untenable.
He must be the last chairman of the BBC appointed by the government of the day, a situation that has always undermined the BBC’s integrity, no matter which party is in power. A new public appointments committee with clear rules and the confidence to recognise how to enforce them is more necessary than ever.
Sport matters of course, but allowing a national broadcaster to hold politicians to account without cowering in fear and becoming the story itself matters even more. That’s the position we really need to get to.