The Gary Lineker saga exposes the weakness at the heart of the BBC – POLITICO

Gary Lineker 1, BBC 0.

That was the consensus in Westminster on Monday as Britain’s national broadcaster was forced into an apology and an embarrassing rundown following a bitter impartiality row with its star football presenter.

What followed was a week in which what initially seemed like a brief storm on Twitter was allowed to snowball into a far-reaching saga that captivated audiences, drove a wrecking ball through the valuable weekend sports coverage in Britain and raised wider questions about the impartiality of the BBC, the role of social media and the broadcaster’s murky links to conservative figures.

It was announced on Monday that Lineker, a former England striker who is paid more than £1million a year by the BBC, will present long-running British football show Match of the Day again this weekend, after being abruptly taken off the air before last week’s program.

The brief suspension came after Lineker sparked a social media storm by comparing the UK government’s language around its new immigration policy. to that of Nazi Germany.

Lineker had argued that, as he was only employed as a freelance sports presenter, his personal Twitter feed was not subject to the BBC’s strict impartiality rules. Critics, including senior conservative politicians and influential right-wing columnists, vehemently disagreed. The BBC said on Monday it would revise its social media guidelines as part of the deal to get it back on the air.

But worryingly for the BBC, the far-fetched saga – which saw pundits and star football commentators go on strike in solidarity with Lineker, causing several sports broadcasts to be cut or canceled over the weekend – revealed a serious weakness in the heart of one of the most British. recognized international institutions.

BBC bosses found they were effectively overwhelmed by a handful of former footballers and commentators who used Twitter accounts and WhatsApp groups to sink some of its highest-profile programs on Saturday and Sunday.

BBC director-general Tim Davie, who called for Lineker’s suspension last Friday before backing down 72 hours later, appeared undecided and his authority greatly diminished.

Tory MP and former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale said Lineker’s refusal to delete the offending tweet or apologize was undoubtedly a “challenge to the chief executive”.

“I think there may be a perception that Gary Lineker challenged BBC leadership and got away with it,” Whittingdale said.

Frustrated BBC workers, meanwhile, paint a picture of internal chaos and dysfunction as the broadcaster’s own news programs have become dominated by internal row over the past week.

“I don’t know why they’re obsessed with this shit. No one is surprised at (Lineker’s) politics…and he’s just an (overpaid) sports presenter,” a BBC employee said.

Choose fights

Going up against one of England’s greatest footballers of all time over his political views has seemed like an odd fight for BBC bosses, given the backdrop of recent months.

The BBC’s own chairman, a politically appointed role, has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after the Sunday Times revealed he helped facilitate a large personal loan for former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Richard Sharp was appointed to the top job by Johnson’s government just weeks after the £800,000 loan was arranged. An investigation has since been launched. Critics have suggested that Sharp – who remained silent during the Lineker crisis – was unable to speak out in favor of the BBC because his own position had become politically compromised. Opposition leaders have called for his resignation.

There are also questions about relations with the Conservative Party of Davie, a former deputy leader of a local Tory association, and BBC board member Robbie Gibb – the former director of communications for Downing Street with former Prime Minister Theresa May.

The saga also raises wider questions about the BBC’s management’s ability to control the impartiality of its biggest non-journalistic stars, like Lineker, especially when their power and reach are inflated by many social media followers. .

“Davie and Sharp have gone out of their way to be enforcers of a specific model of impartiality which fell at the first significant challenge, and now seem totally exposed,” said a second BBC insider.

“It’s unclear how they restore any credibility from this, and there is disbelief that Sharp’s absence while this crisis unfolded.”

Former BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis, who left the broadcaster last year to host The News Agents podcast, told POLITICO that “the last few days have revealed an organizational weakness” at the Beeb.

“Gary Lineker was not unusual in his expressions of his political priorities – we see that literally all the time from people making money from the BBC – so management needs to explain why they turn a blind eye to certain examples and retains others. tabloid scrutiny,” she said.

Several critics of the decision to suspend Lineker cited the example of Alan Sugar, a former businessman who runs the BBC’s The Apprentice program and who frequently airs political views on social media.

The broadcaster’s social media guidelines state that “actors, playwrights, comedians, musicians and pundits who work for the BBC are not subject to impartiality requirements on social media”, but there are caveats for famous names.

But Whittingdale, who helped draft the BBC’s last charter when he was minister, argued the guidelines were written with figures like Lineker specifically in mind.

“I think the chief executive was right three years ago to say in the published guidelines that high profile people… bear an additional responsibility and should avoid getting into political controversy,” he said. “Gary Lineker, as the BBC’s highest paid person, definitely falls into this category.”

Political pressure inside and outside

The decision to suspend Lineker – whose comments had been criticized by both Downing Street and Home Secretary Suella Braverman – came after years of pressure on the broadcaster from successive Tory governments over what some conservatives consider the liberal tone of much of the broadcaster. blanket.

Former Prime Minister Johnson and his ex-Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries frequently castigated the BBC as a bastion of left-wing groupthink and threatened to radically change its funding model by ending compulsory license fees for all television users.

Maitlis said the BBC had not been forceful enough to defend its coverage against government attacks.

“The BBC cannot take lessons in impartiality from the government of the day,” she said.

“As a presenter (for the BBC), a Cabinet Minister told me I was not ‘patriotic enough’ in the questions I asked on air. This was during the Brexit negotiations many years ago – the alarm bells should have rung at that time.

But Davie, in a BBC interview on Monday, insisted he was “completely unaffected by pressure from one side or the other”.

In truth, recent events have made BBC bosses seem helpless caught between increasingly critical government ministers and their own high-profile presenters, now empowered by social media platforms.

And the only loser, it seems, is the BBC itself.

“I would say today’s announcement is a 5-0 win for Gary Lineker,” former BBC chief executive Greg Dyke said, speaking on LBC’s Tonight with Andrew Marr.

Craig Oliver – former director of communications for former Prime Minister David Cameron and former editor of the BBC – said: “The government will also feel they have won and the BBC can be pushed around.”

Davie and his management team will no doubt be happy for the news cycle to move quickly. But they’ll do it so warily that Lineker’s feud leaves the company in a much weaker position the next time it faces a high-profile star — or even a top government official.


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