Own Goal Of The Season
Updated: Mar 12
The BBC is in a mess, there’s no doubt about that, and it’s a mess of its own making. Having pulled Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker from the airwaves because of his tweet about the Government’s immigration policy, it has prompted a mass mutiny by that most radical of groups, sports presenters and pundits. At the same time, and rather obscured by this row, it has tried to censor Sir David Attenborough by pulling the final episode of his new wildlife series Wild Isles from BBC1 because it is too political (though it will be available on BBC iPlayer, which sort of defines the term “half pregnant”)*.
In one week the Beeb has managed to piss off two of the country’s most beloved broadcasters. Who’s next to be wound up by the BBC mandarins – Mary Berry, Dame Judy Dench, Anton Du Beke?
At the same time it has drawn attention to the Conservative connections at the top of the Corporation – the Director General stood as a Tory councillor, the Chairman donated £400,000 to the Tories – just as the row about Richard Sharp’s role in a £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson, when he was Prime Minster, was dying down.
So what happens next? There are a number of options:
1. Lineker backs down. This seems about as likely as his former club, Spurs, winning the Premier League;
2. The BBC backs down. This is more possible. While it would bring the ire of the right wing of the Tory party, and the anti-BBC press, if you polled most of the population today it’d be seen as the favoured option. The BBC would be loathe to have a fight with the Government, but might take the view that is prevalent in business at the moment, that this administration is on its last legs and better to curry favour with Labour which is pretty certain to be in power by the end of 2024. That said it is hard to see how the BBC can back down without it costing Director General Tim Davie his job;
3. Find a middle ground.
So what it this middle ground of which you speak, Jason?
If I was advising the BBC I would announce a review of the editorial guidelines to see if they are fit for purpose in this modern, social media age. While it is entirely right that the people who put together and present the BBC’s news output should avoid overly political opinion – you don’t want Huw Edwards turning to the camera during the 10 O’clock News and saying “Vote Plaid Cymru” – how wide and how deep should this go? If a presenter on CBeebies is unhappy about the closure of a local hospital, can they not complain about it on social media? Would the BBC have run the Channel 4 series Jamie’s School Dinners, where celebrity chef Jamie Oliver highlighted the poor nutrition of food served to schoolchildren? After all, Jamie received a MBE for his campaigning on food.
The review would have to be independent of the BBC management and be conducted by people who are respected in the industry and by the public. Among the issues they should look at would be:
1. Should the guidelines apply to just directly employed staff or those under contract – such as Lineker?
2. Should the guidelines apply to all BBC staff, just those with editorial roles, just on screen presenters or just news output teams?
3. What is political comment? While Lineker’s criticism of the language used by the Home Secretary could be deemed as an attack on her and her policies, where do you tip over the line from views on social justice and ethics to directly party political opinion?
While this review is ongoing, Lineker can be reinstated. Once the new guidelines are minted, the BBC and the former England football captain can decide if he can still appear, or needs to be permanently subbed.
*It has been pointed out to me that The Guardian article that I referenced was a little excitable, as it was never intended to run the final episode of this series on BBC1. However, you have to ask why the BBC would not run a documentary by one of the country's favourite broadcasters on its flagship channel.
(BTW I have to thank my friend Richard Livingstone for the headline.)