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There is a statute of George Orwell outside Broadcasting House. Inscribed behind it are the words “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” – taken from an unused preface to Animal Farm. Orwell had reportedly based Nineteen Eight-Four’s Room 101 on somewhere he worked at the BBC. The statute intends to remind those wandering into work at Auntie of journalism’s role in holding the powerful to account.
Being a comment writer, I am much more interested in journalism’s capacity to allow me to get into decent parties than I am in speaking truth to power. Nonetheless, it has always been clear that the BBC takes that schtick very seriously. And so it habitually gets its knickers in a twist defending its much-vaunted ‘impartiality’ – especially when that quality is threatened by its own lugubrious stars.
Readers know the details of the latest Gary Lineker controversy. The football and crisp enthusiast courted outrage by linking Suella Braverman with 1930s Germany and got it. Since everything from the EU to feminism – via Jacob Rees-Mogg and gay marriage – have previously been compared to the Nazis, his Tweet’s palpable nonsense need not detain us, except to note that Lineker might want to listen to a few more of the excellent history podcasts his production company releases.
What is of interest is what the BBC’s handling of this row (so far) can tell us about our national broadcaster and the relationship with impartiality. Lineker is a sports anchor, not a news reporter. He claims he is a freelancer, that BBC impartiality rules “only apply to people in news and current affairs”, and that he can say what he likes. But the BBC’s editorial guidelines suggest anyone publicly associated with the BBC “have the potential to compromise…impartiality” and “to damage its reputation”.
Since he has 8.7 million Twitter followers, Lineker’s comments are hard to miss. So if Tim Davie, the Director General, does believe a “partisan campaigner on social media…should not be working at the BBC” then the logical corollary is to sack Lineker (and allow him to, er, make much more money elsewhere). He could join John Sopel, Emily Maitlis, Andrew Marr, Jeremy Clarkson, Andrew Neil, and more in being able to speak out more freely after leaving (or being forced out of) the BBC.
But that relies upon those within the BBC considering Lineker as having made comments that cross a line. This is where the definition of ‘impartiality’ comes into play. To Davie, it is a neutrality born of prominent figures avoiding airing personal political opinions. To Ofcom, “due impartiality” means “appropriate to the subject…of the programme”. If someone says the Earth is round, a flat-Earther is not required for balance.
Problems arise in how this commitment to “due impartiality” is interpreted. If an economic correspondent says Brexit will likely damage UK trade, does the BBC need to haul out Patrick Minford to tell viewers the opposite? If a science reporter suggests climate change is a leading threat to the planet, does Matt Ripley get a right to reply? Aiming for “due impartiality” muddies the waters as to just how much balance (and of what kind) the BBC has to provide.
In truth, the BBC has never been wholly impartial (if that means being without an agenda). John Reith saw the role of a national broadcaster as being an integrative one, bringing a nation together through apolitical reporting, high culture, or the airing of national events like coronations and cup finals. Most Conservatives would not quibble with a BBC that stuck to Wimbledon, In Our Time, and the Proms.
But having a national broadcaster that integrates the country is increasingly difficult if that country is far more divided along lines of faith, race, politics, values, and half a dozen other qualities than it was a century ago. The BBC is largely staffed by a particular group: liberal-minded, middle-class arts graduates living in urban areas. Even if they aim to be impartial, in a polarised age, they cannot stop their own values from influencing the corporation’s output.
Hence why the BBC’s own reporting of Lineker-gate seeks to have its cake and eat it. Both broadcast and written coverage stresses its high-minded commitment to impartiality ad infinitum. But one cannot avoid the underlying tone that Lineker is in the right (even if his language went a bit far). The average BBC bod agrees thinks that “giving a voice to the voiceless” means being nice to refugees – and not answering the cries of those voters who want the small boats stopped.
In this, the BBC most resembles the Civil Service: a notionally apolitical organisation reliant on ‘good chaps’ keeping schtum. Hence why both are now hobbled by the progressive and liberal attitudes of their own staff. Even if perfect neutrality could be achieved at the BBC, it cannot be with its current personnel. Sacking or suspending Lineker would be of little consequence when the rest of the Ministry of Truth remains unchanged.