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Yes, the BBC is often biased, but aren’t many of its critics, too? Consider, on the one hand, its London-dwelling executives – dependent for their living on a poll tax paid on threat of imprisonment; officers all of a ramshackle empire that sprawls like a decaying galaxy in an Isaac Asimov novel, and sometimes incapable of understanding much outside it. Bloated, bewildered – and ripe for the slaughter.
Then on the other, think about another tranche of London-dwelling executives – those who work for younger, hungrier, insurgent rivals, ready if not poised to sack this decaying institution, like the great powers that broke up the Ottoman Empire, and feast on its remains. If those BBC executives are sometimes incapable of understanding their plight, then their competitors, when they call it out for bias, can be less than honest about their motives.
Bias brings us, needless to say, to Gary Lineker – and the events of the last week which, until recently, I thought just another idiot wind, like so much that happens on Twitter. But it may be worth first trying to pin down what bias is, or rather what its opposite, impartiality, is – the duty that Lineker is held to have compromised.
Should the BBC be fair to all comers? Yes. Does it follow, for example, that republicans, who constitute about roughly one in five Britons, should have a fifth of the coverage of the King’s coronation in May? No. The Corporation isn’t seriously being pressured to take that course, but it may help to illustrate why impartiality is more easily experienced than described. The BBC isn’t always good at realising it, and the difficulties of doing so are growing, so making the problem worse.
On subjects as varied as climate change, abortion, the Republican Party in the United States, immigration and traditional religion, the Corporation tends not so much to be biased, at least for the most part, as uncomprehending of views held outside the liberal university graduates which provide the mass of the BBC’s governing class. I’m not claiming that the Corporation has been captured by the left, but it is undoubtedly a pillar of the establishment.
And the establishment, if that’s quite the right term for it, has a difficult relationship with the Conservative Party – arguably for many years, certainly since the EU referendum. Brenda Hale and her Supreme Court; Sir Philip Rutman and some civil servants; Alex Allen, Christopher Geidt, and other members of the often good if not usually great – all of these have run up against recent Tory governments.
The hard left would doubtless argue that the BBC was biased against Labour in its Corbynite manifestation. And Covid helped to show how challenging it can be to achieve impartiality. Did the Corporation have a public responsibility to encourage vaccination? And a journalistic duty to be more inquisitive about the case against lockdown than it actually was? If impartiality is an absolute, how does that square with war in eastern Europe? Should the BBC be neutral between Ukraine and Vladimir Putin?
Whatever your view, the change is evident. Just as the establishment has become more suspicious of the Conservative Party, so Conservative voters have become more suspicious of the establishment. Those voters, remember, are changing. One of Donald Trump’s leitmotifs is that the Republicans are no longer they recently were. And just as they’re no longer the party of George W Bush, so the Tories are no longer the party of David Cameron.
And although the BBC remains one of Britain’s most trusted sources of news, that is slightly less true on the left than the right, and less so too for what an Oxford University study calls those “with more limited formal education. Although Ofcom has found that BBC News “has maintained its reputation among most people for trusted and accurate reporting…it is seen by some as representing a white, middle class and London-centric point of view that is not relevant to their lives”.
Enter Lineker. Is his left-wing tweeting no more than a sign of how British football seems to have moved left, as the take-a-knee to-do suggested last year? Or is he also seeking to signal to the tax authorities, who are pursuing him for £5 million or so, that he really, really, is a freelance presenter, not a BBC employee – and conequently has more freedom to tweet than BBC managers appear to have believed that his contract allows him?
Goodness knows what they now think it really says, or what its new guidelines for contractors will say, but the score flashing up round the ground is uncontested: BBC 0 Lineker 1 – as so many have said. Note that his opponent has been the Corporation, not the Government – on which his victory will have little impact, if any. YouGov finds that 50 per cent of those it polled supported the presenter. But it also found separately that exactly the same proportion support the very small boats policy he criticised.
I don’t mean to suggest that Ministers had no view on Lineker comparing them to the nazis (and yes, that’s what he was doing, as he knows perfectly well). Indeed, Downing Street, insofar as it had a take, seems to have been happy for Conservative MPs to demand the presenter’s suspension before distancing himself from the row. But my point is that the BBC is responsible for policing its own guidelines and it’s the BBC that has given way over them to Lineker.
What follows? Boris Johnson’s Government undoubtedly leaned on the BBC over impartiality. Richard Sharp, appointed as its Chairman on Johnson’s watch, may not survive the enquiry into his appointment – just as Tim Davie, the Corporation’s Chief Executive, may be a casualty of the Lineker debacle. But whether he or a replacement oversees the revised guidelines, it’s lose-lose for the BBC.
Toughen them, and the Corporation risks further revolts. Loosen them, and others will follow where Lineker has gone. That would further strain the BBC’s attempts to get to grips with impartiality – further draining its support on the centre-right. For what it’s worth, I’m a supporter of the BBC – or at least of public service broadcasting, and believe that a smaller Corporation, funded directly out of taxation to pursue its original Reithian ideals, would be an institution worth preserving.
The Conservatives won’t be in government forever, to put it mildly. And a Starmer government might give the Corporation some relief (though remember that Greg Dyke, after his period as Director General, said that “democracy was under threat if Labour was elected for a third term” – a reminder that the BBC tends to have problems with governments of all parties).
But the direction of travel is clear. The licence fee is due to go in 2027. For how long will the Tories stay committed to public service broadcasting? The Lineker affair, or rather the consequences of the looser rules for contributors that are likely to follow it, may have consequences. Some claim Lineker has got too big for his (football) boots. Maybe, maybe not. For after all, if he turns out to be the man who broke the BBC, he’ll have a special place in history.