Article by Bethany Seed
In March 2023, BBC Match of the Day host Gary Lineker came under fire for a series of tweets regarding the Government’s new asylum policy. The row has sparked questions about the impartiality of the broadcaster and was one in a series of events that led to the Chairman of the BBC, Richard Sharp, resigning last week.
Gary Lineker, a famous ex-footballer and pundit for the BBC, was asked to step down from hosting Match of the Day after he tweeted about the new asylum seeker policy. His tweets compared the language used in the policy to the language used in Germany in the 1930s as well as describing the policy as “immeasurably cruel.” The suspension was due to last until both parties had agreed on a “clear position on his use of social media”.
The BBC’s policy on social media states that staff are allowed to “engage in social media activities if they wish.” However, regardless of whether their use is personal or professional, staff must adhere to the Editorial Guidelines which require a clear distinction between personal and BBC spaces.
This decision was deemed controversial as Lineker is a freelance broadcaster and is not responsible for news reporting. In addition, Lineker tweeted from his personal Twitter account which is in no way affiliated with the BBC. Therefore, many people have supported Lineker by stating that BBC guidelines on impartiality should not apply.
In response to the BBC’s action against Lineker, many other employees and freelancers stepped down from their responsibilities at the organisation, causing widespread disruption to its services. Both Alan Shearer and Ian Wright, who co-host MOTD, refused to appear on the programme in solidarity with Lineker. Numerous other pundits and presenters, such as Micah Richards, Alex Scott and Jermaine Jenas, protested Lineker’s treatment which led to the BBC airing multiple sports shows without any commentary.
Lineker was then asked to return to MOTD after the disruptions to programmes over the weekend. The whole event has prompted an investigation into impartiality at the BBC. The broadcasters have announced that they will launch an independent review of its social media guidelines and in the meantime, staff will be expected to abide by the current policy. However, the decision has remained under fire, with many people claiming that the BBC’s action against Lineker was a sign of Government pressure on the broadcaster and the limitation of our right to free speech. The director-general of the BBC, Tim Davies, has expressed that in response to Lineker’s tweets, the BBC needed to take “proportionate action”. He denied that this action was too severe and that he was out of touch with the views of his employees.
This event has been described as going “straight to the heart” of the BBC’s wider reputation by the Chief Executive of Ofcom. The BBC is the oldest and largest national broadcaster and prides itself in being impartial. It is imperative that news reporting remains impartial so that opinions do not shadow facts. Remaining unbiased means that the news can be reported accurately without being accused of influencing the audience’s opinions. However, the impartiality row has ignited a discussion on the importance of news broadcasters being impartial.
Davies noted that the BBC’s standing as an impartial broadcaster is so important, and the Gary Lineker affair demonstrates the polarisation of the impartiality debate. He explained that this issue concerned party political matters, and each case should be looked at independently.
Many people have criticised the licence fee model, for example. The BBC licence fee raises money to fund a range of programmes and services across the TV, radio and online platforms. The licence fee has currently been frozen at £159 per year by the government and there are plans to scrap the fee once the freeze is over. However, in place of the TV licence, the BBC will require funding, and the current proposed method would rely on a tax increase imposed by the government. This blurs the lines of impartiality, and the BBC would become government-funded, potentially opening pathways for influence on its reporting and censorship. It has also been suggested that the BBC could be directly funded by the government although this approach has also been criticised as potentially impacting on the editorial independence.
Lucy Powell, a Labour MP has stated that the impartiality row “exposed how susceptible the BBC leadership is to government pressure.” She also noted that these events had “raised serious questions about the government’s role in upholding BBC impartiality.” Julia Lopez, a Conservative MP, described Powell’s comparison of this event to Putin’s Russia as “disgraceful” and argued that the government had “consistently made clear” that this was a situation to be dealt with internally by the BBC and with no influence from government ministers.
The impartiality row was another affair in a series of events that have contributed to the debate about whether the BBC is impartial. This discussion has continued as more recently, the BBC has come under fire again for its appointment of Richard Sharp.
Richard Sharp, the Chairman of the BBC, has now resigned over a report into his appointment at the BBC following claims that he created a conflict of interest when not properly disclosing his knowledge of Boris Johnson’s personal finances.
An ongoing review into Mr Sharp’s appointment, led by Adam Heppinstall KC, was published recently, which concluded that the Chairman had failed to disclose two potential perceived conflicts of interest. Firstly, he had told Boris Johnson he intended to apply for the role and secondly, telling Johnson that he wanted to set up a meeting with a senior civil servant and family member of Johnson. The timing of Sharp’s (an ex-investment banker) appointment to the BBC and the revelation of Johnson’s financial struggles was deemed suspicious. The report confirmed that “there is a risk of perception that Mr Sharp was recommended for appointment” because he “sought to assist the PM in a private financial matter.” Despite the tenuous link between the two conflicts of interest, it was suggested Sharp should have disclosed them regardless.
Mr Sharp has denied any allegation that he aided in the “facilitation, arrangement or financing” of any loan for the former Prime Minister and the report did not allude to any confirmation that Sharp intended to influence Johnson. Despite this, Sharp resigned from his position, stating that he wanted to “prioritise the interests of the BBC.”
The impartiality row was not the first, nor will it be the last event that raises questions about the independence of the BBC. It is evident that the BBC prides itself in being an impartial service to the public but its success at remaining independent is a topic of debate amongst many. What is clear is that perceptions matter. Richard Sharp’s resignation signifies that the BBC’s reputation is based on trust, and its employees must be transparent and accountable for its actions. Without this, we risk living in an Orwellian society where news is censored and influenced by the government.