BBC impartiality and free speech
Gary Lineker’s tweet, criticising the Home Secretary’s language about refugees, has led to an overheated debate about BBC impartiality and free speech. This raises interesting questions about the BBC Charter, its applicability, and the nature of free speech in a democracy. And it is worth tracing the motives of those who have made the most noise about these issues.
Lineker’s words, about the Illegal Migration Bill, were: “This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the ’30s”. This is undeniably a criticism of the government, and it can therefore be categorised as politically biased – regardless of whether one agrees with his opinions or not.
The BBC Charter affirms that “The BBC must be independent” and that “the BBC should provide duly accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming to build people’s understanding of all parts of the United Kingdom and of the wider world”. The word “impartial” only appears in the context of its news services. And Gary Lineker was using Twitter, not his BBC platform, to express his opinions. He did not claim to be using the BBC’s authority to comment on the news. In these circumstances, the BBC’s charter has not been contravened.
The Mail on Sunday comment was that “Gary Lineker outrageously breached the BBC’s sacred impartiality”. Its line of argument was that “Anything Mr Lineker – or any other BBC star – says on the internet will bounce back and affect the BBC”. This accords with part of the BBC’s own social media guidance:
“Where individuals identify themselves as being linked with the BBC, or are programme makers, editorial staff, reporters or presenters primarily associated with the BBC, their activities on social media have the potential to compromise the BBC’s impartiality and to damage its reputation.”
“…Individuals involved in the production or presentation of any output in News or other factual areas that regularly deal with a range of public policy issues have a particular responsibility to avoid damaging the BBC’s impartiality.”
The first of these two paragraphs clearly includes Gary Lineker, but the second does not. These guidance rules are now to be reviewed, as part of the peace agreement between the presenter and the BBC.
Any analysis of BBC impartiality and free speech must examine whether it is appropriate for the BBC to silence everyone who works for it, irrespective of in what capacity. The organisation’s charter does not require that. Nobody could seriously interpret Lineker’s comments as representing the BBC in its capacity as a news broadcaster, so he should have a right to free speech on political matters. The BBC has enormous value as an impartial source of news, but it is also essential that private citizens should have the freedom to try to influence government policy. The Chinese government may feel the need to suppress dissent in its one-party system, but this is wholly inappropriate in Britain’s democracy.
The Mail on Sunday makes no attempt to be politically impartial. Its readers know where it stands: firmly in support of the Conservative Party. It argued that Lineker had “attacked the Government, in intemperate terms, for a contentious policy that the Labour Opposition rejects. This is, quite incontestably, bias. He said they were using ‘language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s’, that is to say Hitler and the Nazis. The suggestion is beyond outrageous, and bears no relation to reality”. The newspaper wanted to make its readers indignant.
Gary Lineker wasn’t the only person who took issue with the Home Secretary. The Independent reported under the headline Suella Braverman condemned for suggesting 100 million migrants could come to UK:
“Caitlin Boswell of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) said she was “horrified” to hear “such inflammatory, scaremongering rhetoric” from Ms Braverman, adding: “Aside from stoking fear and hate, her comments are also complete codswallop.””
The Home Secretary’s irresponsible language was designed to divert attention from the Anger over Tory ‘incompetence’ as asylum backlog hits record 160,000. People risk their lives to enter Britain illegally because there are inadequate legal means of entering the country. Most of those who come in small boats are eventually granted asylum, but they are unable to work, and they must live at the taxpayers’ expense while waiting for their claims to be processed.
Gary Lineker’s choice of language may have been unwise, but he should have the right to free speech on a matter of such importance. The bogus claims that the BBC’s impartiality was threatened by his tweet should be dismissed with the contempt that they deserve.