I would be interested to pursue the audit trail that led from Gary Lineker’s tweet, voicing his opinion on the government’s policy on asylum seekers, to his current suspension from the BBC. Of course, if in the course of your argument you invoke the shades of 1930s Germany, you are certainly going to touch a nerve. The BBC might say that they didn’t suspend Mr Lineker as such, they asked him for the moment to step back. At any rate somebody must have read his tweet, and taken umbrage. That might have been somebody in the BBC who is devoted to its pledge to impartiality, and considered Mr Lineker to have breached the guidelines; or it might have been somebody in government who felt that the BBC’s highest paid presenter had no right to weigh into a political debate. The Prime Minister has been careful to state that the row is an internal matter for the BBC, and that Mr Lineker is a fine presenter. But plenty of Tory ministers and backbenchers have been critical, and it would not be the first time the government has leaned on the BBC. Winston tried to tell the BBC what to say and to do during the General Strike, but Lord Reith would have none of it. So you might argue that the BBC’s Director General Sir Tim Davey’s commitment to uphold impartiality has a fine tradition.
But is it reasonable to issue a freelance football pundit, who happens to anchor Match of the Day, with a gagging order that affects not only his voice on BBC air, but on any other platform, or indeed in any other public space?
Breaking News… I’m writing this at 10 am. Mr Lineker will resume TV duties next weekend, and there will be a BBC review of the guidelines particularly affecting how freelancers use social media. That sounds to me like a victory for Mr Lineker, who certainly isn’t going to apologise for anything.
I’m trying to imagine how I would feel if, in the unlikely event that the BBC asked me to present a programme, let’s say, on the novels of Ian Fleming (my putative specialist subject on Mastermind), Auntie pointed out the clause, perhaps buried in the small print in my contract, stating that, by the way, I could no longer voice any of my own opinions here in this blog. I would say, what? No opinions to be voiced whatsoever? Can’t I say that I prefer white wine to red wine? Oh yes yes. Don’t be silly. You can say that. But you can’t say anything political. I like to think that I would politely turn down the BBC’s job offer; but then if they were offering me a salary of 1.4 million pounds per annum, I might think twice. I might think, oh, just do it for a year, or two, or maybe three…
But everything is political. If I say that the potholes on the Glasgow roads are now beyond a joke, is that not an implied criticism of the managerial priorities, or abilities, of the city fathers? By the way, the potholes on the Glasgow roads are now beyond a joke.
So I await the BBC’s review of freelancers’ guidelines with some fascination, because it seems to me it would be impossible to define in black and white what sort of opinion you might freely state, and what you might not dare to utter. Probably the best guideline, and the tersest, would be, thou shalt not get up the nose of the High and Mighty.
Sir Tim Davey unleashed a lash for his own back when he nailed his colours to the impartiality mast. (Pardon this ridiculous, and vaguely nautical mixed metaphor.) Bias is usually a very subtle thing. You hold a point of view which you consider to be so self-evidently right and manifestly true that you hardly notice it is a point of view at all. It is an undisputed fact. You might say, for example, that the BBC is the finest broadcasting organisation in the world.
I could imagine that the BBC might create a new department, a team of Bias Detectors, much as some publishing houses have teams of “sensitivity readers”, to scour not only the corporation’s own output, but the unending splurge of material, much of it bile, being spewed out twenty-four seven by the exponentially increasing number of available social media platforms. Department Eliminating Tendentious Raconteurs Intent To Utter Solipsism, or DETRITUS. Can you imagine a more hellish occupation than sitting all day at a computer screen, trawling through the trolls? And what would the end product look like? Nobody would have an opinion about anything. The British Bland Corporation. Of course the opinions would still be there. They would merely be driven underground.
The Lineker Affair is a quintessentially British row. The establishment gets preoccupied with issues of form and process, and turns a blind eye to that which really matters. If people’s lives are so desperate that they are prepared to drown in the English Channel, or the Mediterranean, then we need a global response to a global problem, the more so as, the state of the world being what it is, the problem is only likely to get much worse. I would suggest that the United Nations be given the power to oversee the management of asylum seeking across the globe, and arrange a kind of pro rata allocation of asylum seekers to those among the sum total of 200 odd countries in the world that are still deemed to be safe. This would involve each country surrendering a degree of sovereignty, something which the current UK government would find extremely difficult to accept.
If the government has taken its eye off the ball, so has the BBC. While everybody is exercised about Gary Lineker, the BBC is quietly axing the BBC Singers, and cutting 20% off the budgets of its English orchestras, while Arts Council England is withdrawing significant financial support from English National Opera, and the Britten Sinfonia. At the RSNO concert in Glasgow on Sunday evening, conducted by the most musical man on the planet, John Wilson, David Hubbard, the principal bassoonist, whose lot it was to welcome the audience, expressed the orchestra’s disquiet at that which is currently happening in the arts, music in particular.
The BBC Singers, the only professional choir in the UK, is about to turn 100 years old, and the BBC celebrated its centenary last year. Nothing lasts for ever. The BBC might do well to remember that. Recall the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller: “First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Communist. Then…”