The BBC stands accused of attacking free speech after its red card for Lineker
If ever there was a time for a referee to turn a blind eye to a foul, it was the British Broadcasting Corporation’s chance on Friday. Gary Lineker, its leading sports presenter, had broken the BBC’s guidelines on impartiality but what seems to have turned an awkwardness into a crisis was his refusal to apologise.
On Thursday, the BBC said it took the matter “seriously” and that Tim Davie, its director general, would have a “frank conversation” with the presenter. On Friday, however, it suspended Mr Lineker “until we’ve got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media”.
It would have been better if the BBC had contented itself with issuing a mild rebuke and overlooked what it presumably regarded as a threat by Mr Lineker to continue to breach BBC rules. Instead it got itself into a public relations disaster area, in which it appeared to be trying to censor a popular presenter for criticising an unpopular government.
Let us restate The Independent’s view on each element of the furore in turn. We did not like some of the language used by
Suella Braverman, the home secretary, in her statement on the Illegal Migrants Bill in the Commons on Tuesday. In particular, her claim of the 100 million people around the world who “could qualify for protection under our current laws” that “they are coming here” was unfounded and seemed designed to stoke anti-immigrant alarmism.
We urged her to choose her words more carefully. We also disagreed with Mr Lineker when he tweeted soon afterwards accusing Ms Braverman of “language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the ’30s”. The comparison is offensive and mistaken, and risks diminishing the suffering of the victims of the Nazis. It is a good rule of pub debates that the first person to use the word “fascist” loses.
We urged Mr Lineker, likewise, to choose his words more carefully. One of the less important reasons that Mr Lineker should be more careful is that expressing strong political opinions makes it hard for the BBC to maintain its reputation for impartiality. The Independent accepts that he is a sports presenter, not a news reporter, and that he did not express his view on the BBC. But such is Mr Lineker’s celebrity and pay packet – £1.4m a year from licence-payers – that more prudence is required.
Those who happen to agree with Mr Lineker and cannot see what the fuss is about should try to imagine how they would feel if he expressed views in support of the government’s policy. In fact, they do not need to imagine it, because there have been debates in the past about the views of Jeremy Clarkson and Andrew Neil.
Indeed, there is the current discussion about the role of Richard Sharp as chair of the BBC. The Independent’s view is that Mr Sharp’s position is untenable. Not only did his help for Boris Johnson to secure a loan undermine the BBC’s reputation for impartiality, but his failure to disclose it when he was appointed to the job – by Mr Johnson as prime minister – compounded his error.
In Mr Lineker’s case, however, it would be better if he were asked to reflect on the wisdom of, in effect, calling the home secretary a Nazi, and told to carry on. The BBC ought to back down from the foolish position into which it has got itself. It should accept that, while its highly paid star has broken its guidelines, it is a marginal case and it has been inconsistent in the past.
Above all, the BBC should recognise that the case has become one of free speech. In any difficult case in which there are arguments both ways, any organisation – but especially the public broadcaster – should err on the side of free speech.
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