The Beeb vs Lineker clash must never be replayed
The Gary Lineker saga, it has to be feared, is not over yet. The BBC has endured some of the worst days of its existence, and not even because of some great issue of principle or national interest.
The national broadcaster has found itself directly and publicly attacked by every prime minister from Harold Wilson to Boris Johnson, criticised for its coverage of everything from the General Strike of 1926 to the US bombing of Libya in 1986 to Brexit in 2016, and has had to justify its actions in the Jimmy Savile scandal.
In 2004, the director general, Greg Dyke, and the chair, Gavyn Davies, had to resign after the Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly. The story of the BBC over the past century has been one of brilliance punctuated by extreme jeopardy. It is absurd that Mr Lineker’s tweet should have provoked such a crisis.
The institution has survived all its trials. It will survive the Great Lineker Tweet Debate as well. But no one can argue that Mr Davie handled an admittedly difficult matter with sufficient skill and caution.
Mr Davie’s error was to make a decision to effectively suspend Lineker too rapidly after pressure from Conservative MPs. What Mr Lineker tweeted was plainly controversial, and to some, highly offensive, alluding as it did to events that led to the Holocaust.
Mr Davie was within his rights to seek to remind Mr Lineker of his responsibilities to the corporation and its reputation. Mr Davie was appointed director general with a remit to strengthen the BBC’s foundational value of impartiality, and he saw in Mr Lineker’s remarks, and the strong reaction to them, a challenge to that.
The BBC can only function if it commands a broad base of public and political support. Mr Lineker’s objection to the language used about asylum seekers might well have upset all the right people; but the BBC is not in business to wind up the right wing of the political spectrum in this manner, and that objective is enshrined, albeit imperfectly, in its guidelines.
Having made his decision to stand Mr Lineker down from his duties, Mr Davie perhaps failed to secure the support of the BBC board, its chair Richard Sharp (himself compromised by the inquiry into his appointment), and bewildered ministers looking at the growing wreckage of BBC sports coverage.
In any case, within a matter of days, figures such as Ian Wright and Alan Shearer had forced Mr Davie’s hand – and he caved. To add to his problems, Sir Keir Starmer and Sir Ed Davey roused themselves from their quiescence to demand that Mr Sharp go.
Mr Davie’s sole consolation was a kind word from Mr Lineker about what a tough job he has, and a commitment from the
Match of the Day presenter to stick to the guidelines on social media; that is until they are reviewed, presumably to Mr Lineker’s satisfaction. Most likely is a large helping of fudge, with no great confidence that this won’t happen again.
We shall see if that’s the case. Mr Lineker, as talented a presenter as he was a striker – and sincere in his beliefs – was a little graceless in doubling down on his original tweet, and he
should realise the exacting obligations he has in his privileged position both in the BBC and national life.
Like others in public life, he has to be responsible, use temperate language, ironically enough, and, in his case, not place the BBC in the invidious position it (and Mr Davie) found itself in. To be blunt, Mr Lineker enraged the BBC’s enemies needlessly, at a time when its very future has been under threat. No one should forget the sadistic glee with which the then culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, told the corporation that its days were numbered.
Mr Lineker was making a morally powerfully point about the language used by ministers about refugees, and he was right. Yet he didn’t choose his words carefully enough, given his position, and so the debate spiralled away from asylum, and ended up as an amorphous and inconclusive argument about free speech, the licence fee and whether Match of the Day needs pundits. That is surely not what Mr Lineker envisaged when he tapped the “tweet” button.
Not so long ago, Mr Lineker declared that: “If I write a tweet and I have a 1 per cent doubt about it, I won’t send it.” Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea if that nugget of wisdom was written into Mr Lineker’s contract; but in the end, the BBC has to be bigger than any of its staff, its board, or its contracted presenters.
In that context, Mr Davie and Mr Lineker will have to make very sure that there won’t be a replay of this particular match anytime soon.
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