Are we witnessing the downfall of the BBC? Well, probably not.
Last week former England footballer turned pundit Gary Lineker’s social media caused outrage among the right wing after comparing the language of the UK government’s latest immigration bill to that of 1930s Germany. No accusations, no catastrophising, just plain simple fact. Yet this was enough to send the upper echelons of the BBC into chaos. But why was this? How did one Tweet lead to the historic climbdown of one of the world’s most iconic public broadcasters? And what does this say about its future?
After tweeting his honest opinion, the backlash against Lineker was instantaneous. He was forced to step aside from his regular presenting slots on the BBC’s weekend sports programmes, causing one of the corporation’s biggest impromptu strikes in its history as other presenters joined him in solidarity. We caught a glimpse into what the broadcaster would look like without its ability to truly scrutinize government. I’m clearly not a fan of sports, but I hear it was bleak.
Government officials immediately spun the tweet in an effort to distract from its true meaning. MP Johnathon Gullis even accused him of calling Red Wall voters Nazis. This, put simply, did not happen.
So what did he say exactly?
There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. 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
Lineker was not calling our government Nazis either, as he was alsopreviously accused of by social media trolls. To reduce the conversation down to such a flashpoint was guaranteed to generate outrage, almost as if such an extreme response was the only defence our government had. The migration bill is poorly constructed and could never be passed or enacted under current domestic and international law. It is a deliberate attempt to steer debate, and to distract from failing governance. In our free democracy, we have a duty to hold our government accountable for what they say, and this should be without fear of punitive measures.
Combine this with their double standards regarding the political views of other BBC presenters, such as Andrew Neil, or their political connections such as those of Fiona Bruce, and you have a controversy waiting to happen. For years they stood by and allowed their presenters to have opinions outside the scope of their jobs, as they are rightfully entitled to, without facing disciplinary action. Why is it, all of a sudden, a problem for an employee to take a contradictory view for the sake of accountability?
This could be due to the increasing political interference, which has been coming under increasing scrutiny as more details come to light. Earlier this year it emerged that, during his tenure as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson received a loan of £800,000 after Richard Sharp, a former banker, put Johnson in touch with a distant cousin who acted as guarantor. Sharp was awarded the position of BBC chairman shortly after this.
These and other recent revelations have cast increasing doubt on the indelible, almost invincible perceptions of the BBC. And yet it is the opinion of a single employee which almost brought the organisation to their knees this weekend.
With all the media frenzy surrounding this, it makes me wonder: what could they all possibly have to hide? Could they once again be attempting to distract us from the real problems that exist in government? The fact that the language being used by the government in their bills are in fact increasingly embracing the rhetoric of the far-right? The fact that living standards are still at an all time low and this week’s budget is doing next to nothing to improve this? Now, we have elected representatives getting away with promoting policies which not only would never make it through parliamentary process, thus its only purpose being to generate further polarisation and outrage, but are in fact reminiscent of 1930s Germany.
That’s what our government can’t stand: the truth. Public acceptance of populism as a legitimate political standpoint didn’t start and end with Trump, Johnson, or Bolsonaro. The damage they have done to political civility will take decades to diffuse. We can no longer have reasoned debate without resorting to accusations of extremism. I am frustrated at myself that, in an attempt to defend reasoned debate, I’ve had to even mention the Nazis, because that now makes me no better than the others who introduced it, and down the doom-loop of civility we go.
This is obviously not the first time the BBC has found itself in hot water over its impartiality guidance, and it certainly won’t be the last. The organisation will live to see another day, but not with a structure anyone should be comfortable with in these times where government scrutiny should be at an all time high. The BBC have since stated their intention to review their social media policy for employees following Lineker’s reinstatement to regular presenting duties, but this simply will not be enough. Their blinding commitment to impartiality in recent years has opened the door to allow extreme arguments with no basis into legitimate spheres. The whole point of impartiality is that there should be a lack of political interference, not a balance of it. Appointments at the top should never be decided by those who do not work there, who do not know what is truly best for the company, and only wish to use it as a cloak for their own agenda.
I will always be a staunch defender of the BBC’s educational and entertainment output. However, there is much work to be done. Any future Scottish public broadcaster should ensure that true impartiality benefits all, and not just those at the top.