Orin: Lineker scored, but the game for media integrity isn’t over

“[…] Gary Lineker, an accomplished former footballer for England, tweeted that the government set out an ‘immeasurably cruel policy being directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s’.

“One sympathetic piece in The Guardian (UK) suggested that Gary can become Britain’s social conscience. It’s obvious to me that he can’t, because it’s in conflict with his role at the BBC.

“[…] This issue goes beyond the BBC. Media from New York Times to those in small markets like ours have struggled to identify where the lines are…”

BBC employee and former England football star Gary Lineker.
(Copyright The Sun)

The following guest column on the BBC versus Gary Lineker was submitted to Wired868 by Orin Gordon, a former BBC journalist, presenter and editor who can be reached at orin@oringordon.com:

In the old days of BBC TV’s and Britain’s most famous football highlights show, Match of the Day, viewers were told, as scores from upcoming matches under review flashed on the screen, that: “if you don’t want to know the score, look away now”.

That way they could preserve all of the suspense of a game which ended hours earlier, and pretend that the three-minute 11pm edit gave them all of the thrills of watching it live.

Photo: Shake on it?
Former Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel (left) and Tottenham manager Antonio Conte share an infamous handshake after an England Premier League affair.
(via Premier League)

There’s been a lot of willful averting of eyes and pretending in the case of Gary Lineker, the BBC’s highest paid employee, one of its highest profile talents and the show’s lead presenter. The pretense here is that Lineker can say whatever he likes on social media despite being all of those things to one of the world’s leading news institutions.

Let’s back up a bit. The UK government had announced a policy of detention and expulsion of undocumented migrants, including asylum seekers.

“If they come here illegally, it will result in their detention and swift removal,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said. The policy contravenes the UK’s signed commitment to a 1951 international convention on refugees.

Britain Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

The Conservative government was pleasing its base—long concerned about people coming in from all parts to box bread out of their mouth. That fear was one of the main drivers of Britain’s exit from the European Union, which was finalised on 31 January 2020.

Lineker, an accomplished former footballer for England, tweeted that the government set out an “immeasurably cruel policy being directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”.

One sympathetic piece in The Guardian (UK) suggested that Gary can become Britain’s social conscience. It’s obvious to me that he can’t, because it’s in conflict with his role at the BBC.

BBC director general Tim Davie thought so too, and took him off the air until he and his BBC bosses could work out where the lines are between opinionated social media commentary and preserving the editorial integrity of the news institution. Yesterday Davie reversed that decision, reinstated Lineker and apologised to BBC viewers. Davie blinked and looked away.

Popular presenter Gary Lineker on air.

Lineker recognised his power. He could stare down a weak DG more concerned about keeping his job than being driven by principle. Davie was right to confront Lineker, because the BBC needs to untangle the inconsistencies over its social media policies.

Its leaders excused politically-charged tweeting by other talent such as TV programme host Andrew Neil. Neil had edited Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times and managed the conservative Spectator magazine. Although he proved to be a tough interrogator of all sides, he was no one’s idea of middle-of-the-road.

It was time that the BBC re-examined and re-codified its policies and made them clearer and more consistent. Whataboutism is rarely persuasive argument. A lax traffic cop who tickets you for smashing the speed limit but previously let other offenders go is inconsistent, not wrong.

BBC director general Tim Davie.

This issue goes beyond the BBC. Media from New York Times to those in small markets like ours have struggled to identify where the lines are. Think about any prominent presenter here (sport or non-sport) tweeting that language contained in a government policy is reminiscent of Jim Jones’. They wouldn’t last long.

Davie can’t have one conviction on Friday and a diametrically different position on Monday without suffering considerable professional damage. The sound of sweet sounding compromise from both sides may yet save his job. For Lineker, it was a penalty coolly dispatched.

The BBC needs a DG who came through the News ranks—not the Marketing maven that Davie is—because this is fundamentally an issue about the integrity of its news product. It’s a pretty clear point of editorial principle that one of its leading presenters crossed a bright red line.

A satirical cartoon of then UK PM Theresa May and leading Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage attacks BBC’s claim of editorial independence.

The BBC is funded mostly through a statutory arrangement in which households with TVs (that is, the overwhelming majority of homes) pay a license fee. Last financial year that amounted to US$4.6b.

Governments have a say in its renewal. Therefore threats to eliminate it—as the current government said it would—make BBC vulnerable to pressure and outright bullying.

Davie’s team operated in fear of the Conservatives, which installed a party placeman as chairman. It may be scared of its own shadow, but it did have a case against Gary’s trenchant tweeting.

Fearless reporting also makes the BBC a target. In January 2004, I witnessed an extraordinary moment in its history when the then DG, Greg Dyke, swept through BBC Sport (where I worked at the time), down a nearby staircase and into the belly of the newsroom at Television Centre in west London.

Former BBC director general Greg Dyke.

He stood on a desk and tearfully announced his resignation—a dramatic fallout from a bitter fight with the Labour government of Tony Blair over their lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and the outing and suicide of a top-level source over a contentious dossier.

I saw something I never thought I’d see. The proletariat of what our critics derisively referred to as the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation, cheering one of the previously loathed fat cat bosses.

Last weekend Lineker, who earns more than twice as much as Davie and is a more powerful public figure, was the surprising beneficiary of BBC working class solidarity—over a public pronouncement that the proles wouldn’t have dared make themselves.

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