March 21, 2023
KOLKATA – By agreeing to bring back on air Gary Lineker, its highest paid presenter, the British Broadcasting Corporation seems to have capitulated to pressures placed on its management after it had decided to suspend him for a controversial tweet that chastised the British government for its immigration policies.
Once described as the British Lefts loudest voice, the former football star has been the longest-running presenter of BBCs Match of the Day programme.
He invited the ire of BBC bosses for a tweet where he characterised the proposed government action against immigrants as not dissimilar to steps taken by Germany in the 1930s.
The remark drew an immediate and furious response from the Conservative Party, and his suspension followed. But when other celebrity presenters also decided to stand down, the BBC was forced to negotiate with Lineker despite his refusal to take down the tweet.
The result is that the corporation has agreed to review its policy on social media reactions while asking the former football star to abide by its editorial guidelines, which critics say is outdated.
The settlement reached with Lineker was described by many as a humiliating comedown, and the Conservative Party deputy chairman, Lee Anderson, said the episode suggested that the star presenter was bigger than the BBC itself.
But there may be bigger issues in play, including the stark differences between the journalism once followed by the BBC and the compulsions placed on it by social media.
While staffers and some freelancers are bound by the rules of conduct laid down by BBC, which include adherence to guidelines on impartiality, fairness and accuracy, celebrity presenters often have looser contractual obligations.
Lineker, for instance, could argue that his primary responsibility to the BBC is to offer unbiased presentation of a football match, without impinging on his rights to free speech, just as actors and scientists featuring regularly in the Corporations programming could say that its guidelines cannot gag their views on subjects other than those they are contracted to offer inputs on.
This is a valid argument, and one that must be borne in mind while laying down policy.
Of course, just as the haste with which BBC suspended Lineker suggested that a clearly displeased government had applied the screws, its capitulation thereafter would indicate that the backlash was more than the broadcaster could handle.
While embarrassing for the BBC, these events show that the once-venerated media organisation has lost at least some of its sheen, the compulsions of competition having forced it to hire celebrities whose interactions with the world through social media may have a larger footprint than their contribution to its programming.
More importantly, the episode reveals that the discussion on media rights and responsibilities in this age will have to be far more nuanced than it has hitherto been.