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15th March 2023

GaryGate: The BBC’s (failing) quest for impartiality

In its obsession with impartiality, the BBC has put itself in an impossible situation
GaryGate: The BBC’s (failing) quest for impartiality
Photo: Elliott Brown @ Flickr

There are few things left in British society that command such reverence, respect, and pride as the BBC. The Beeb is as much part of our national story as marmalade or bad weather. Though not without fault, its place in the public consciousness was, even a few years ago, so immovable that any Johnsonian attempts to expose the cracks and undermine its fabled impartiality seemed futile. It turns out, regrettably, that time has proved us naïve.

It is a curiously sad thing to watch the world’s largest public broadcaster so willingly destroy itself from within – that enviable reputation it so desperately cherishes is now the prized hostage in the Government’s culture war crusade. In the space of 24 hours, Britain’s last great institution shattered its noble mission of maintaining impartiality – a mission which the BBC has meticulously stood by for a century – for the sake of protecting the sanctity of the Government’s ghastly refugee bill.

In unceremoniously removing Gary Lineker from Match of the Day for daring to have an opinion, the BBC topped off a mindless 24 hours of burning its commitment to its founding principles of informing and educating. Rather, it decided to bow at the altar of the current Government’s disgruntlement over the reception of its profoundly inhumane and illegal migrant policy.

This was on top of the appalling decision not to air David Attenborough’s final ever program for fear it may offend certain anti-knowledge groups on the right with its factual narrative on climate change. Not to mention the sorry caveat Question Time’s Fiona Bruce gave for the historic accusations against Stanley Johnson (father of Boris) of domestic abuse, calling them “a one-off”. By haplessly compounding its scandals into one singular news cycle, the BBC managed to offer up its cherished impartiality rules to a frenzied media landscape that has ached for the chance to tarnish the once untouchable organisation.

Gary Lineker’s now-removed Tweet. The BBC stepped the Match of the Day presenter down after he allegedly fell foul of impartiality rules.

Gary Lineker was not contractually forbidden to speak his mind in the public domain so long as it did not conflate with his work on Match of the Day, so it is worrying that he should be withdrawn when Twitter is not part of the BBC, nor, as most grown-ups know, part of reality in general. Had the usual suspects in the Conservative Party, including the Home Secretary and “Stop the Boats” mastermind Suella Braverman, not criticised the tweet, the BBC might have kept Lineker in his place.

But that seems unlikely – Richard Sharp, the corporation’s chairman, has faced calls since his appointment in 2021 to resign over his failure to declare that he facilitated an £800,000 loan to then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Similarly, the Director-General Tim Davie, the man who oversaw Lineker’s dismissal, once stood as a Conservative councillor candidate in West London. Davie was appointed to tackle a “perceived left-wing bias” which culminated in cancelling shows such as The Mash Report and forbidding journalists from expressing support or attending rallies for controversial movements such as Black Lives Matter. Despite ostensibly being a political appointment, few Director-Generals or Chairmen have had their backgrounds so intensely examined – but then again, few selections have been so dreadfully corrupt.

Cancel culture is a reductive term, but when the BBC engage in the very thing right-wingers allegedly hate in order to pre-emptively placate their backlash, this whole debacle can be characterised as nothing else. The galling doublethink that a migrant policy which breaks international law is somehow more morally palatable to the BBC than David Attenborough’s impassioned, factual, and last plea for action on climate change is reprehensible in and of itself. If Attenborough and Lineker – two of the most beloved men in Britain – are fair game, but Suella Braverman is not, then our moral compass is n0t just damaged, it is beyond repair.

But even then, there is another question the BBC has to answer: why did Attenborough, in his empirical appeal for climate action, and Lineker, in his lukewarm but ill-conceived tweet, fall foul of impartiality rules, but Sir Alan Sugar – whose charge against Jeremy Corbyn’s oversight of antisemitism in the Labour Party was much more emphatic in its comparison with 1930s Germany – has not?

The BBC would hazard that, as Gary Lineker is its standard bearer on BBC Sport, it cannot afford to have its editorial team be seen as in any way biased. But, to expect anyone, particularly someone who is not a political journalist, at the BBC or elsewhere to purge themselves of any nuance or privately held beliefs is as inhumanely impossible as it is dangerously wrong.

There will be some, too, on the right like Nigel Farage and the GB News posse – feigning their outrage and peddling their conspiracies – who will rejoice at Lineker’s fate. But these voices ought to be ignored, if not for the sake of sound public debate then at least because they themselves are attempting to score political points off of an organisation they normally lament. In suspending Lineker, there was a clear choice the BBC made to bow down to pressure from a Government that seeks to control its narrative.

The Catch-22 the BBC now finds itself in is serious. It can continue to appease and snuggle up to an increasingly Trumpian Conservative Party that finds itself embracing the “alternative news” of GB News or TalkTV. Or it can stand its ground and watch as Tory backbenchers become ever more bellicose and bloodthirsty in their objections to the BBC’s very existence as a public service broadcaster. It is an impossible choice, but given Sharp and Davie’s appointments it is increasingly clear that the solution has been imposed, and that the Government have decided they want the BBC as their de facto mouthpiece – never critical, never questioning, and never out of line.

The BBC is in serious danger of altogether abandoning its fixation with impartiality not through the revocation of its license fee but through a slavish self-flagellation to satisfy the delusions of the anti-woke brigade. The former powerhouse of British culture seems content in morally bankrupting itself for the sake of survival, a tactic that will not work in the long run. And whilst this is a solution imposed on the BBC, it cannot claim it was not complicit.

And, ultimately, that will be what loses the BBC their favour with the public. It chose to punish Lineker and Attenborough, not stand its ground. There can be little doubt now that the most trusted news source in the country is at the behest of a Conservative Government hellbent on controlling the narrative and silencing dissent. The Tories, having tried (and failed) to privatise Channel 4, are now fully committed to wrecking the foundations of Britain’s last remnant of national unity.

I love the BBC, and no matter how deep the waters it finds itself in I will always want to defend it. But even I can see that its days are numbered. It is a shame that when the Tories have smashed that legendary institution down into a million garbled pieces, we will only remember that it did it to itself.

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