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Gary Lineker row goes to heart of BBC reputation, says Ofcom boss

Gary Lineker has questioned Twitter owner Elon Musk after a threatening message was sent to his son in the wake of the sports presenter’s row with the BBC (Lucy North/PA) (PA Wire)
Gary Lineker has questioned Twitter owner Elon Musk after a threatening message was sent to his son in the wake of the sports presenter’s row with the BBC (Lucy North/PA) (PA Wire)

The head of Ofcom has said the BBC needs to weigh freedom of expression with reputation for impartiality when reviewing its social media guidelines following the “difficult episode” with pundit Gary Lineker.

The Match Of The Day (MOTD) presenter, 62, was taken off air after a tweet about asylum seeker policy sparked an impartiality row at the BBC and a boycott by several regular pundits and commentators.

On Monday, BBC director-general Tim Davie apologised for “the potential confusion caused by the grey areas of the BBC’s social media guidance” and confirmed a review of the guidance was being undertaken.

Ofcom chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes said during a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee meeting: “It hasn’t been a great weekend for BBC Sport fans and I think we are all glad to see that, hopefully, the BBC is moving beyond this episode.

“But clearly an episode like this goes straight to the heart of that wider reputation beyond their news and current affairs coverage.

“I think they need to do what they’re doing, which is to look at those guidelines and see whether they’re still right in a world of increasing use of social media, and look again at what they ask of contributors, as well as their staff.”

She added: “I think it’s been a really difficult episode for the BBC and I hope they can find their way through it, it looks like they have agreed for the moment a way forward.”

Dame Melanie said the BBC’s social media guidelines are not a matter for media watchdog Ofcom but for the broadcaster’s board to “draw that line” in order to safeguard the BBC’s reputation.

She said: “I think they’re right to look at it again. There is ambiguity in there. I think that was probably designed to give a degree of flexibility.

“I think it’s fair to say that it didn’t achieve what they wanted. But I think this is a difficult issue for them, I don’t think this is going to be straightforward, and to some extent is going to be about a level of trust, particularly with their staff.

“All organisations face this to some degree or another about what they require of the people who work for them and the safeguards that they expect people to operate when they’re using social media.

“But when it’s about freelancers, actors, other presenters and contributors for the BBC, clearly it’s a slightly different question and I think they need to be weighing freedom of expression alongside the wider reputation they have for impartiality.”

Dame Melanie said she spoke to BBC director-general Mr Davie a “couple of times over the weekend” during the Lineker developments.

She said: “I have to say personally, I think it’s right that they retain responsibility for their own social media guidelines.

“I think that is central for any organisation to be thinking about how they safeguard their reputation, which is ultimately what this is about.

“I think where they draw their own lines of their organisation is a matter for them.”

Dame Melanie said the impartiality row with Lineker will not play into the licence fee debate, confirming a “new operating licence” for the BBC will be published next week.

The report will include details regarding the BBC’s local radio cuts, which were announced in October as part of its new strategy to create a “modern, digital-led” broadcaster.

Speaking about the BBC cuts, Dame Melanie said: “I don’t think that was their finest hour in terms of public communication, there was a lot of concern about those changes.

“Behind the scenes…it was quite hard to get the information we needed from them. We’ve sought real detail in the case of those local radio changes, understanding the evidence that underpinned why they were changing things in particular times of day.

“We have exchanged letters with the BBC at the end of that process, which we will be publishing next week with the operating licence where you’ll be able to see the assurances we’ve sought and received from the BBC about a number of detailed aspects of those.

“I should say that as well as the changes to viewers and listeners behaviour, they are also facing quite significant real term budgetary cuts and so that does inevitably mean that some changes have to happen.”

She said Ofcom will be “keeping a close eye” on whether the cuts meet “audience expectations and needs” and if local radio listening changes significantly, the BBC may need to change their services again.

During the meeting, Dame Melanie refused to answer questions about how the BBC can operate with a chairman who is “so compromised”, referring to BBC chairman Richard Sharp after it was revealed he had helped former prime minister Boris Johnson secure an £800,000 loan facility.

She later refused to answer questions relating to impartiality in the case of broadcaster Fiona Bruce who was accused of trivialising domestic violence during a discussion about Stanley Johnson while hosting BBC’s Question Time.