Voices: It’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment when the BBC lost its mind over Gary Lineker
Could it possibly be that, six days ago, when Gary Lineker replied to a somewhat random member of the public on Twitter with some slightly incendiary but still carefully worded criticism of the government, it actually just wasn’t that much of a big deal?
That maybe, you know, it didn’t need to lead every single BBC news bulletin for almost a full week? That it didn’t need to lead to a flagship sports programme being broadcast without a presenter for the first time in its 60-year history – which is more than any pandemic or war has ever managed to achieve?
It’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment when the BBC lost its mind. Certainly, it was long gone by Sunday night, when the host of the BBC’s News at Ten was sitting inside Broadcasting House in central London, doing live interviews with their media correspondent, who was standing in the street outside Broadcasting House, about what he “was hearing” about the news company at which both of them work – which was that there were “hopes of a deal in the next 24 hours”.
This is the kind of reporting that usually happens when wars end, when nation states break up and new ones are formed. Or at least when, for roughly the ten millionth time, Brexit doesn’t actually get done.
They were right, though. There was a deal in the next 24 hours; it happened on Monday morning, though “deal” is not quite the word. As deals go, there was about as much give and take from both sides as there was at the Treaty of Versailles.
At the end of one of the most bizarre spectacles ever seen in British public life, even by the standards of the last few fully deranged years, Lineker will be back on air at the weekend; he has not apologised; he has not deleted any of the apparently offending tweets; and he has not agreed to refrain from posting political comments in the future, either.
The BBC director general, on the other hand – former Conservative Party electoral candidate Tim Davie – has apologised, has ordered an independent review into his own impartiality rules (which he only came up with three years ago), and has allowed his highest-paid employee to present programmes again without any suggestion that said employee has, at any point, done anything wrong. He only said that there are “grey areas” in the social media guidance that need to be made un-grey.
So was he saying that it was his fault, the BBC’s fault, or Lineker’s fault? Well, there are areas in Davie’s statement that are rather grey, and one suspects that’s just how he likes it.
The really incredible thing is that it took almost a full week to arrive at Monday morning’s settlement. How many times did Davie have to listen to Lineker saying “No” to absolutely all of his demands before deciding that it would probably be better for him to capitulate on every single one?
Was there a point at which he found himself wondering, like the rest of the country, whether it might have been better for everyone if he’d just not made a Very Big Deal out of this? It is, of course, hard for any organisation to ignore the fact that it’s leading the news, day after day, and to wait for things to blow over. But there can also be no doubting that the BBC did more than anyone else to blow up its own, very miniature crisis – a reply to a tweet – absolutely out of all proportion.
As has been pointed out countless times over the past week, impartiality does matter. Roger Mosey, the former director of news at the BBC, has said more than once that the point of strictly upheld impartiality is to allow for deeper journalistic interrogation. It means that Suella Braverman can’t waft away questions simply by saying, “Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you.” (Though it probably won’t stop her from trying.)
And, naturally, as is so often the way, at the end of the Lineker explosion, all the pieces have landed back together in precisely the same place.
The Mail, the Telegraph, The Spectator, are all convinced that all this shows is that the BBC is still in thrall to the woke left, and that therefore the licence fee should be scrapped. Once again, their ideological position just so happens to dovetail perfectly with their commercial interests, as it has done for about the last 20 years.
Or, alternatively, the BBC is still terrified of the government, and still does its bidding – just not quite on this occasion, when the awesome power of the “Free the MOTD One” movement caught them off guard.
Without being inside the BBC, and when its own commitment to impartiality means that it deliberately leaves these questions unanswered, it’s very hard to gauge how true it is that the likes of Davie, Richard Sharp and Robbie Gibb, all of whom can entirely legitimately be described as Tories, patrol the corridors, quietly but certainly doing the government’s bidding.
We can’t know if that’s true. But we can know that a fairly significant number of high-profile BBC staff have left, and have subsequently claimed precisely that.
Mainly, we can know that absolutely nothing is going to change. We shall have to wait and see what the outcome of Davie’s review might be, but one thing it won’t be able to do is elevate his organisation beyond the reach of those determined to row about it.
Shortly before the entirely post-parody scenes played out on the News at Ten, there was a very clear reminder of what’s at stake. A killer whale, filmed from a drone off Shetland, rolled over onto its side and secretly swam up a shallow channel of seaweed to murder a baby seal, to the sound of soft strings and the perfect prose of David Attenborough.
It was surely one of the most incredible sequences the great man has ever been involved in. It should have come with a warning to what is becoming an entirely toddlerised nation: carry on arguing for much longer, and we’ll just switch the bloody thing off altogether.