The Media Today

The implosion at the BBC, and the transatlantic debate about journalistic objectivity

March 13, 2023
12 October 2022, Great Britain, London: The station logo is emblazoned on the entrance to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The UK's public broadcaster, which was to achieve world fame for its quality as the British Broadcasting Corporation, was founded 100 years ago, on October 18, 2022. Photo by: Christoph Meyer/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Last week, Britain’s Conservative government proposed a bill clamping down on migrants, including asylum seekers, who cross from mainland Europe by boat. Among the bill’s critics: the United Nations, whose refugee agency accused the UK of “extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection.” Also among the critics: Gary Lineker, a one-time England soccer star turned host of the venerable BBC soccer show Match of the Day, who retweeted a slick government video about the bill with the message, “Good heavens, this is beyond awful.” He then doubled down in a reply to his tweet, calling the bill “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”

If you don’t find Lineker’s criticisms particularly noteworthy you wouldn’t be the only one—but you also probably don’t work for Britain’s right-wing media, which had a field day with Lineker’s reference to 1930s Germany, in particular. The next day, Lineker was the top story on the front pages of the Mail and the Telegraph, with the latter characterizing his remark as a “‘Nazi’ migrant jibe” (putting the word “Nazi” in scare quotes even though Lineker didn’t use it). Again, there was nothing especially remarkable in this; as I’ve written before in this newsletter, conservative British newspapers reliably seize on stories that they can spin as proof of a left-wing agenda on the part of the BBC as an institution. What was more surprising was the response of the BBC itself—not only did bosses at the broadcaster signal disapproval of Lineker’s remarks (which was itself predictable), but its news division gave them top billing, with the subject of Lineker’s tweets leading both of its nightly newscasts on Wednesday, an editorial choice that struck many observers as a sop to confected outrage and a distraction from the actual contents of the immigration bill. The BBC’s prioritization of the story in turn drove more coverage across the media landscape. Soon, Lineker was being doorstepped at his home.

The coverage eventually cooled down; Lineker himself tweeted his happiness “that this ridiculously out of proportion story seems to be abating” and said that he was looking forward to hosting Match of the Day on Saturday. But the story actually wasn’t abating, and Lineker would not be hosting Match of the Day on Saturday. On Friday, the BBC said that Lineker would be suspended from the show until it could reach agreement with him on how he uses social media. What happened next likely caught the broadcaster by surprise: pundits and match commentators who had been due to appear on the show backed out in solidarity with Lineker; by morning, the impromptu strike had spread to other BBC soccer shows, forcing several of them off the air. Match of the Day went ahead, but it was significantly shortened and consisted of match highlights that ran back-to-back in total silence. To fill the lost airtime, the BBC broadcast Sully, a movie about the Hudson plane crash. TV reporters noted the irony.

Meanwhile, the right-wing media carnival around Lineker’s tweets continued. GB News, a startup right-wing network that I’ve written about before in this newsletter, counterprogrammed Match of the Day with a show that it called Alternative Match of the Day. GB News did not have the broadcast rights to any actual soccer games, and so it filled the airtime with inane descriptions of soccer, punctuated by woke-bashing—Lineker, one host said, probably likes the English city of Brighton because it’s “full of rainbow flags and woke people”—and amateurish technical glitches. (Tom Peck, a political writer, called the show “surely the worst piece of television that has ever been made. It was like two nine year olds had broken into a TV studio.”)

Also on GB News over the weekend, Michael Portillo, a former Conservative Party cabinet minister, slammed Lineker for disrespecting the BBC’s funding model, which relies on a license fee paid by members of the public. “If those who are [the BBC’s] public face become party political, then the license fee becomes untenable,” Portillo intoned. “The enemies of the BBC on the right will be delighted with the rumpus caused by Mr. Lineker’s ego, because it brings the license fee a step closer to the dustbin of history.”

It was remarkable that Portillo managed to keep a straight face as he spoke: he, too, has long anchored shows for the BBC—about railway journeys—while maintaining a political voice in the public sphere. Indeed, his comments were merely one example of an obvious double standard in the BBC’s treatment of Lineker. Alan Sugar, a businessman and former Labour Party member of the House of Lords, has long hosted the British version of The Apprentice while separately weighing in on political issues; Karren Brady, who appears alongside Sugar on that show, is currently a Conservative member of the House of Lords. Jeremy Clarkson continued to host the motoring show Top Gear after saying on the BBC’s air, in 2011, that striking public-sector workers should be taken out and shot in front of their families. Andrew Neil served simultaneously as one of the BBC’s top political interviewers and as chairman of The Spectator, a right-wing magazine formerly edited by Boris Johnson. (Neil would go on to found GB News.) On the management side, Robbie Gibb, a member of the BBC’s board, is a former government spin doctor who has since been accused of running interference for the Conservatives. And Richard Sharp, who chairs that board, is currently embroiled in a scandal of his own after helping to facilitate a loan for Johnson when the latter was prime minister; weeks later, Johnson’s government picked Sharp for the chair position. Sharp has also donated to the Conservative Party in the past.

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The Lineker controversy hinges on dynamics that are peculiar to the BBC, with its public funding model and mandate to be politically impartial. The double-standards question is one example of this peculiarity; so, too are questions about Lineker’s contract status—although he is the BBC’s highest-paid star, he is also, technically, a freelancer—and what that has meant for his speech rights, both in the past and more recently, as the BBC has tightened its social-media rules amid a renewed focus on policing impartiality in its ranks (a renewed focus, it must be said, that cannot easily be separated from the incessant right-wing attacks I outlined above). The BBC is no stranger to controversy, but this one has come at a perilous moment for the broadcaster, which, as I explored last year, is facing heightened political pressure at the same time that its funding model, traditionally tied to TV ownership, faces claims of its obsolescence. Entwine these threads and you have, as the BBC’s own media editor has put it, an “existential threat.”

Still, aspects of the Lineker controversy resonate beyond the BBC’s particular circumstances, and, indeed, beyond the UK. It ties into a debate about the political views of sports anchors that flared in the US in 2017 with Jemele Hill’s exit from ESPN and the wider debate over NFL players kneeling for the anthem; one columnist for the Times of London even referred to the BBC’s treatment of Lineker as soccer’s “Colin Kaepernick moment.” A common defense of Lineker’s right to share his political views has been that his on-air commentary at the BBC is focused on soccer. Mostly, this is true and fair; he’s clearly not a journalist in the newsy sense of the term. But, as with the US debate over sports anchors “sticking to sports,” that’s easier said than done, since the worlds of sports and politics often overlap. Soccer is no exception: indeed, late last year, Lineker opened the BBC’s coverage of the World Cup with a monologue sharply scrutinizing the host nation’s human-rights record, a stand that was both widely applauded and (apparently) delivered with the full blessing of his BBC bosses. Lineker wasn’t talking about soccer when he criticized the British government’s human-rights record on Twitter last week. But the British government’s broader immigration policies have affected the soccer world.

While Lineker is not a traditional journalist, his comments, and the BBC’s response to them, thus play into a second broader debate—what those who work for news organizations that like to position themselves as neutral are and aren’t allowed to say on their own time. The impartiality debate around Lineker has clear echoes of the objectivity debate that has rocked the US media world in recent years; those two terms don’t mean exactly the same thing—and again, the BBC’s impartiality commitment is quite specific—but objectivity has often been brandished by old-school journalism thinkers to signal a similar prohibition on journalistic speech that is, or could be perceived as, partisan or overtly opinionated. The debate as to the appropriateness and application of this standard in US journalism isn’t new, but it flared in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 and has been back in the spotlight again this year, in the wake of a widely-shared new report calling for newsrooms to move beyond “objectivity” and criticism of coverage of trans people at the New York Times, which the paper largely dismissed as thinly veiled activism. “This is a period of social change, where public attitudes toward the media and social media are rapidly evolving,” Mark Thompson, who has served in top leadership roles at both the BBC and the New York Times, told the latter outlet for its story on the Lineker controversy. “Editorial teams around the world are racing to catch up.”

At its most nuanced, the idea that newsrooms should move beyond objectivity is not an invitation to unchecked subjectivity or partisan posturing, but an acknowledgement that all journalists have biases that can’t help but inform their work. The notion of objectivity as currently defined, these critics say, does not reflect some neutral higher truth, but rather the calcified and institutionalized biases of those—often heterosexual white men—who have long had the most power over industry norms. Often, disagreements over the term are sincere. But they are also often used more cynically, particularly by culture warriors on the right who have weaponized the notion of objectivity to cast journalism—or journalists—that challenge traditional shibboleths as deviant from the inherent nature of what journalism is. The Lineker story, at the very least, has offered clear, transatlantic evidence for this phenomenon: newspapers and politicians with an agenda used a sports anchor’s personal tweets to accuse the BBC of having an agenda. The BBC allowed itself to become an accessory to this charade. And the end result was that a political opinion critical of power was censured, at least implicitly, as beyond the pale, when BBC stars with more establishment-friendly politics have long been free to espouse their own views.

Early polling around the Lineker saga would seem to indicate that a majority of Brits expect him to be allowed to speak freely, even if they don’t agree with his opinions. The debate around the proper parameters of that speech is not without its thorns, even if Lineker isn’t quite a journalist; the same is true of the objectivity debate in the US, where journalists openly opining on political issues all the time wouldn’t be tenable and different outlets have different audiences and different missions. What’s clear in both countries, though, is that the status quo—which treats some journalists’ opinions as apolitical and others as activism—isn’t tenable either, and that those in charge of news organizations need to reflect proactively on new standards for the industry, rather than leaping into a defensive crouch whenever a controversy erupts (or is manufactured). Journalists aren’t empty vessels whose job is simply to write down what powerful people say. Figuring out what they are, or should be, is hard work. The summer of 2020 seemed like a propitious starting point. Since then, some outlets and thinkers have started this work. But in many places, half-measures or outright dismissal have been more common.

This morning, the BBC announced that, following talks with Lineker, he will return to the air this weekend. Lineker reportedly received an apology; publicly, BBC management committed to an independent review of its social-media policy with a “particular focus on how it applies to freelancers outside news and current affairs.” (You can stop me if you’ve heard that one before.) For his part, Lineker tweeted that he was glad his ordeal is over, before offering a “final thought.” “However difficult the last few days have been,” he wrote, “it simply doesn’t compare to having to flee your home from persecution or war to seek refuge in a land far away.”

Other notable stories:

  • Recently, David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, asked Masha Gessen, a staff writer who identifies as trans and nonbinary, how the magazine should be thinking about its coverage of trans issues—a request that led to a broader conversation on The New Yorker’s Radio Hour show. Among other things, Remnick and Gessen discussed the recent criticisms of the Times’s coverage, and how other media outlets cover trans people. “It is very difficult, in discussing transness, in covering transness, to avoid engaging with the argument about whether trans people actually exist or have the right to exist,” Gessen said. “That’s actually something that should be off limits.”
  • Late last week, Silicon Valley Bank collapsed following a bank run—the biggest such failure since the crash of 2008. “Social media, which hadn’t been a factor during the last banking crisis, pinged both fact and fiction around the world at lightning speed,” the Wall Street Journal reported in its account of the bank run. “Spooked customers whipped out their phones and opened their banking apps. With a few taps and swipes, their money was on its way.” The bank counted media companies, including Roku and Vox, among its clients. Yesterday, federal regulators guaranteed all deposits with the bank.
  • The Times took a deep dive into Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s recent move to oust a local prosecutor who had been elected as a Democrat. DeSantis cast the prosecutor as “a rogue ideologue whose refusal to enforce the law demanded action,” but the Times’s reporting “reveals a sharply different picture: a governor’s office that seemed driven by a preconceived political narrative, bent on a predetermined outcome, content with a flimsy investigation and focused on maximizing media attention for Mr. DeSantis.”
  • Also for the Times, Benjamin Mullin checked in on The Messenger, an ambitious new media venture from Jimmy Finkelstein, the former owner of The Hill, that’s planning to cover everything from politics to entertainment with a staff as big as that of the LA Times. Finkelstein’s goal, according to Mullin, is for The Messenger to serve as “an alternative to a national news media that he says has come under the sway of partisan influences.”
  • And Vanity Fair’s Caleb Ecarma reports on the demise of the right-wing commentator Rod Dreher’s blog at the American Conservative, which went out for the final time on Friday. Per Ecarma, the benefactor who paid for the blog pulled the plug after concluding that Dreher’s copy—which had recently included musings on pornography, circumcision, and exorcism—had grown “too weird.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.