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Black Letter Communications Blog

Expert pr advice for the legal sector

Lineker tweet-gate: BBC is naïve if they think it’s all over

A week really is a long time in politics. Just ask Gary Lineker.

The ex-England footballer and long-time presenter of BBC’s ‘Match of the Day’ found himself temporarily ousted this month after the broadcaster ruled that a tweet about the government’s new controversial migration policy was in breach of its impartiality guidelines.

In just over 200 characters, the former face of Walkers crisps sparked an extraordinary, seven-day standoff with the BBC after comparing the language used to describe the policy with that of 1930s Germany. Quite accurately as it turned out.

Unsurprisingly it didn’t go down well. But Lineker wasn’t for turning and neither were his colleagues. So many walked out in solidarity that it decimated the weekend’s football coverage.

Then, just like that, with an apology for disruption and a promise to review its social media policy, normal service was resumed. For football fans at least. As legal PR specialists, it’s clear that reputationally, the reverberations of such a spectacular own goal by the Beeb will be felt for a long time to come.

One rule for Lineker?

The BBC’s editorial guidelines say it is committed to applying “due impartiality to all our subject matter” which those working for the corporation have a responsibility to uphold.

“The over-riding principle of this guidance is that anyone working for the BBC is a representative of the organisation, both offline and also when online, including on social media; the same standards apply to the behaviour and conduct of staff in both circumstances,” it states.

The fact that Lineker is a freelancer and not an employee has been pointed out – not least by his lawyers, I’m sure – but I think the real issue is not with the guidelines but how they have been applied and to whom.

Not to Lord Sugar, the face of BBC’s long-running reality show The Apprentice, when he urged his Twitter followers to vote Conservative ahead of the last General Election. Let’s not forget that his sidekick on the show, Karren Brady, is also a Conservative peer.

Nor to the alleged behaviour offline of BBC chairman Richard Sharp who, as reported by the Guardian, is currently under investigation over claims he helped Boris Johnson secure a loan of up to £800,000 shortly before the then Prime Minister recommended him for the job.

I would argue that all of the above should be classed as representatives of the BBC. The terms on which they are employed, exactly who pays their wages and whether they’re in front of or behind the camera is just semantics that are really neither here nor there to the average licence fee payer.

Critics have suggested that it is not Lineker’s lack of impartiality which is the problem, but the fact that he is on the wrong team. Were he not so big an asset to the BBC, he may have found himself – to coin a favourite phrase of Lord Sugar’s – fired.

No one is saying that the guidelines aren’t necessary, but they must be applied fairly, proportionately and consistently, which does not seem to have been the case here.

Same rule for all

The BBC cannot have predicted the fallout that followed Lineker’s suspension, but what it should have foreseen is the attention it would draw to the impartiality row that was already raging at its top.

Lineker didn’t need to point out the double standards, his new army of social media supporters did it for him, propelling the allegations against Sharp back to the top of the news agenda where they have remained.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer says Sharp’s position is ‘untenable.’ Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has distanced himself from the debacle, dodging direct questions about whether Sharp is the right man for the job.

If Lineker deserved a yellow card for his perceived transgression, then surely its chairman should also step aside until the investigations into his conduct are complete.

Reinstating Lineker and reviewing the “grey areas” that director general Tim Davie admitted existed in its social media policy will not restore the BBC’s credibility or resolve the questions or concerns that still exist about the actions of others.

It is, however, a start. And what the BBC must now do is make sure that it is not one rule for bosses, but the same rule for all who represent the broadcaster and are accused of bringing its reputation for impartiality into disrepute.

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