Football as we all know it is about to change. Gary Lineker has been taken off Match of the Day presenting duties and nothing else seems certain anymore.
The former Tottenham, Barcelona and England striker has long been an outspoken critic of the current Conservative government, often posting his views on Twitter. That has come into conflict with the BBC’s impartiality stance, driven by director general Tim Davie, who previously stood as a Tory councillor.
Tweets about the government’s new bill targeting migrants attempting to cross the Channel have now become the main story. There’s a lot going on there, so let’s break it all down.
The following select excerpts are from the BBC’s guidelines on impartiality, which can be found here.
“Impartiality does not necessarily require the range of perspectives or opinions to be covered in equal proportions either across our output as a whole, or within a single programme, webpage or item. Instead, we should seek to achieve ‘due weight’. For example, minority views should not necessarily be given similar prominence or weight to those with more support or to the prevailing consensus.
“There may be occasions when the omission of views or other material could jeopardise impartiality. There is no view on any subject which must be excluded as a matter of principle, but we should make reasoned decisions, applying consistent editorial judgement, about whether to include or omit perspectives.
News, Current Affairs and Factual Output
“Presenters, reporters and correspondents are the public face and voice of the BBC – they can have a significant impact on perceptions of whether due impartiality has been achieved. Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal opinions of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area. They may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence, but may not express personal views on such matters publicly, including in any BBC-branded output or on personal blogs and social media.
Contentious Views and Possible Offence
“Contributors expressing contentious views, either through an interview or other means, must be challenged while being given a fair chance to set out their response to questions. Minority views should be given appropriate space in our output.
“Consequently, we will sometimes include in our output people whose views may cause serious offence to many in our audiences. On such occasions, referral should be made to a senior editorial figure, who should consult Editorial Policy.
“The potential for offence must be weighed against the public interest and any risk to the BBC’s impartiality. Coverage should acknowledge the possibility of offence, and be appropriately robust, but it should also be fair and dispassionate.
“The public expression by staff and presenters of personal offence or indignation, or the tone or attitude of an item or programme as a whole may jeopardise the BBC’s impartiality.”
The BBC first announced new changes to its standards in late 2021, having previously received criticism for how Martin Bashir obtained an interview with Princess Diana in 1995. An inquiry found Bashir acted in a “deceitful” way, including faking documents, and the BBC to have fallen short of “high standards of integrity and transparency”.
Davie said his first objective upon his appointment as the BBC’s director general was restoring trust in the national broadcaster. Staff and on-air talent are bound by the BBC’s impartiality clauses.
Impartiality is itself contentious; Ofcom describes it as “means adequate or appropriate to the subject and nature of the programme”.
The government outlined its plans to effectively ban those arriving to the United Kingdom via illegal routes from claiming asylum earlier this week.
The opening to the bill, which can be found on Gov.uk, reads: “Earlier this year the Prime Minister made stopping the boats one of his 5 promises to the British people. The ‘Stop the Boats’ – or Illegal Migration – Bill will fulfil that promise by ending illegal entry as a route to asylum in the UK.
“This will remove the incentive for people to risk their lives through these dangerous and unnecessary journeys and pull the rug from under the criminal gangs profiting from this misery once and for all.
“People who arrive in the UK illegally will instead be detained and swiftly removed to their home country if safe, or another safe third country, such as Rwanda, where they will be supported to rebuild their lives.
“By ending illegal immigration as a route to asylum, stopping the boats and taking back control of our borders the Bill will ensure the UK can better support people coming through fair, safe and legal routes.”
At least 52 migrants died in the English Channel trying to reach the United Kingdom between 2018 and 2022. Plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda have also stalled due to legal challenges, including by the European Court of Human Rights.
The government has claimed its safe entry points have been abused by migrants when in reality those attempting to cross by boat have often endured unimaginable hardships and are risking life and death to start new.
Home secretary Suella Braverman has been immediately warned the proposals would break international law. Lawyers have asserted these plans would breach the United Nations convention on refugees.
“We are confident that we are complying with the law, domestic and international,” Braverman told the BBC. “But we are also pushing the boundaries and we are testing innovative and novel legal arguments.”
Lineker, a known Tory critic, said the language used in the plan was “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”. He was criticised by Conservatives and right-wing voters but added: “I’ll continue to try and speak up for those poor souls that have no voice.”
Labour leader Keir Starmer accused prime minister Rishi Sunak of electioneering, adding: “It was going to break the gangs – it didn’t. Now we’ve got the next bit of legislation with almost the same billing. I don’t think that putting forward unworkable proposals is going to get us very far.”
The UN Refugee Agency responded: “UNHCR is profoundly concerned by new legislation introduced by the UK Government into the House of Commons on Tuesday 7 March 2023.
“The legislation, if passed, would amount to an asylum ban – extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how compelling their claim may be. The effect of the Bill (in this form) would be to deny a fair hearing and to deny protection to many genuine refugees in need of safety and asylum.
“This would be a clear breach of the Refugee Convention and undermines the United Kingdom’s longstanding, humanitarian traditions.”
It all came to a head when the BBC announced Lineker would be standing back from his Match of the Day role until an agreement on his social media use is reached. Lineker has told sources he has not stepped back and has been taken off air.
Lineker remains adamant he will not apologise for his remarks and has been joined in a boycott of Saturday’s programme by pundits Ian Wright and Alan Shearer.
It’s worth remembering this whole sort of distraction technique has been a staple of Conservative tactics in recent years. Former prime minister Boris Johnson often threw ‘dead cats’ into the public eye – or, distracted the public by pointing at something ludicrous – to generate a sideshow of a media storm.
The government is being urged to consider alternative, effective and humane measures instead of sending people to Rwanda.