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Paul Vallely: Lineker row is about more than tweets

17 March 2023

The impartiality issue goes deeper at the BBC, says Paul Vallely

BBC/Nick Eagle

THE BBC did the sensible thing and backed down in the overheated row over Gary Lineker’s critical tweets about the Government’s aptly named Illegal Migration Bill. To save face, the Director General, Tim Davie, announced a review of social-media use — but he will almost certainly have to back down on that, too.

The BBC enforces strict guidelines on party-political impartiality for its staff and for anyone who works in news and current affairs. But it is hard to see how it can penalise Mr Lineker while turning a blind eye to the Apprentice-presenter Lord Sugar’s tweeting “Vote Tory” alongside a mocked-up image of Jeremy Corbyn sitting next to Adolf Hitler; or the then Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson’s tweeting that striking workers should be shot in front of their families.

Celebrity presenters who have criticised the Government include Mary Berry, who attacked the Tory sugar tax; a fellow cook, Nadiya Hussain, who called Theresa May “a monster” for ordering an air strike in Syria; and the money-saving expert Martin Lewis, who said that government policy on energy bills was an “act of national mental-health harm”.

The science presenter Professor Brian Cox went further: “It is clear that the Conservative Party are the problem.” Of course, new guidelines could silence them all — with grave damage to freedom of expression, and the risk that top presenters would simply go elsewhere.

There is a more serious problem here. In the old days, the arms-length funding mechanism that is the BBC licence fee was administered with an innate decency by governments of all parties. But since the Conservative Party lurched to the Right, BBC funding has been slashed. “Toe the line or we cut your money” has been the message of brutish culture warriors such as Nadine Dorries.

Under its Conservative DG, Mr Davie, and its Tory-donor chairman, Richard Sharp, the BBC is increasingly caving in to pressure from the Government — or self-censoring for fear of further whipping — and meekly cutting BBC classical music to fit the reduced budgets (News, 10 March).

This is a dangerous strategy. Death by a thousand cuts could leave us with a commercialised BBC that is all reality shows and American imports. Our national broadcasting network must not be pushed down the road to privatisation, which has proved so disastrous for our water, energy, and rail companies. The only beneficiaries of the privatisation of the BBC would be the right-wing newspaper-owners behind the vocal attacks on public-service broadcasting.

There has been much talk of the need for impartiality at the BBC. But independence is as important as impartiality. Something far wider-ranging than a review of the BBC’s social-media guidelines is required.

The review needs to decide more than the correct balance between impartiality and freedom of expression for the BBCs different groups of presenters. It must ask what is the nature of “due impartiality”, as BBC guidelines put it — and how it should avoid complicity with political immorality.

More than that, it should address the problem that the BBC does not now have adequate defences against politicians who want to impose control over it. The review should suggest new safeguards to give the BBC more protection when its Charter is renewed. Sir Keir Starmer should commit a future Labour government to implementing them.

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