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Lineker – right or wrong?

Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker’s views on government immigration policy caused a crisis at the BBC in March. Dickon Ross looks at the rights and wrongs of airing personal opinions.

By Dickon Ross

Lineker – right or wrong?
Destination UK…

When it came to picking teams in the playground, the captains would always argue over who got me. “We don’t want ’im,” one would complain. “Well, we don’t want ’im neither,” the other would reply, “you ’ave ’im.” And on it went until there was a stalemate and they walked away to their respective halves, leaving me in footie team limbo. Fair enough, I suppose. I never was any good and my indifference to the beautiful game has endured. When I hear the sports reporter warn that if you don’t want to know the scores then leave the room now, I do. Because I don’t want to know them… ever.

Last issue, I wrote about the Royal family – another subject I usually have absolutely no interest in. But the exception was Harry, Meghan and their hatred of the press. This issue, my column covers football – I expect for the first and last time. Like the Sussexes, even those normally allergic to sport were drawn to form an opinion on Gary Lineker and his suspension from the BBC’s MOTD. So, once again, here’s mine.

For those who somehow missed it, Lineker commented on immigration policy on Twitter and compared the language around it to 1930s Nazi Germany. Most people picked a side based on whether they agreed with him. Those who were against declared it outrageous that Lineker should attack government policy, infringing the impartiality of the BBC and its senior presenters. Those who backed him thought it outrageous that he should be suspended for practising free speech when other presenters had been allowed to express pro-Brexit and other more conservative or right wing views, even on air, with impunity.

We can argue about the details of these cases all day, while the impartiality policy isn’t clear cut in practice and, to quote Caribbean pirate Barbossa, could be more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules anyway. In this case, most people picked their side based not on their interpretation of impartiality but on whether they happened to agree with Lineker or not.

Not taking sides

So which side do I fall? I wish I could say but I don’t feel I can – ironically, for a principle very similar to that which Lineker is accused of flouting. As I’ve explained before in this column, giving up the right to take sides is sometimes the price an editor has to pay for running a paper or magazine whose audience spans the political spectrum. It’s not a problem for those media outlets well known for taking a position on that spectrum, from the Guardian to the Daily Mail. But for the rest of us, professing such personal points of view just gives those with an axe to grind something to beat the editor with. We still get hammered from all sides. But as long as they all think you’re biased against them then perhaps you’re getting something right. For the BBC, this principle goes even deeper than for other media, due to its charter to be impartial as a public broadcaster.

If I don’t feel free to air my personal views, as the humble editor of a relatively obscure technology magazine, why should Lineker as the most famous face of BBC sport on a salary many, many times mine?

One difference is that my magazine’s subject matter is inevitably more political than covering matches. But politics does enter sport and has done so since the ancient Olympics.

The editor’s role is particularly sensitive and affects the overall balance. We don’t apply the same rules so strictly throughout my staff journalists, who don’t make the same overarching editorial decisions, nor to our freelancers, because they have other clients with different demands and expect more freedom. Lineker’s a freelancer too, but he is still the face of BBC sport.

It’s really hard to know where to draw that line between an individual’s free speech and the obligation to meet their employer’s principle of impartiality. Whichever side this case is on, it’s clearly on or very close to that line. But in a world where the media is under so much pressure to take sides, we should prize and defend that impartiality harder than ever.

The whole of a media organisation contributes to that. Of course, the views of journalists in news and current affairs, but also presenters in motoring, cookery, business or sport all matter and they have all been in the spotlight over recent years. As does, indeed, the chairman and other management’s relationship with government ministers.

This issue isn’t over. New journalists don’t all have the same old-fashioned views on impartiality, so magazines will increasingly have to write down and formalise what was once routine professional etiquette. The BBC has always had formal policies but it will have to clarify them. That will have to be acceptable to Lineker or he will be off. Either would be a result for me. If he goes, it saves our BBC and we licence fee payers millions. MOTD was a surreal experience with no commentary. But I’ll never watch it again so I don’t mind saving his salary. As you can see, I really am not bothered by football. Just keep football out of politics is what I say.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.