The BBC-Lineker row: Can journalists be ‘impartial’ about human rights?

Why was the football legend suspended and what is the BBC’s impartiality clause?

WrittenBy:Shivnarayan Rajpurohit
Date:
   

The BBC is back as an “anti-national” force, but Arnab Goswami may not get a chance to pull off a 56-inch Godi Award-worthy performance this time. The nationalist trolls, after all, are not desi but British in the public broadcaster’s latest controversy.

British football legend and sports commentator Gary Lineker was recently suspended by the BBC for violating social media impartiality guidelines with his “anti-government” tweet. He has been reinstated after outcry from the football world, his fans, and general people with good sense. Since the late 90s, Linekar has been hosting BBC’s flagship sports show Match Of The Day, and is one of the highest paid BBC presenters earning 1.35 million pounds a year.

But what was the whole controversy all about? What did Lineker say? What was this “anti-government tweet”? What are BBC social media policies? And amid all this, what was our honourable I&B minister’s take? 

Let’s take a cursory look at the episode.

The tweet and impartiality clause

“There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order?” Lineker had tweeted.

In this tweet, he implied that the Rishi Sunak-led UK government’s controversial refugee policy is reminiscent of the language used by Nazi Germany. The background to this tweet is the UK government’s “stop the boats” campaign and a new immigration bill. Under this bill, the government, led by the Conservative Party, wants to stop “illegal” refugees.

After the tweet, Lineker was taken off air, disrupting BBC’s weekend football coverage. To be honest, there was nothing out of the ordinary in the Premier League. Except, Liverpool’s shock defeat to Bournemouth after their 7-0 thrashing to Manchester United.

But it begs the question: Can a journalist or sports presenter be held accountable for their views on social media?

BBC said Lineker was suspended for “getting involved in political matters”. This has put the focus on its impartiality clause. BBC says it is committed to achieving due impartiality in all its output, and the clause says it means more than a simple matter of “balance”. “It does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic principles, such as the right to vote, freedom of expression and the rule of law.” 

How does the impartiality clause sit with the BBC’s social media use policy? “Everyone who works for the BBC should ensure their activity on social media platforms does not compromise the perception of or undermine the impartiality and reputation of the BBC.” 

Do these rules apply to freelance broadcasters?

Lineker is a freelance presenter not an employee of the BBC. And he is not in the business of news or factual reporting. So do social media rules apply to a freelance broadcaster? This is where it gets murkier. 

BBC guidance says that actors, dramatists, comedians, musicians and pundits are not subject to the requirements of impartiality on social media. So what was Lineker’s mistake? It was no secret for BBC that he supports asylum seekers, hosts refugees at his home and expressed, on air, his disapproval of Qatar hosting the World Cup due to human rights violations. In a 2021 interview to the BBC about his understanding with Tim Davie, the BBC Director General, Lineker said, “I have had about two or three conversations with Tim Davie since he has been there. He has never called me up and said: ‘You can’t tweet about that. Or You can’t tweet about this.” Lineker also denied that he had been talked to about impartiality by Davie.

Conservative Party links

So why was he sacked briefly? 

Rishi Sunak clarified that the suspension was not a matter of the government. But we have to give it to the BBC for covering the fallout. Fair and square.

The BBC is now looking to revise its impartiality and social media guidelines. Davie has apologised to “staff, contributors, presenters and, most importantly, our audiences”. But the controversy has put the spotlight on him and BBC chairperson Richard Sharp. Both have links to the Conservative Party. Sharp has, in fact, donated to the party and allegedly facilitated a loan of 8 lakh pounds to former PM Boris Johnson. 

I&B minister wades in

Meanwhile, back home in India, Lineker found a friend in our information and broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur, who was concerned about journalistic freedom at the BBC. “Those indulging in malicious propaganda forged in concocted facts can obviously never be expected to have the moral fiber or the courage to stand up for journalistic independence,” he tweeted. 

But would the dear minister stand up for journalistic independence if a journalist from Doordarshan compared India’s policies to Nazi Germany’s? Doordarshan, after all, could have much in common with the BBC as a public broadcaster if it had more autonomy and less state control. It should also be remembered that the BBC as a broadcaster reported on Lineker’s suspension and did not black out the news. 

And was Thakur even aware that Lineker was speaking in favour of a liberal refugee policy? Because when it comes to citizenship and refugees, Thakur’s party, his boss and even the minister himself are known to have been anything but liberal.

On at least one occasion, his boss compared Bangladeshi ‘illegal’ migrants to “termites”, and of course we all remember the dubious “chronology”. Mr Thakur himself is best known for launching a rather catchy slogan, which his critics called as provocation to violence, at the peak of the CAA-NRC protests. 

To post or not to post?

So do Indian media houses have a social media policy? What to post or not to post? Most of them have such guidelines, asking staff to maintain neutrality. 

Shyam Meera Singh, for example, was sacked by Aaj Tak for a tweet asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi why he did not condole with Reuters’ journalist Danish Siddiqui’s death in Afghanistan. 

You can read details on how the Indian press is dealing with journalists’ private spaces in this Newslaundry report. And as far as Newslaundry is concerned, we don’t have any social media guidelines for journalists. So far.

Overall, there are two schools of thought on this issue. One that advocates freedom of expression, another that argues that journalists should be seen as impartial or apolitical in their social media exploits. There are no easy answers to this debate.

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