The Lineker affair will linger, but it is not up there with the Andrew Gilligan or Martin Bashir controversies, says Damazer. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Gary Lineker, the BBC and the impartiality conundrum

Everyone thinks the national broadcaster should be impartial. But there is no clear agreement on what impartiality means. A former head of BBC Television News explains how the Beeb can retain its reputation for rigorous journalism
March 22, 2023

The Gary Lineker affair is episode number one million in the BBC’s long-running drama over impartiality. It provides rich entertainment for us all: Lineker and the BBC both loom so large in national life that it requires serious abstinence not to have an opinion—even if the central character in the drama is not a BBC journalist nor even a permanent BBC employee. 

Lineker, a genuinely great presenter, clearly felt compelled by his conscience to tell his 8.8m followers on Twitter just how much he loathes the government’s latest attempt to stop the Channel crossings. But he did it knowing that he was treading hard on very sensitive ground, because the BBC is seen to have an impartiality problem. The government says so, director general Tim Davie says so, BBC chair Richard Sharp—under the cosh and probably more so after the Lineker fracas—says so, and the stats say so. Survey after survey—whether commissioned by the BBC or by its regulator, Ofcom—suggest a significant minority of its owners (that’s us, I should remind you) think it’s not impartial. Sky, ITV and Channel 4 appear to do a little bit better.

The situation looks very serious, because impartiality is the non-negotiable core of the BBC’s mission. Just glance at the Royal Charter, the Beeb’s supreme constitutional document, which says with beguiling simplicity that “the BBC should provide duly accurate and impartial news, current affairs, and factual programming to build people’s understanding of all parts of the United Kingdom and of the wider world.” A noble mission—but one that is widely misunderstood, as we shall see.

Read the gloomiest surveys of public attitudes towards the BBC and, if you were a supporter, you would at best despair and at worst just give up the fight altogether. Why pay £159 a year for what amounts to bum journalism, even if EastEnders, Happy Valley, the Proms, Strictly—and of course Match of the Day, with or without Gary—come attached? If the BBC can’t be relied on to provide the core news, along with the context and analysis which allows us to understand what is happening in the UK and beyond, it’s in trouble. But lo, it turns out the public does not seem to think the BBC is quite that bad after all. Far from it.

From its inception, the BBC has swum in a sea of journalism containing a lot of junk and a lot of wonderful treasure—and it can’t ignore what’s going on around it. But its job is to do a great deal more than pick some notional halfway point of public opinion and then peddle it. It needs to believe that evidence-based truth exists—while also putting on air many different perspectives on many subjects and for all its audiences. That’s a task that has always been fraught with difficulty and is now even more so because the revolution in digital technology has both democratised and debased public discussion. The BBC is assessed on how well it performs an increasingly difficult balancing act.

Once upon a time it was the BBC Trust—the governing body, separate from management—that judged its journalism. That came to an end six years ago, after the whole media world had argued for the BBC to be regulated by Ofcom. I was a trustee at the time—a poacher turned gatekeeper, following 25 years in BBC news and current affairs and then at Radio 4—and believed the switch was both inevitable and based on sound-enough reasoning.

Many of my colleagues on the Trust did not. Some of the resistance was doubtless just the inevitable turf protection, but there was also a genuine fear that Ofcom would sell-out the public interest by paying too much attention to political and commercial noises offstage, and try to win favour by publicly flagellating the BBC at regular intervals.

It’s not turned out that way: although various ministers in recent years have pressured it to adopt anti-BBC positions, Ofcom has resisted the temptation to play to the gallery pretty well. Last year, halfway through the BBC’s current Royal Charter, the regulator carried out a big piece of qualitative research on the public’s view of BBC journalism, and it said this:

“BBC news and current affairs is widely respected for the quality and credibility of its news and current affairs output. BBC news is well regarded in terms of the following attributes:

  • High-quality and professional reporting
  • Global coverage and worldwide reach
  • Respected, trusted and familiar presenters and reporters
  • A source that is trusted for the big stories and often turned to
  • Does not shock or sensationalise but sets out to inform
  • Covers the big and complex stories well
  • In-depth, comprehensive, and thorough
  • Delivers credible, factual information that many rely upon
  • Thought of as providing a ‘fair’ account of the news and including a range of views”

And for good measure, Ofcom found this was the verdict of audiences who didn’t consume much BBC journalism as well as loyalists.

Its regular annual reviews and consumption surveys say similar things. The scores for trust and accuracy—a bit north of 70 per cent—are decent and steady. And even those anxiety-inducing impartiality statistics contain riddles. Based on its findings for 2020–21, Ofcom thinks the sheer number of us who believe the BBC is highly impartial (19.6m) is greater than for any other broadcaster, including ITV (14.2m), because more people consume BBC News than any of its competitors. 

They are not obliged to do so. There are alternatives, some of them good ones. But BBC 1 and Radio 2 are comfortably the country’s top sources of TV and radio news.

So what, exactly, is the BBC’s impartiality problem? For a start, and contrary to received wisdom, neither the BBC nor Ofcom judge the output through the lens of something called simply “impartiality”. The key criterion is different⁠—to the tune of a three-lettered word. That word is “due”, as in “due impartiality.” And if you go back to the Royal Charter, give or take a little grammatical ambiguity, it takes the same approach⁠—the BBC, remember, should provide “duly accurate and impartial news”.

More people consume BBC News than any of its competitors and they are not obliged to do so—there are good alternatives

This may sound like dancing on the head of a semantic pin, but it is nothing of the kind. Ofcom handily provides an explanation:

“‘Due’ means adequate or appropriate to the subject and nature of the programme. So ‘due impartiality’ does not mean an equal division of time has to be given to every view, or that every argument and every facet of every argument has to be represented. The approach to due impartiality may vary according to the nature of the subject, the type of programme and channel, the likely expectation of the audience as to content, and the extent to which the content and approach is signalled to the audience.”

Think, for instance, about how the BBC should best deal with Holocaust deniers, or the balance that should be struck between the overwhelming majority of scientists who believe in anthropogenic global warming and the tiny number who don’t. Or how to cover the war in Ukraine. Should the BBC be giving as much time to Putin apologists as to those who believe his invasion is illegal? Not many would think so.

Everybody of any heft in the BBC, from the director general down, knows that impartiality—without the addition of that little word “due”—is not only inadequate but, when misunderstood, can be a straitjacket: a form of anti-journalism, because in the hands of meek editors it contributes to the misleading tedium of the “on the one hand, on the other” technique for analysing and debating stories.

But the “due” part of due impartiality does not roll off the tongues and keyboards of politicians, media commentators or leader writers, and it’s not surprising that the public seem baffled. In research published alongside a periodic review of the BBC, Ofcom found that few had even heard of due impartiality: the concept “is not widely known but when shown the definition, people recognise the importance of broadcasters using their editorial discretion to decide how to cover issues.”

Impartiality should not be a blank cheque, where broadcasters can defend running everything but the most blatant errors in the name of providing “context.” Judgements still have to be made and opinion will differ about those judgements. Take Emily Maitlis’s full-throttle Newsnight soliloquy on Messrs Johnson and Cummings after the latter’s Mr Toad drive to Barnard Castle. Some saw it as truth-telling. I did not. Its strident tone—implying everyone had to agree—and the not-so-subtle link back to Brexit (Cummings “was the man, remember, who always got the public mood, who tagged the lazy label of ‘elite’ on those who disagreed. He should understand that public mood now: one of fury, contempt and anguish”) pushed it over to the wrong side of the line. The broadcaster allowed Maitlis to stay on but issued a public reprimand. She left—doubtless feeling she was muzzled. Ofcom decided no further action was required on l’affaire Maitlis, but Kevin Bakhurst, group director for broadcasting and online content at Ofcom, told me he thought the BBC “came out in the right place.” 

Maitlis was very decidedly a central figure in BBC news. Everyone agrees that Lineker is not, but he breached a social media guideline, which states that those “who are not journalists or involved in factual programming… nevertheless have an additional responsibility to the BBC because of their profile on the BBC. We expect these individuals to avoid taking sides on party political issues or political controversies and to take care when addressing public policy matters.” 

The question however arises of whether this guideline, meant to protect the BBC’s impartiality, is fit for purpose—and whether it has been, or ever could be, consistently applied across the piece, when so much of media life is played out online, and where interpretations and expectations around the weight and meaning of what is published on social media are liable to change.

Most of the time Ofcom will wait for the BBC to come to its own view before deciding whether it wants to rap the broadcaster over the knuckles. In the six years that this regulatory regime has been in place, the BBC itself has declared due impartiality breaches in 25 cases, which doesn’t seem too bad for an organisation that broadcasts tens of thousands of hours of news and current affairs a year, with online output on top of that.

Ofcom has stepped in to declare an impartiality breach only once, regarding an episode of The World at One in 2021 that concerned the handling of harassment complaints made against former first minister Alex Salmond. Ruth Davidson, then leader of the Scottish Conservatives, launched into an attack against the Scottish government and asked if the country’s democratic institutions were corrupt; alternative viewpoints were given insufficient weight in the programme, the regulator said.

Beyond that, while not declaring a formal breach, Ofcom clearly felt something went very badly wrong when a BBC London TV news and online report in December 2021 claimed—without anything like decent evidence—that Jewish students on a bus, who were the victims of an antisemitic attack, had made anti-Muslim remarks themselves. (The BBC unit investigating the report ruled that the broadcaster had failed both on accuracy and due impartiality.)

But Ofcom’s general view is that the BBC does not have a compliance problem on due impartiality. Rather, it has an acute perception problem, which Ofcom is constantly exhorting the BBC to combat. Which is fair enough, but hardly an easy task when the audience doesn’t understand the key concept.

Lots of things can get in the way of managing perceptions—things Ofcom acknowledges the BBC can’t easily control. The broadcaster is often held to higher standards than others (fair enough); its funding mechanism—the compulsory licence fee—makes some people hostile to it no matter what; the BBC’s “portrayal in the wider media” is not much help either; and the government of the day can mostly be relied upon to try and choreograph the critics by proclaiming a sincere wish for the BBC to get its impartiality house in order, while simultaneously taking a somewhat more—how can we put this delicately?—self-interested view of the BBC’s actual performance. As a sample, just look at that renowned guardian of the public interest, Boris Johnson, letting the Mail on Sunday know in December 2021 that the BBC’s coverage of Partygate was “shamefully frivolous, vengeful and partisan” and had “wasted” too much “public time and attention”. Johnson’s remarks doubtless thrilled his culture secretary Nadine Dorries, but they were delusional, not least because it was ITV News and not the BBC that had, brilliantly, made the broadcast running on the story.

The politicians’ hostility is baked in—Tony Blair hardly professed undying love for the BBC, and no serving prime minister has ever done much to encourage licence fee payers to feel that the BBC is doing a good job. There aren’t many votes in that.

As it happens, achieving due impartiality around events in Westminster is not the most difficult part of the equation for the BBC, and the broadcaster has long understood that any way of assessing impartiality cannot be defined by party politics. Westminster arithmetic and the fortunes of the respective tribes still matter. But the gravitational pull of SW1 needs resisting, especially since the BBC is frequently thought to be too metropolitan—although that’s not a new phenomenon.

What has changed is the greater polarisation of opinion, stewed and stirred by social media, over a greater range of issues, from Brexit to statues to the nature of British history to transgenderism to asylum seekers and much else. Those who hold the strongest views are more likely to say the BBC is not impartial, and if you watch or listen for any length of time you are bound to encounter a lot of people who you don’t like. Worse, you will see supporters of your own views being sharply interrogated, which tends to trigger a “shoot the messenger” response. 

It’s hard to work through the impartiality conundrums thrown up by the culture wars. A slew of issues that until recently formed only a tiny part of the news diet now frequently erupt on air, often freighted with painful and raw language. Journalists—not just the BBC’s—are overwhelmingly graduates and many of them, especially in the cities, are personally liberal. Some may think the BBC should adopt a more assertive stance on race, sex and gender and asylum. Some BBC journalists will be on Lineker’s side. But wherever you stand on Lineker, identity cannot trump due impartiality more broadly. Davie knows this and he is patently right. If some younger licence fee payers, or even BBC staff, find the BBC a bit vanilla on these social issues, that’s the price you pay for being a universal broadcaster.

Unusually, Davie did not come to his current eminence via journalism—the BBC’s or anybody else’s—but when I worked with him in his previous posts I found him to be acute, intelligent and proportionate when dealing with journalistic matters. Whatever one thinks of his decision on Lineker, it is not debased by the fact he hasn’t sweated in a newsroom.

No sooner had he started in mid-2020 than the grizzly mess of Martin Bashir’s scandalous Panorama interview with Princess Diana a quarter of a century earlier crash-landed on his plate. That interview was horribly contaminated—Bashir had used forged bank statements to help gain access to the princess. After former Supreme Court justice John Dyson subsequently slaughtered the BBC for its handling of Bashir’s lies, the BBC Board commissioned its own report into editorial processes, governance and culture, authored by senior independent director Nicholas Serota.

That report is seen as offering a kind of flightpath the BBC can take to improve its impartiality score. It recommends regular reviews of content in key areas of public debate, increased staff training, more robust oversight on standards, increased transparency, and a new editorial whistleblowing policy—although it is, probably necessarily, a trifle condescending about previous BBC efforts to ensure compliance with impartiality obligations.

Ever since Lord Reith there have been frailties and blind spots and cock-ups galore

The first of those reviews of content has recently been published—into the BBC’s coverage of taxation, public spending, government borrowing and debt, and authored by Andrew Dilnot and Michael Blastland, the original presenter and editor team behind one of Radio 4’s great programmes, More or Less. It’s good stuff. It believes the BBC does not have a systemic political bias, but that too many BBC journalists lack an understanding of basic economics, which undermines its reporting on the central political issue of government debt. The report says too many BBC journalists believe all debt to be bad, and so fail to appreciate that the role of government debt is “contested and contestable.”

That critique touches on the BBC’s real problem. It is, if imperfectly, impartial. But it could be better in many ways—braver and more sophisticated in its analysis, more ambitious in its use of statistics, more interesting in its choice of experts, more aware of how other countries manage their own challenges. Improved literacy on the economy and other specialist areas would unconditionally be a good thing. We all have our gripes.

Where stands the chair, Richard Sharp, in all of this—the man who got himself involved in arranging a potential loan for Johnson and then failed to disclose these conversations when he was being interviewed? The Lineker affair makes it harder for him to survive the fallout from his bout of unbecoming shyness. If a sports presenter has landed himself and the BBC in deep trouble because of controversial tweeting, it is hard to see how Sharp—chair of the broadcaster’s sovereign body—can have sufficient legitimacy to go on, even if the inquiry into his appointment does not knock him over outright. “Lineker goes, Sharp stays” is not a good headline.

In any event, Sharp ought to get a grip on his own language when talking about the BBC’s journalism.

A month or two before the Sunday Times broke the loan story, Sharp told the same paper that “the BBC does have a liberal bias.” Ouch. He should know that decent BBC journalists, of whom there are a great many, regard being called biased as the pox, because it suggests something systematic and widespread is wrong with the way they go about their impartiality business. And he offered this morsel on Brexit: “It came as a big surprise to the BBC. The BBC didn’t understand the ‘mind’ of the country.” 

This is decidedly a sub-Dilnot and -Blastland analysis. The country very rarely has “a mind” and it clearly did not have “a mind” about Brexit. It had at least two—and arguably nearer 35m, the number who voted. The “surprise” at the Brexit result was shared by more or less everyone, surely including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and probably even the pro-Brexit Sharp himself, because pretty well all the polls suggested all the way through that there would be a narrow Remain win. The BBC, along with everyone else, reported those polls in a time-honoured and sensible way, inserting the necessary caveats about their reliability. It lacked clairvoyant powers and failed to stick its journalistic neck out and predict the actual result⁠—it can hardly be blamed for that. Does Sharp know what it means to broadcast with due impartiality in a pluralist society? If he somehow survives he is going to have to do better.

As the BBC enters its second century, what next? The broadcaster has faced challenges before. The Gary Lineker affair will linger, but it is not up there with Andrew Gilligan’s controversial reporting around the Iraq war and the allegations of the “sexed-up” dossier, or Martin Bashir’s Diana interview.

There was no golden age for the BBC. Lord Reith, its tyrannical founding father, was susceptible to pressure and ever since there have been frailties and blind spots and cock-ups galore. I know that from first-hand experience. But the limited number of people who are going to decide its future—politicians, senior civil servants, above all the prime minister—need to stand back a bit and take a rounded view. One hundred years on, let’s be clear—the BBC has been a huge British success story.