Tom Rachman is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
The BBC – known for documentary hosts whispering about nearby pythons, helmeted reporters striding around battle zones, and overeducated comics doing silly walks – has itself silly-walked into trouble.
A very British scandal has engulfed the public broadcaster, featuring a former football (soccer) star, allusion to the Nazis, and a dodgy loan for a dodgy prime minister, alongside the defining national blunder of the times, Brexit.
Before I untangle that, it’s worth explaining the role of the Beeb, so much part of the British family that it was once known as “Auntie.” For 100 years, it has embodied and emboldened the country, presenting pluck during the war, wit in peacetime, and edifying programming throughout.
The upshot? Dramas about weirdo aristocrats, soaps about commoners at the pub, quiz shows, baking contests, and forecasts for more rain. Funded by a fee that every household must pay, the BBC needs to please everyone.
But Britain is so fragmented. The Brexiteers still fantasize about the promised (but never glimpsed) glories of leaving the European Union. Their opponents lament 13 years of inept rule by the Conservatives. Others are simply depressed to live in a country that feels like it’s going downhill.
How can a public broadcaster reflect nationhood to a population that half-despises its compatriots? This issue burst forth in what seemed like a safe space: weekend sports coverage.
The former striker Gary Lineker – a 62-year-old scamp with a silver goatee – was once famed for booting balls in for England and now hosts the highlights show Match of the Day, where creaky ex-players rave about goals and moan about refs. Mr. Lineker stands out: witty, eloquent, and the highest-paid star on the BBC. He’s also a man of opinions.
“There is no huge influx,” Mr. Lineker tweeted on March 7, criticizing a government plan to detain migrants who cross in small boats to the British Isles, refusing them the chance of asylum, deporting some to Rwanda, and banning all from entering the country for life.
“We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries,” Mr. Lineker added. “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.”
The influential right-wing press – after years of stirring contempt both for foreigners and liberals at the Beeb – went after Mr. Lineker. Conservative politicians joined in. Soon, the BBC leadership suspended their star.
Mr. Lineker’s pals in the soccer world responded with outrage. Pundits refused to appear on Match of the Day, forcing the BBC, embarrassingly, to run clips without commentary.
The BBC cited impartiality rules preventing journalists from opining in public. But Mr. Lineker is neither a reporter nor staff, just a freelancer tweeting in his own time. Also, other BBC celebrity presenters had expressed political views without reprimand.
Why Mr. Lineker? Perhaps because he is among the BBC liberals whom Conservatives loathe, as well as a Brexit opponent.
Ever since the 2016 referendum over EU membership, much has become warped in the United Kingdom. The BBC contorts itself to avoid speaking ill of Brexit; in coverage of businesses destroyed by red tape at the border, rising food prices, and staff shortages in hospitals, there’s scarcely a mention of the B-word.
Any time the broadcaster is forthright about the harm caused by Brexit, those who campaigned for this national disaster attack, dubbing BBC the “Brexit Bashing Corporation.” A threat to halt funding always lurks.
BBC chief executive Tim Davie – himself involved in Conservative Party politics back in the 1990s – denies that this government pressured him to suspend Mr. Lineker. Yet suspicion remains over the links of BBC management to the Conservative Party.
Richard Sharp, a major Tory donor, reportedly helped then-prime minister Boris Johnson secure a loan worth around $1.3-million around the end of 2020. Shortly thereafter, the government announced Mr. Sharp as the new BBC chairman, responsible for safeguarding its independence.
Although the BBC mess is a very British scandal, it touches on a broader problem: that – into the second decade of social-media mayhem – we still struggle to balance free speech and impartiality.
When everyone gained a platform online, and millions began yammering at once, the mute button became a powerful tool. Culture can seem like a contest over the volume, based on the troubling idea that truth is not power – loudness is.
After the pundits’ protest, the BBC restored Mr. Lineker’s volume, ending his suspension. He responded impishly, changing his Twitter profile picture to feature a quote on the wall at the Beeb’s headquarters, a line from another famous BBC presenter: “If liberty means anything at all,” George Orwell said, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”