Readers of my blog are located all over the world, and only a portion will be firsthand consumers of the BBC, here in the UK. But you all know it, even if you don’t realise it. Some of the broadcaster’s most famous international shows include Doctor Who, The Office, Sherlock, Monty Python and a million ubiquitous others. It’s launched the careers everyone from Oscar winners to superheroes, and countless others in-between. So even if you’re not British, the BBC is an important cultural institution.
Here in London, we are constantly debating the future of the BBC, and that has everything to with its purpose and its design. It is our state broadcaster, a publicly-funded goliath which provides everything from news and weather through to sports and entertainment. It is a multi-purpose, onni-channel media service. But that also means it has to enforce a studied neutrality, because it is there to serve everyone who pays the license fee. Everyone from the most snooty, cosmopolitan Brits through to the most nutty, basement-dwelling weirdos. And this basically guarantees that the BBC is perpetually under attack. Lefties consider it a status quo, small-C conservative institution, while those on the right believe, with all their heart, that it has an inherent liberal bias. On paper, these two positions seem incompatible, but then you realise that the BBC puts out thousands of hours of programming every week across multiple shows and channels and formats, and so, yes, it is possible. You can piss everyone off.
The problem is compounded by the funding model, the famous “license fee”, which is a tax by any other name. At time of writing, it costs a UK household £159 a year, which is probably decent value for the service provided but, once again, enough to make people think they have a stake in critiquing the organisation. If it were funded via, say, a £20-per-person grandfathered addition to council tax, I doubt there would be many people who’d notice the funding — instead, you have to sign up to TV licensing and the BBC constantly badgers you about paying the fee. And so people get irritable.
The second big issue is the BBC Charter which is a royal charter with a 10-year life span, setting out the BBC’s editorial independence, its public obligations and its funding structure. The current charter is up for renewal in 2027, which means we are now entering the crunch period where the BBC must convince DCMS (the Department for Culture, Media & Sport) about its long-term viability. For a while, it looked like reform to the license fee was inevitable. The last general election here in the UK was contested between a Conservative party led by Boris Johnson and a Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn: both men would have been perceived, internally at the Beeb, as hostile towards the corporation. But it looks like the next election will now be contested between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer, both of whom are more blandly establishment than their predecessors, and therefore less likely to rock the boat on funding of the public broadcaster.
But Sunak certainly has an issue to deal with, and that has reared its ugly head this week like Colonel Kurtz rising from the murky waters of the Mekong. Historians will, I think, call this past week The Great Gary Lineker Row (or Garygate, Linekerfuffle or something). In short: Gary Lineker, a former England football star and current presenter of the BBC’s flagship football highlights programme, Match of the Day, tweeted a criticism of current government immigration policy via a comparison to 1930s Germany. Naturally, this caused a bit of a stir, with a few pundits who dislike Lineker’s outspoken liberal politics calling for him to be booted out of the BBC (which, after all, is politically impartial, even in its sports programming). It was a small, unimportant addendum to a big story — the small boats crisis in the English channel — but then something strange happened. The BBC itself started fuelling the story. It started leading with it on the six o’clock news and the Today programme, and then, when the nation’s media had been whipped into a frenzy, they announced that Lineker would be stood down from Match of the Day.
To understand why the BBC would pursue such an obviously insane PR path, you have to understand that the organisation is gripped by an institutional anxiety about its own independence, that runs deep in its veins. Put simply, producers and presenters felt that if they ignored the criticisms of Lineker, it would be the same as the BBC ignoring criticisms of the BBC. And say what you like about the BBC: there is no media organisation in the world that runs as many stories about its own institutional failings.
But standing Lineker down was a stunningly ill-thought out move and led to an almost total professional boycott of Match of the Day. All the show’s presenters, pundits and commentators went on strike, even the PFA (the footballer’s union) forbade its members from giving post-match interviews. The highlights package that ran on Saturday night had no human presence, just the goals from the football. It was 17 minutes long (the show normally lasts a couple of hours). And then today, with the story into its fourth day as front-page news, the BBC backed down. Director-General Tim Davie, released a statement saying “Everyone recognises this has been a difficult period for staff, contributors, presenters and, most importantly, our audiences. I apologise for this.” Lineker would be returning to the fold, and it would be on the BBC to review its social media policy.
Ok, that’s a lot of context. The next few paragraphs are going to spell out why the story can’t end here.
The current BBC chairman, a role that is a political appointee, is a man called Richard Sharp, who has been under major scrutiny for the past couple of months thanks to his role in securing a major personal loan for former Prime Minister Boris Johnson (the bloke who got him the gig). This has been, I think it’s fair to say, a bad look for the corporation. Sharp, a former Goldman Sachs banker, has been an advisor to both Johnson and Sunak, while DG Davie (not a political appointee) is a former Deputy Chairmen of his local Conservative Association. So the accusations of Tory cronyism have carried quite a lot of weight in recent months. It has fed a sense that the censuring of Lineker for his tweet (even if thought to be tonally ill-judged) is disproportionate and probably hypocritical. Andrew Marr, who until recently was one of the BBC’s headline interviewers and a former Political Editor there, wrote today in the New Statesman that “this is the moment for the corporation to change its rules, be bolder about Conservative bullying and prioritise the search for truth, which is a far bigger thing than impartiality.”
This is a fair analysis, of course, but, equally, there will be some on the conservative side who will see the news that Lineker is back in the MOTD fold with not so much as a slapped wrist (Lineker is paid £1.3m a year for his gig, making him one of the Beeb’s top earners) as evidence that the corporation has been captured by liberal groupthink.
Now, people who read this blog regularly will know that I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the BBC. As a consumer, I think it’s generally extremely high quality. I don’t see any media organisation in the world that is capable of the range of broadcasting the BBC achieves: from airing Wimbledon to Desert Island Discs on Radio 4, from Peaky Blinders to the most-read English-language news website in the world. At last weekend’s Oscars there were two films — Aftersun and Triangle of Sadness — produced by BBC Films. This range is unprecedented but it’s also my problem. I run a small podcast production company here in London and so have witnessed, first hand, the extent to which the BBC is an institutional monolith. It produces enough podcasts and radio to satisfy the entire UK market for such things, which is someone frustrating for me, in the private sector.
At the end of last year, Richard Sharp, the new and under-fire chair, gave an interview to the Sunday Times where he described the BBC as “up against” Netflix, Apple and Amazon. Sharp, an avowed capitalist, was arguing in favour of the continued generous funding the BBC receive, but his words were confusing. Why should a public utility describe itself as “up against” the private sector? It would be strange if the NHS was described as “up against” Bupa, or that TfL were “up against” Uber. But Sharp said it anyway. And this is from a Conservative party advisor and career Goldman Sachs banker, and in a country where public services like energy, water, trains, and Royal Mail have been sold off into private hands. So what’s the difference between all of of those and the BBC, which not only has to remain publicly funded but has to actively compete (and, in the UK, overwhelm) the private market?
These are big questions about the BBC’s role that are not going to be answered, believe it or not, by this blog post. But I think they do relate to the present situation with Lineker & Co. Because the question, as posed by Andrew Marr, is an existential one: what does the BBC want to be? How can it be both impartial and committed to truth, in a world where all truths are considered partisan? Can the BBC reconcile all of these ambitions? Just look at the statement given by Director General Tim Davie this morning:
“Impartiality is important to the BBC. It is also important to the public. The BBC has a commitment to impartiality in its Charter and a commitment to freedom of expression. That is a difficult balancing act to get right where people are subject to different contracts and on air positions, and with different audience and social media profiles. The BBC’s social media guidance is designed to help manage these sometimes difficult challenges and I am aware there is a need to ensure that the guidance is up to this task. It should be clear, proportionate, and appropriate.”
This statement, clearly designed to pacify a situation that was rapidly destabilising public trust in the BBC’s ability to deliver content (let alone unbiased content!) basically sub-contracts out the question of what role the BBC ought to play to the relatively minor question of “social media policy”. An independent panel will review the corporation’s social media policy, and, at the end, they’ll come up with clearer guidelines for BBC employees on how to behave on Twitter or Facebook or wherever. But this is just a can, kicked a little further down the road: people will still be people. The BBC will continue to be an organisation with a deeply ingrained commitment to impartiality, staffed exclusively by real human beings without an impartial bone in their body. Because, ultimately, the BBC cannot be all things to all people.
If you want to beat the private sector at its own game, you necessarily have to take the battle to that turf. And, in doing so, the BBC has created this headache. People, on both sides of the political divide, care disproportionately about the BBC’s neutrality because the BBC is disproportionately influential. If you cultivate an outsized presence in the national political debate, you can expect an outsized level of scrutiny.
But at present the BBC seems committed to this mission to grow, even when there’s no necessity for that. This, after all, isn’t the NHS; nobody’s going to die if they don’t get a breaking news alert on their smart speaker. The fact that so much talent is leaving the BBC for the private sector, in order to (in most cases) voice liberal opinions like Marr’s, has been seen, not as an opportunity to reset the dial, but as a fight to be fought. In the end, the BBC cannot be trusted to fix itself because it is too obsessed with its own survival, with its own relevance, with its own influence. It wants to be Panorama and Newsnight, Strictly and Match of the Day, and the consequnce of dominating socio-political conversations is that the a mirror is held up. Who is telling these stories? Who is making the news?
This week the BBC made the news about itself. And doing that might have expedited a shift in the way the corporation is treated. Right now, Sharp’s position as Chairman seems untenable. It’s not his fault — he is who he is — but a fault of the recruitment process. Who would’ve thought that a Goldman Sachs salaryman might be ill-equipped to lead a major public body? But whether Sharp and Davie survive the next few months, the story about the future of the BBC is just beginning. That 2027 date is still looming. And, right now, it is hard to find anyone willing to stick their neck out and defend the BBC.
But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it means that the purpose of having this vast, central state media operation, which turned 100 last year, has, to some extent, been served. Maybe the BBC can go back to being a body that makes the Six O’Clock News and Blackadder and which people affectionately call “Auntie”, rather than trying to be a giant barometer of the nation’s political health. Because creating an impartial body, composed entirely of partial limbs, is always and inevitably going to produce a Frankenstein’s monster of an organisation.