The BBC/Gary Lineker crisis was avoidable in more ways than one.
The saga hardly needs recapping such is the attention it has attracted in recent days. But in short, when the Match of the Day presenter compared the rhetoric used by the Government in its rollout of an anti-immigration bill to that of 1930s Germany, he found himself in hot water.
There was an outcry from those who disagreed with his language. There was consternation from BBC bosses that he had crossed a line by compromising its impartiality. Yet various colleagues supported his right to free speech, especially since he is not a news & current affairs journalist nor BBC employee. The BBC’s decision to take Lineker off air left Saturday night’s favourite sports programme in chaos when its whole presenting team refused to appear. Many predicted as inevitable DG Tim Davie’s subsequent climb down, but what could the BBC have done differently to avoid this crisis brewing out of control?
Consistency is key:
The approach taken in this instance seemed at odds with the (lack of) treatment meted out to others at the BBC taking an overtly political stance online (see below). The guidelines seem poorly drafted, poorly communicated and, historically, inconsistently applied, lending weight to the Lineker support camp. If BBC managerial consistency starts now – requiring new emphasis and implementation – they first have to game the consequences of the situation, and only then place a marker and stand their ground, or risk having rings run round their decisions. The broadcaster’s history is littered with BBC insiders talking publicly about their management’s shortcomings – so the Lineker problem was never going to be resolved quietly once his suspension was announced.
Suspend now and investigate later:
By going for the ‘suspend now investigate later’ approach, BBC bosses exacerbated the situation. It turned a saga into a circus that dominated public discourse and put the BBC under massive scrutiny for several days. Perhaps swifter decision-making would have prevented the situation from snowballing as it did.
Anticipation leads to the best cure:
Clearer social media guidance for contracting presenters would have left no room for ambiguity. There had been earlier situations (for example Lord Sugar criticising transport union boss Mick Lynch over recent strike action) which had already exposed high-profile presenters’ expressions of personal political views as a tricky grey area. That the BBC’s social media policy will now be subject to independent review does demonstrate action (though clearly after the horse nearly bolted).
Choose your battles wisely:
Lineker’s fierce army of fans (personified by his 8.8 million Twitter followers), put him in a category above and beyond the popularity of other BBC staffers. He would be an attractive talent for other sports channels. Despite rumours in some quarters that he regretted his extreme language and had admitted privately that he had perhaps gone too far, he has immense power (enhanced by his privilege of hosting a flagship BBC programme). He put to the test the widespread football notion of no player being bigger than their club. His criticism of a Government already unpopular among much of the Twitterati was likely to receive a mainly positive reaction on that particular platform. However, the general furore is simply further recognition that the media like nothing better than a drama involving one of their own – early acknowledgement of which might have helped the BBC realise this was never going to play out discreetly.
Whilst the crisis appears to have abated with soothing and mutually respectful statements from both sides, this peace is fragile. All Lineker’s future tweets will be pored over by media and commentators looking to reignite the issue. Let’s face it, he has already, seemingly purposefully, given them new fodder. It strikes us that both sides have emerged with reputations somewhat tarnished.
Savvy BBC observers await the untreatable lesions to appear in this relationship, given a mere sticking plaster has been administered to an already festering wound. What are the sporting odds on which will come first: Lineker forced into issuing an unreserved apology for his social media antics and resigning or the end of Chairman Sharp and/or DG Davie’s respective tenures? Reputations linger despite a spotlight that fades.