Is the BBC impartial? The influence of the Tories and right-wing press is clear in the Gary Lineker row
If some of its most senior leaders have such close ties to the Conservative government, can we really trust the BBC to be impartial, asks Mark E Thomas
We have been warned about this government, often not by the Left but by what used to be the voices of the Right: two former Conservative Chancellors, among others, have spoken out strongly.
In September 2019, not long after Boris Johnson won the Tory leadership election, Philip Hammond wrote: “The Conservative party has been taken over by unelected advisers, entryists and usurpers who are trying to turn it from a broad church into an extreme right-wing faction. Sadly, it is not the party I joined.”
In November 2021, another former Tory Chancellor, Ken Clarke, had this to say: “We are now getting dangerously close to the ‘elected dictatorship’ that Lord Hailsham, the former lord chancellor, warned us about half a century ago.”
One of the bulwarks in the UK against any such slide to dictatorship has always been the BBC, whose fabled balance was equally irritating to Left and Right and which, though never perfect, was internationally respected as a source of news. Can we still rely on the BBC to give us a broadly impartial picture? Sadly not.
The Chairman of the Board of Governors of the BBC, Richard Sharp, is a political appointee, a major donor to the Conservative Party who is currently under investigation for helping to arrange an £800,000 loan to Boris Johnson. He is the person ultimately responsible for upholding the BBC’s values. Can we expect him to do so impartially?
The Director General of the BBC – who runs the organisation on a day-to-day basis - is Tim Davie, former Deputy Chairman of the Hammersmith and Fulham branch of the Conservative Party.
The Director of News is John McAndrew, of whom the BBC says: “He was most recently the launch editor of The Andrew Neil Show at Channel 4. Before this he spent a year as Editorial Director and Director of News and Programmes at GB News [the newly formed far-right channel]”
These are some of the most powerful people in the BBC. This is disconcerting, but does not prove that bias has permeated into day-to-day decision-making. However, let's reflect on what's happened over the past week.
On Friday, Gary Lineker was suspended for tweeting about the Home Secretary’s continued use of inflammatory language in relation to refugees. Earlier in the week, he wrote: "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?"
This comment so incensed a number of Conservative MPs that they called for his sacking and the BBC agreed to “speak frankly” to Lineker – a frank discussion which resulted in his suspension (today the BBC has, inevitably, u-turned on that decision after a weekend of intense criticism).
Let us look at the facts of Lineker’s claim. Here are the relative numbers of refugees accepted by other countries in Europe and beyond:
The UK has fewer asylum seekers than Sweden, a country with a smaller population and far fewer than Germany and France. On the numbers, it is hard to argue with Lineker’s comment.
And here is the language used by Braverman to describe refugees:
“I thank my Hon. Friend for his observations. Ultimately, he is right. We need to be straight with people. There is an influx, an unprecedented number of people coming to this country. They are claiming to be modern slaves, they are claiming asylum illegitimately, and they are effectively economic migrants. They are not coming here for humanitarian purposes. We therefore need to change our laws. We need to ensure that there is a limitation on the ability to abuse our asylum laws, and we need to ensure that our modern slavery laws are fit for purpose and cannot be exploited by illegitimate claimants.”
For comparison with the language of the 1930s, here is a paragraph from the Daily Mail in 1938:
And it is not just the similarity of the language which is concerning, it is the attitude to Human Rights. Braverman herself has admitted as much in the text of her Illegal Migration Bill:
Lineker was – ostensibly – not punished for being wrong, however, but for expressing his political views on social media. The guidelines state that:
“Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal opinions of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area. They may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence, but may not express personal views on such matters publicly, including in any BBC-branded output or on personal blogs and social media.”
But there was no censure for Alan Sugar when he tweeted a far more overtly party-political comment:
A free press is just one of many checks and balances which are intended to protect UK democracy. And the government has been systematically undermining all of them. From the ability to protest peacefully to the ability to ensure that the government acts legally; from the independence of regulators to the certainty that Parliament can scrutinise legislation; even the ability to vote is under threat.
It looks as though Ken Clarke was not exaggerating the risk. We must act now to increase the pressure on the BBC and on MPs to reverse these dangerous trends.
Mark E Thomas is the founder of 99% and author of 99%: Mass Impoverishment and How We Can End It. He has spent most of his career in business; for many years he ran the Strategy practice at PA Consulting Group. He is a Visiting Professor at IE Business School and has a degree in Mathematics from Cambridge University.