February 26. 2024. 6:20

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Lineker affair exposes BBC’s curious relationship with Conservative power

The frenzy of coverage over Gary Lineker’s tweets about asylum policy and the BBC’s decision – now reversed – to take him off air has flitted around the fringe of a far more consequential issue: the public broadcaster’s curious relationship with government power. Like much of modern Britain, it all goes back to Brexit.

It is obvious why the focus so far has been on Lineker’s story, replete as it is with all the magic ingredients of a modern media mania-fest. It has a virtuous, well-known protagonist (Lineker), an easy villain (home secretary Suella Braverman, who makes asylum policy), simple narratives (censorship and the need for compassion) and an underlying social media frenzy to keep the feedback loop well-oiled.

Now that the initial drama is abating with the Lineker-BBC peace deal, expect the focus to shift more to the impulse within the organisation to take him off the air in the first place. The BBC has left itself open to the accusation that it moves too hard and fast to assuage government criticism.

[ UK Lineker praises ‘predominantly tolerant’ Britain as BBC announces his return to Match of the Day ]

The BBC itself is the ultimate political football and the current Conservative government has delighted in booting it up and down the pitch. There has always been an element of political pressure on the organisation, but the Tories have cranked it up considerably in the last four years.

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Lineker affair exposes BBC’s curious relationship with Conservative power

Lineker affair exposes BBC’s curious relationship with Conservative power

Former prime minister Boris Johnson in June 2019 derided BBC as the “Brexit Bashing Corporation”. Despite flimsy evidence for it, a narrative took hold in Conservative circles that the broadcaster’s top journalists were all pinko remainers. On the contrary, several of its biggest names, such as Andrew Neil, had obvious conservative leanings.

But the Tories kept at it. Johnson’s culture secretary and the minister with responsibility for the BBC, Nadine Dorries, repeatedly accused it of anti-government “impartiality and groupthink”. She froze its licence fee as the cost-of-living crisis took off and even threatened to scrap it altogether.

Meanwhile, Johnson appointed Richard Sharp, a Tony donor, as BBC chairman. Sharp gave a remarkable interview to the Sunday Times last December during which he stated explicitly that the corporation’s journalism was afflicted by “liberal bias”, a catnip admission for Conservative backbenchers. Sharp is now under investigation for failing to declare he helped Johnson to secure an £800,000 loan shortly before the former prime minister appointed him to the BBC.

Tim Davie, the BBC director general who took Lineker off air for criticising Conservative party policy, is also a former Tory candidate and activist. Another of its directors, Robbie Gibb, used to run communications at Number 10. Former BBC journalist Emily Maitlis last year accused Gibb of being an “active agent” of the Conservatives on the BBC’s board. The Financial Times, meanwhile, has disclosed texts from him to news executives warning against journalistic appointments that would displease the government.

[ Gary Lineker is politically juvenile, but the BBC is utterly naive ]

Maitlis, who was one of the BBC’s top journalists, left not long after she was censured for a segment criticising the government over its officials breaching their own lockdown rules. Later, she revealed that her censure came after a direct complaint from the government. Such complaints were also common under previous governments, she said. But the difference here was that the organisation had been so quick to accept the current government’s complaint “without any kind of due process”.

“It makes no sense,” she said, warning that BBC was now highly exposed to mischievous accusations of “bias” from government circles.

The perception now is that the BBC, now overseen by people with close Tory connections, may have become over-sensitive to the relentless torrent of accusations from Conservative circles that editorial staff are anti-government, and this could be prompting it to over-compensate with knee-jerk actions, such as the suspension of Lineker.

That problem may be more difficult to solve than a spat with its highest-profile presenter.