We need to restore trust in the BBC

Portrait of Gareth Benest
Gareth Benest IBT's Director of Advocacy 16th March 2023
Gary Lineker questioned by the press outside his home.

Gary Lineker interviewed by the press.

The very public row about impartiality matters to the future strength and independence of the BBC. Gareth Benest, our advocacy director, explains why.

The International Broadcasting Trust is a friend to the BBC, albeit a critical one.  We want to see a thriving, confident, and wholly independent BBC.  But the corporation doesn’t always make it easy, even for its most ardent supporters.

The BBC can ill afford another round of ritualised public flogging and self-flagellation, yet here we are again.  The furore surrounding a tweet by Gary Lineker and the BBC management’s bungled response has caused more reputational damage to our most important public service broadcaster.

It has managed to unite much of the country in morbid curiosity, at least.  Whichever side you are on (because you have to choose in this binary world), we have all eagerly watched the latest tortured pronouncements of the Director General and revelled in endless punditry of the non-sporting kind. Some have enjoyed a game of Where’s Wally? in which we hope to spot the BBC Chairman, who should be defending the BBC at times of crisis but whose own impartiality is under intense scrutiny.

Why impartiality matters for the future of the BBC

Tim Davie prioritised impartiality at the BBC when he became Director General in 2020.  He sought to reassure the nation (and the government) that, under his leadership, the BBC would not only be impartial but appear impartial. This was in part a response to constant attacks by the government – and its supporters in the media – on what they saw as its lack of impartiality, especially on the politically charged issue of Brexit .

When freelance sports presenter Gary Lineker directly criticised government policy, BBC management felt (or was) compelled to prove its impartiality by sending him to the broadcasting equivalent of the naughty step.  The decision of his colleagues, from across television and radio, to join him left management looking weaker than ever and disrupted sports broadcasts across the schedules.  

The challenge of demonstrating impartiality in an age of social media

It’s important that the BBC maintains its reputation for impartiality. All public service broadcasters need to demonstrate their impartiality to win public trust. As the BBC’s own editorial guidelines state: ‘The BBC is committed to achieving due impartiality in all its output. The commitment is fundamental to our reputation, our values and the trust of audiences.’

These editorial guidelines govern the BBC’s output, not the views of its presenters. It’s clear that if news broadcasters express views on political matters then this compromises the independence of the BBC’s news output. What is in dispute is whether the views of its non-news presenters like Gary Lineker have a similar effect. Or whether it is even tenable to restrict their right to express their views on social media. 

The BBC is now reviewing this very question. Our hope is that this review resolves the matter once and for all, and the BBC can move on from this damaging row.

Another BBC presenter in the spotlight 

Another high profile BBC presenter has also been in the spotlight – Fiona Bruce, host of Question Time, the BBC’s flagship topical debate programme. In last Thursday’s edition of the programme, the panel was asked to discuss reports of former Prime Minister Johnson’s plans to bestow a knighthood on his father, Stanley.  When the panellist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown described Stanley Johnson as a wife-beater, Bruce intervened to explain that, whilst Johnson hadn’t denied breaking his wife’s nose, his friends said “it was a one-off”.

The Question Time production team had clearly anticipated this accusation against the former Prime Minister’s father. They had evidently prepared this ‘clarification’ which, to some viewers, appeared to minimise domestic violence and go some way towards excusing Johnson’s alleged assault.  

There was a backlash against Fiona Bruce’s comments and she felt compelled to resign as ambassador for the domestic violence charity Refuge. The BBC issued a statement defending the presenter, who it said was “not expressing any personal opinion about the situation”, and needed to ensure that allegations were given “context”. 

Public service broadcasting is built on the trust of audiences

These two very public rows have clearly damaged the BBC. We urgently need the corporation to move beyond these rows and to find its way again. 

It is our view that these two rows illustrate the fragile state of the BBC’s independence. 

We believe that the only way for our cherished public service broadcaster to survive for anywhere close to another one hundred years, is for it to become fully independent of government. That means an end to government control over its funding. The BBC must be free from political interference, or the threat of interference, by the government of the day.

Public service broadcasting is built on the trust of audiences. If audiences lose trust, then the whole system is under threat.

Gareth Benest is IBT’s Director of Advocacy

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