If you made up your mind about the BBC when the Indian government recently attacked it for broadcasting a documentary about Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, then pause a while.
Perhaps you believe that the BBC is part of the evil white media conspiracy whose members wake up each day and immediately start thinking of ways to defame India. Or perhaps you think of the BBC as a largely impartial media organisation that is committed to exploring all reasonable points of view no matter who takes offence.
Either way, forget about your own prejudices and preconceptions because for all of the last week, the BBC has been involved in a crisis of its own making about—what else?—impartiality. And the Corporation has not come out of it well. The way the dispute has gone may have consequences for broadcasting and journalists all over the world.
To understand why the battle could impact all of us, even though the original context was entirely domestic, try and think of an Indian parallel: should a journalist employed by an Indian news organisation treat his or her Twitter account as an extension of their employer’s personality?
Most of us would say: don’t be ridiculous.
And that, in fact, is the way it works in our country. Nearly every journalist I know tweets independently without worrying about how their employers may react. News anchors, like other human beings, have political views. They may stay neutral (in theory, at least) when they are moderating TV debates but they make no secret of what their own views are when they are not on camera. And on the whole, news organisations regard this as fine. (Though there have been one or two worrying exceptions lately.)
Sometimes these political views are in consonance with the views of their employers (especially if they are pro-government) and may even result in a promotion or, at least, an increment. But rarely will somebody be rebuked for, say, tweeting about the independence of the Supreme Court, for attacking the Karnataka government over a corruption scandal or saying that Delhi’s former deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia should be given bail.
There might be a problem if these views are expressed in the newspaper or the TV channel the journalists work for but Twitter is usually regarded as a private space. Nobody expects journalists not to have any views of their own, which they express on their private platforms.
That’s not true of the BBC. If you anchor the TV news, you cannot tweet anything about a political controversy or reveal what your own views are.
This is because of the unique nature of the BBC’s charter. While it is funded by the British government (through a license fee raised from citizens), it is not (like Doordarshan for instance) subject to governmental control. It has its own board of directors who function autonomously. Not all governments are happy about this and the BBC is constantly under attack, is regularly accused of bias and there are threats about restricting its funding.
Given the level of pressure it is under, the BBC asks its journalists not to offer up political opinions on social media, lest they be regarded by the government of the day as signs of bias.
So, while Indian TV anchors can (and do) express themselves freely on Twitter, the BBC’s anchors are banned from doing so.
Also read: 3 reasons why the Modi govt ordered an I-T raid on BBC — none of them makes sense
How BBC functions under control
The pressure on the BBC has traditionally come from both of Britain’s two biggest parties. When Tony Blair was Prime Minister, his powerful media aide Alastair Campbell waged a war against the BBC and the government even forced out Greg Dyke, its Director-General. In recent years, the pressure has come from the Conservative government, which has seemed determined to throttle the BBC.
The Conservatives appointed Richard Sharp as BBC chairman. Sharp, a contributor to the Conservative Party reportedly helped former Prime Minister Boris Johnson with his finances. The current Director-General Tim Davie is a marketing man rather than a journalist and is a former Conservative candidate who was appointed during Conservative rule.
While Johnson and his BBC-baiting ministerial sidekicks such as the unspeakable Nadine Dorries are now out of office, and Rishi Sunak seems less keen on persecuting the BBC, the pressure has not entirely let up. And last week, it reached fever pitch when Gary Lineker, the former England captain who is the BBC’s lead football commentator, tweeted about the Conservative government’s immigration policy.
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?
— Gary Lineker 💙💛 (@GaryLineker) March 7, 2023
Lineker, who has done much to help refugees in his personal capacity, worried that the government’s attacks on refugees and “illegal” immigrants were being made in language uncomfortably reminiscent of 1930s’ Germany. His post angered the government. Nobody knows how much (if any) pressure was applied but the BBC responded by taking Lineker off the air.
The BBC explained that it had guidelines preventing journalists from expressing political views. But the Corporation’s own rulebook suggests that these guidelines apply mainly to news people. A football anchor or a judge on a dance competition are not to be held to the same standard.
Besides, Gary Lineker is not a BBC employee. He is a freelancer. Did the guidelines fully apply to him?
Moreover, there are scores of instances where freelancers who host non-political BBC shows have made political statements that the Corporation did not object to. Lineker himself has previously tweeted against former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the BBC did not object.
Also read: BBC is swimming in poisonous waters. It needs to be truly impartial to survive
Why BBC case matters to all of us
How this issue was resolved was important for journalists everywhere. For instance, though I write this column for ThePrint, I am a freelancer. Would Shekhar Gupta have the right to approve all my tweets before they went out? Would the Hindustan Times, which I also write columns for? Would my food writing prevent me from tweeting anything political?
For the BBC, there was another complication. When the Indian government complained that it had been unfair to Narendra Modi, the Corporation responded by backing the freedom of its journalists. Could it now be said that it was happy to be brave when it came to embarrassing a foreign leader but buckled under pressure when it came to its own politicians?
In the end, the BBC caved in, not out of any sense of ethics but because Lineker’s colleagues stood by him and refused to appear on TV. Lineker was reinstated and there is now talk of looking at the guidelines again.
We remain a country of predominantly tolerant, welcoming and generous people. Thank you. ❤️ 4/4
— Gary Lineker 💙💛 (@GaryLineker) March 13, 2023
But if the journalists had lost this battle, the consequences could have been devastating. We would have lost our right to express our views anywhere, having sold our souls to our employers. If we protested, we would have been told “but even the BBC does it.”
In the end, while this was a victory for journalists, it reminded us that all over the world, freedom of speech is under attack from politicians and pliant media bosses.
And if the global pressure keeps up, this is a battle that journalists may well lose. And the politicians and bully boys will win.
Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)