The BBC’s suspension of Gary Lineker over a social media comment raises a question that is wider than the shambles it created: Do people in the media have a right to voice a personal opinion?
Last Tuesday Lineker, the BBC’s highest paid star and presenter of Match of the Day, posted a tweet about the UK Conservative government’s plan to stop refugees crossing the English Channel. He described it as “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”
By Friday an extraordinary meltdown had occurred, with the corporation announcing Lineker would “step back” from Match of the Day. In plain English, the director-general Tim Davie had suspended him because ‘a red line has been crossed’ on BBC neutrality. Several colleagues walked out in support of the former professional footballer. There was no Match of the Day last weekend and football coverage on the BBC was reduced to a pallid 20-minute substitute.
The Times reported Davie taking the moral high ground on Friday: “(as) editor in chief of the BBC, I think one of our founding principles is impartiality and that’s what I’m delivering on.” However, over the weekend, support within the corporation rank-and-file seemed to move toward Lineker. Davie, who had been in Washington, flew back to London for crisis meetings to head off what was rapidly becoming an internal revolt.
Lineker has had several run-ins with the BBC over tweeting his political views. Last year the corporation found he had breached social media guidelines over a tweet about Conservative Party donations. Curiously, that ruling was at odds with one in 2018 when The Sun called for his head over a Brexit tweet. Then, a BBC spokesperson said: “Gary is not involved in any news or political output for the BBC and as such, any expression of his personal political views does not affect the BBC’s impartiality.”
The BBC has clear rules that state staff and freelancers who work for BBC News and Current Affairs must not:
- State or reveal publicly how they vote or express support for any political party
- Express a view for or against any policy which is a matter of current party political debate
- Advocate any particular position on a matter of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or any other ‘controversial subject’
- Exhort a change in high-profile public policy
Lineker does not work for BBC News and, although the British taxman is disputing his status as an independent contractor, he has claimed he is not bound by the policy.
Corporation staff outside the news department may well feel last week’s suspension is a worrying example of ‘mission creep’ that could rob them of their personal rights. Hence, they have fallen in behind the presenter.
This morning the BBC reinstated Lineker (in time for the weekend’s FA Cup match) and announced an independent review of its social media policy. Lineker was unrepentant and the issue remains unsettled for now.
So, do people in media have a right to voice their personal opinions on social media?
Let’s bring the question home to New Zealand.
At a fundamental level, the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed under section 14 of the Bill of Rights Act. However, like our other rights under the Act, it is “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
One of those limits may be the contract you sign when you take up an offer of employment with a media organisation. It may well contain a clause relating to use of social media, or bind you to a code of conduct that includes social media restrictions. If you sign it, you are bound by it.
We all have personal opinions and should be entitled to express them (within limits). However, there are reasons for binding editorial staff to a social media code, although it is a subject filled with paradoxes.
Being a journalist should not be a sentence of silence except through the filter of an employer. In the past, such opinions were expressed to individuals either face-to-face or through correspondence. Social media has exponentially widened the field. That would not be a problem if media had adhered to the anonymity that characterised their work up to the 1950s. But by-lines appeared and, increasingly, every medium promoted personalities and puts faces to reporters’ names. Some not only reported celebrities, they became celebrities in their own right.
The result is that individuals are identified with the media organisation in which they work. John Campbell is not just John Campbell. He is John Campbell of TVNZ. Simon Wilson is not just Simon Wilson. He is Simon Wilson of the Herald. Patrick Gower is synonymous with Newshub, and Andrea Vance with Stuff. The personality link is even greater on radio. Mike Hosking and Heather du Plessis-Allan are Newstalk ZB. Tova O’Brien and Duncan Garner are Today FM. The ability to divorce the individual from the place of work is problematic to say the least.
There are also professional constraints. Reporters and editors need to avoid anything that calls their impartiality into question. Yet news coverage has become an amalgam of facts and what journalists think. It is sometimes difficult to discern where one ends and the other begins. Reporters also double as commentators, although their opinions may be represented as analysis.
Are their opinions somehow legitimate when expressed through their employers but not so when expressed through social media? Their employers would argue that, because their staff are identified with the organisation, a measure of control is necessary but that is not available in personal social media accounts.
Staff are continually reminded that social media is a minefield. Yet they are encouraged to use their organisation’s social media accounts to promote their work and engage with the audience.
They may be allowed to post in personal accounts but are obliged by their employer to steer clear of politics, public policy or controversial issues. ‘Controversy’ can be a catch-all when you recall a prosaic comment from the dawn of time resurfacing in the midst of a topic that has suddenly gained notoriety (go now and check everything you posted about Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton before 2023).
There is no doubt that journalists are put in a difficult position. Many media organisations try to spell out in detail how social media should be approached (check out page 37 of the Radio New Zealand Editorial Policy). Frankly, it would be safer to put professional reputation ahead of personal opinion and take comfort from the fact that, in the age of conflated fact and opinion, the outlet you work for has more ‘friends’ than your Facebook page and you are still getting your point across.
If a journalist’s right to voice a personal opinion on social media is overpowering, perhaps the answer lies in an aspect of these online platforms for which I have an intense dislike – anonymity. Register as something outrageous and opine away.
What of non-journalists working in the media?
I’m with Gary Lineker. When the opinion is clearly that of the individual – not the views of an employer – there should be no grounds for censure. Lineker is a football commentator whose only turf is a football pitch. His political opinions are clearly his own.
There is, however, a caveat. If the views expressed on social media are such that they bring the individual into disrepute, the employer has every right to review the working relationship.
There is no suggestion that is the case with Lineker’s comment last week. It may have been critical of Conservative policy, but it was defending a vulnerable group’s right to sanctuary and questioning whether the policy was racially biased. And, even though it drew comparisons with Nazi Germany, it did so in a measured tone.
Above all, it did not in any way call the corporation’s impartiality into question. The BBC’s subsequent actions, on the other hand, may have done just that. The Times said the treatment of Lineker “will also fuel a view that the BBC is sliding to the right”.
A sweet-smelling bunch of flowers to New Zealand Geographic and writer Kate Evans for the manner in which a delicate subject was…handled.
“The Power of Poo” revealed research that produced a wealth of knowledge from the “malodorous waste products” excreted by animals. The fascinating feature not only told us how wombats produce cube-shaped waste but why; how muskrat dung can produce a powerful antibiotic against salmonella; and how moa droppings suggest some species grazed more like sheep than giraffes.
New Zealand Geographic produces a regular trove of highly-informative stories. I could say this one stood out because it was written so tastefully but that is really not the word I’m striving for. Far from putting me off my food, it was so absorbing I had to finish reading it over lunch.