Gary Lineker and the troubled new realm of free speech
Striving for impartiality can make people do crazy things. A number of journalists I know are abstaining to keep it going. This has always struck me as an insightful tribal way of looking at the world: Is the only critical judgment they make about politics is whether they should check a red or blue box at election time? As you raise children, care for elderly relatives, drive, use public transportation, rent, have a mortgage, or a real estate portfolio, you inevitably draw conclusions about whether your country is well or poorly run.
Tim Davie, the BBC’s chief executive, is now dealing with the aftermath of his own moment of madness. By barring Gary Lineker, the former England international, from presenting the football highlights above his rampant tweets about the rhetoric used by Conservative ministers to justify their new asylum policy, he tore up the company’s established precedent.
Ex-footballers and others who produce entertainment for the BBC have long enjoyed greater freedom in what they say and do than those who cover news. Nobody at the BBC tried to remove sports pundit Ian Wright or force him to retract his comments saying he admired Margaret Thatcher because she was “a strong woman” like his mother and she allowed him ” much more to keep from the money I made”. No one in the company wanted to ban Lineker after he came out to Remain in 2016 or called Labor ‘bin Corbyn’ in 2017. The principle of ex-footballers making political statements outside of their broadcast role is well established.
Incidentally, I agree with Wright that the top tax rate was far too high when Margaret Thatcher took office, at 83 per cent, and with Lineker that it would have been better all round if Britain had stayed in the EU 2017 and 2019 led. But I disagree with Lineker that the UK’s rhetoric on immigration sounds like that of Germany in the 1930s. The comparison is doubly stark: it minimizes the explicit violence of Nazi rhetoric and ignores the far greater similarities between British rhetoric then and British rhetoric today.
But neither I nor anyone else has any right to expect that the celebrity presenting the football highlights will be with them in terms of taxation, the UK’s institutional arrangements, the leadership of the Labor Party or the right way to talk about the British immigration policy to think or speak, if they are off the air.
The BBC’s blunders in its handling of the Lineker affair mirror how Disney screwed up the controversy surrounding actress Gina Carano’s conspiracy-laden tweets. Carano was fired from her role as mercenary Cara Dune war of stars show The Mandalorian on the grounds that she does not share Disney’s “values”. But Carano wasn’t hired because of her “values” and shouldn’t have been fired because of it.
Bob Chapek, Disney’s CEO at the time, and Davie face similar challenges: pressure from politicians pushing them in a conservative direction, pressure from employees pushing them in a liberal direction. In addition, social media has created a new area of language. Lineker’s tweets aren’t private, of course, but they aren’t company announcements or professional remarks either.
Although Twitter is public, people follow celebrities and other personalities to get an unvarnished look at themselves. But following people we admire in one arena on social media almost inevitably involves learning things we don’t agree with them in others. It’s reasonable for us to make inferences about whether we’d like to hang out with that person or whether we’d go see a movie based on their recommendation. But crass tweets about migration policy that show you need to read Louise Londons Whitehall and the Jews are not an adequate metric to stop you from presenting the football.
This inevitably means that some people face more restrictions on what they say on social media. Of course, litigating internal disputes publicly in one’s own organization is a no-go, while it’s reasonable to assume that people will be more tolerant of eccentric tweets from an actor than from a medical professional.
But regardless of the exact nature of the role, the challenge for politicians, CEOs, and other executives today is to argue that the only reasonable expectation you have of a service is professionalism: not that their social media feeds be free of anything that you find uncomfortable.
https://www.ft.com/content/8bcbdaf6-5fda-49f9-aa94-dec793273a30 Gary Lineker and the troubled new realm of free speech