BBC, defender of free speech, in hot water - GulfToday

BBC, defender of free speech, in hot water

Pedestrians walk past the BBC office at the Broadcasting House in London, Britain. Reuters

Pedestrians walk past the BBC logo at the Broadcasting House in London, Britain. Reuters

It is the most curious dilemma over free speech involving the internationally reputed British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), because the radio and television network has earned a reputation for highlighting suppression of rights across the world. Late last week, the BBC took off on Gary Lineker,  former England football captain and popular presenter of the BBC’s ‘Match of the Day’ programme, and took him off the air.

The reason cited by the BBC was that Lineker tweeted saying that the new immigration policy announced by the Conservative government used language reminiscent of Nazi Germany of the 1930s. The BBC argued that Lineker expressed a political opinion that violated the network’s rule of neutrality in news. On the face of it, the objection is neither outlandish nor objectionable. But there are legal nuances that cannot be overlooked. First, Lineker is not an employee of the BBC, nor does he present a programme on political news. And the footballer did not express his opinion on British government’s tough immigration policy on his programme on the BBC. The BBC’s objection to Lineker holding a critical opinion and opposing it, and it is not necessary that the BBC share his view on the matter, shows the BBC to be an intolerant organisation though it speaks passionately of neutrality. Apparently, BBC had tried to make peace with Lineker, asking him to apologise for his comment. Lineker rightly refused to comply. Other sport presenters have come out in support of Lineker and the BBC had to suspend more programmes, apart from Lineker’s show. The BBC is supported by a fee paid by the viewers and listeners of the BBC, and collected by the government. In principle, the BBC is the official broadcaster of the British government. The BBC had done propaganda work during the Second World War. Credit is due to the British government that the BBC was allowed to function independently, and it was seen as a good example of press freedom. The BBC’s chairman and director-general are appointed by the government of the day, and they are not very popular with the journalists and editors of programmes on the network.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, sensing trouble, had clarified that the Lineker mess was one between the BBC and the former footballer, and the government has nothing to do with it. The opposition and Labour leader Keith Starmer did not let go the opportunity of criticising the BBC for yielding to government pressure. Many governments across the world, especially in Asia and Africa, which had been roundly criticised by the BBC for violation of freedom of speech, are sure to turn around and ask whether BBC was following double standards. It is quite admirable on the part of Lineker to hold on to his critical view on the new immigration policy and that of other sport journalists for supporting Lineker. It puts the BBC in a tight spot.

The BBC has indeed been doing yeoman service in the cause of civil liberties across the world, but it shows that the BBC has to be doubly careful to protect the speech rights of those people who work for the network like Lineker. And the BBC has not always been above board in its journalistic practice as well. It has had a role to play in the security report about former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that then prime minister Tony Blair had presented to the House of Commons as a prelude to the attack on Iraq in 2003. And it has now been revealed its correspondent Martin Bashir had created an ethically questionable ruse in his interview with Princess Diana in 1996. The BBC becomes a target of criticism because of the high moral ground it occupies when judging other countries, and it fails to live up to its own standards.

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