Lesson plan; public broadcasters impartiality

More on Gary Lineker´s controversial tweet.

Gary Lineker, a former footballer and a popular sports presenter for the BBC, has been at the center of a controversy over his comments on Twitter about the UK government’s asylum policy. He compared the language used by Home Secretary Priti Patel to announce a new plan to deter illegal immigration to that of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.  This sparked a backlash from some politicians and media outlets who accused him of breaching the BBC’s impartiality rules. Source the Guardian.  The BBC initially took him off air and launched an independent review of its social media guidelines, but later reinstated him and apologized for the “difficult period” he had faced. The BBC’s director general Tim Davie said that Lineker had not intended to cause offence and that he respected his right to express his views as long as they did not undermine his credibility as a presenter.

This incident has highlighted the challenges faced by public broadcasters like the BBC in balancing their duty to be impartial and their responsibility to protect their staff from harassment and abuse. It has also exposed the political faultlines between those who support or oppose the government’s stance on immigration and asylum. Some critics have argued that Lineker’s comments were inappropriate for someone who works for a publicly funded organization that is supposed to serve all audiences without bias3. Others have defended Lineker’s freedom of speech and praised him for speaking out against what they see as an inhumane and divisive policy. Source: CNN

This is not the first time that a BBC presenter has faced criticism for expressing their personal opinions on social media. In 2019, Naga Munchetty was reprimanded by the BBC for saying that US President Donald Trump’s tweets telling four female politicians of color to “go back” to where they came from were “embedded in racism”. The decision was later reversed after a public outcry. In 2020, Emily Maitlis was censured by the BBC for saying that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings had “broken the rules” by driving across England during lockdown. She later apologized for her remarks.

Public broadcasters are funded by taxpayers or license fee payers and are expected to serve the public interest by providing accurate, diverse and high-quality content that reflects the views and needs of different audiences without favouring any political or ideological agenda. Source BBC. However, this is not an easy task in a time of highly polarised politics, increased scrutiny and criticism from various sources, and rapid changes in media consumption habits. Public broadcasters have to deal with competing pressures from governments, regulators, competitors, interest groups and their own staff who may have different opinions on what constitutes impartiality and how it should be achieved. They also have to cope with the risks of online harassment and abuse that their staff may face for expressing their views or reporting on controversial topics.

Some of the challenges that public broadcasters face include:

  • Defining impartiality: There is no clear or universal definition of what impartiality means in practice. Different people may have different expectations or interpretations of how public broadcasters should cover certain issues or events. For example, some may expect public broadcasters to provide a balanced representation of different perspectives, while others may expect them to challenge false or misleading claims or opinions. Source. The Conversation.
  • Maintaining credibility: Public broadcasters need to maintain their reputation as trustworthy and reliable sources of information in a crowded and competitive media landscape. They need to ensure that their editorial standards are consistent and transparent across all platforms and outlets. They also need to address any errors or complaints promptly and effectively.
  • Adapting to change: Public broadcasters need to keep up with the changing needs and preferences of their audiences who have more choices and control over what they watch, listen to or read. They need to innovate and diversify their content offerings across different genres, formats and devices. They also need to engage with their audiences through social media and other interactive tools24.

Discuss these dilemmas:

  • Should public broadcasters allow their staff to express their personal opinions on social media? Why or why not?
  • How should public broadcasters deal with accusations of bias from politicians or other sources? Should they ignore them, respond to them or take action against them?
  • How should public broadcasters balance their duty to inform the public with their responsibility to protect their staff from online harassment and abuse? What measures should they take?

Essay questions

  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the BBC’s 10-point plan for enhancing its impartiality. (Look below for list)
  • Compare and contrast how different public broadcasters around the world approach impartiality. Give examples from at least three countries.
  • Discuss how public broadcasters can adapt to the challenges posed by new media technologies such as streaming services, podcasts and social media platforms.

Here is a list of BBC’s 10-point plan for enhancing its impartiality based on web search results12:

  • Thematic reviews of output in key areas of public debate
  • Regular impartiality audits of output across all genres and platforms
  • Increased transparency on editorial decision-making and complaints handling
  • A new editorial whistleblowing policy to encourage staff to raise concerns
  • A new editorial standards board to oversee editorial issues and complaints
  • A new editorial standards adviser to provide independent advice and guidance
  • A new editorial standards training programme for all staff
  • A new impartiality framework for social media use by staff
  • A new impartiality charter for on-air talent and contributors
  • A new impartiality pledge for all staff to sign up to


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