Impartiality v free speech – if you don’t want to know the score then look away now

Impartially is a high bar; for the BBC its right up there with trust – much like a company values reputation if it is to safeguard the brand
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By Jonathan Spencer
Crisis Response Manager, Navigate Response

I’m not so much a premier football fan, but a major international can grab me for 90 mins, extra time and penalties. However, the BBC’s curtailed episode of Match of the Day, without TV studio, pundits or commentators… just the crowd – that had to be compelling. Turn up the volume and I could have been there. Half a million more viewers than usual must have thought so…

Gary Lineker, the story, and the show’s presenter suspended after he tweeted remarks, comparing government communications about UK immigration policy being similar to 1930s Germany.

All over, bar the fighting? I don’t think so. I’ll borrow a headline, since they are better than mine – and ‘Mutiny of the Day’ kind of does it, as stars and commentators abandoned Final Score and other football shows in solidarity with Lineker.

Ahead of the show that weekend, a network announcer says: ‘Now on BBC One, we’re sorry that we’re unable to show our normal Match of the Day including commentary tonight. But here now is the best action from today’s Premier League matches.’

BBC editorial guidelines, under scrutiny – and immediately under review – make it clear about not being drawn into politics. This is aimed at news people, but not exclusively. Those with the highest of profiles across the corporation’s output have the same code of responsibility. The BBC’s highest paid star may have a freelance contract, but there is no doubting the former striker’s profile and platform is primarily BBC Sport and the flagship football show.

A bastion of both free speech and impartiality, the BBC straddles a fence in getting this right – doing the right thing or be seen to.

Other prominent stars were soon in the spotlight, with BBC management acknowledging Lord Sugar (The Apprentice) among other presenters and freelancers who are exempt from the BBC’s political impartiality rules – where instead individual ‘understandings’ suffice for senior management.

So with Gary’s position, after a management climbdown, the standoff avoided penalties, with Match of the Day returning the following weekend. A score settled after some ‘special arrangement’ afforded with Director General, Tim Davie allowing Lineker to tweet about immigration.

Think before you tweet or post – just how many times do we say that? Ensure any disclaimer says ‘opinions are my own’, or something similar, and not to be mistaken for the company.

It goes for any conversation in free society – the public square – whether you have a profile or not. Balance, respect, common decency – and a measure of tolerance or restraint; isn’t that how free speech survives in any ‘democracy’ (there’s no perfect model of that)? Because online the ‘public square’ is messy at best.

With a broadcaster impartially is a high bar; for the BBC its right up there with trust – much like a company values reputation if it is to safeguard the brand.

So a spokesperson also needs to stay on the level. Empowered with profile for one specific task at a specific time, you needn’t be dazzled by the 15 minutes of fame – or just 3 or 4 in a news interview.

Free speech – or opinion – is rarely impartial. Not if we are being brutally honest with ourselves or each other. The thing is, if you are given a platform, you have a responsibility to accept the editorial guidelines, corporate rules …constraint, call it what you will, that come with it since any damage or media furore that follows risks more than any personal reputation …or ego.

So what seemed like a score draw that crazy week, saw Lineker winning in extra time.

If in any doubt, the comment is almost certainly better unsaid. Think before you tweet and avoid the penalties.

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