The BBC/Gary Lineker issue ignites free speech debate
Gary Lineker

The dramatic events at the the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) yesterday have brought to the fore the perennial issue of free speech as well as the growing concern over the use of social media.

The turmoil started on Friday after former England footballer-turned-BBC sports presenter Mr Gary Lineker compared the language used to launch a policy to stop migrants crossing the English Channel on small boats to that of Nazi-era Germany.

"This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the '30s," Mr Lineker posted on Twitter.

In response the BBC said the post breached its guidelines and basically pulled him off air.

"The BBC has decided that he will step back from presenting Match of the Day until we've got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media," the broadcaster said in a statement.

The decision, we are told, decimated scheduled sports programming across the BBC's television and radio output.

Former England strikers Messrs Ian Wright and Alan Shearer immediately tweeted that they would not take up their usual roles on Match of the Day. Their position was adopted by the programme's commentators.

Yesterday the problem worsened when Mr Wright said on his podcast that he would quit the BBC if Mr Lineker was cashiered.

In addition to announcing that Match of the Day, a Saturday night fixture since 1964 and the longest-running football television programme in the world, would air without pundits or a presenter for the first time, the BBC said players would not be asked for interviews after some indicated they would not be available, in support of Mr Lineker.

The controversy resulted in the BBC also pulling its weekend preview show Football Focus and the results programme Final Score from the schedule due to presenters and pundits pulling out.

The National Union of Journalists described the action taken against Mr Lineker as a "massive own goal on the part of the BBC". The union accused the broadcaster of "yielding to sustained political pressure" and argued that doing so "is as foolish as it is dangerous".

Mr Lineker is a freelance broadcaster for the BBC. The fact that he is not a permanent member of staff and is not responsible for news or political content means that he does not need to adhere to the BBC's strict rules on impartiality.

The big question now is whether the BBC will seek to adjust the terms of its freelance contracts. Any such attempt, we believe, will put the company up against free speech advocates.

But the BBC may well argue that freelancers, by virtue of the fact that they appear on the company's platforms, cannot be divorced from the brand -- even when they present their views on their personal social media accounts.

And herein lies another problem, that of people simply venting on social media and pressing send before giving serious and rational thought to what they have written.

We are not here suggesting that this is what obtains in the Lineker matter. What we suspect, though, is that this dilemma will be with mankind for a very, very long time.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see what comes of this issue with the BBC, especially after its former Director General Mr Greg Dyke said the company "has undermined its own credibility" and could create the impression that it "has bowed to Government pressure".

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