What does the BBC do when it becomes the news? (As Gary Lineker stands his ground)

Looking at the reaction to *that* tweet.

One of the most thoughtful of responses was from historian Robert Saunders

“If fascism becomes simply a grotesque anomaly, which others committed and ‘we’ defeated, it becomes impossible to relate any part of it to our own experience. Paradoxically, it becomes a source of complacency that assures us of our own superiority, rather than a warning that confronts us with our capacity for evil.”

The Gladstone Diaries – 10 March 2023

Scott Bryan of BBC Five Live tried to summarise the point.

As it turned out, the BBC’s Director General Tim Davie was in the USA where he had this interview recorded. Critics of Mr Davie’s appointment point to his time as a Conservative election candidate.

“Davie spent a spell as deputy chairman of the Hammersmith and Fulham Conservative party in the 1990s, and unsuccessfully ran for a council seat in 1993.”

The Guardian – 05 June 2020

Furthermore, there was – and still is significant concern about the role of the current BBC Chair Richard Sharp – as the exchange between Mr Sharp and Labour’s Rupa Huq MP on the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee back in February 2023.

Above – you can read the full transcript of the DCMS Committee hearing of 07 Feb 2023 here.

Two years before, Mr Sharp made the point about how previous Directors General of the BBC had party-political connections.

“Six or seven of the last eight governors have been associated politically. It is not unusual, and it is more common than not. It is often because it attracts people who are committed to public life and want to make a difference. Part of the reflection of that is their advocacy of certain things that matter to them. No different than yours, for example.”

Richard Sharp, then Chair Designate of the BBC to The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee 
Oral evidence: Pre-appointment hearing for Chair of the BBC, HC 1119
Thursday 14 January 2021

This reflects a mindset within Westminster that whoever is the party in government gets to appoint ‘their friends’ to head various state and public bodies. Which for me is part of the problem. Former BBC executive Roger Mosey, now the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, has called for Sharp to resign.

Gary Lineker stands his ground, and the football snowballs.

Part of the background to this is reminding ourselves of just how big a profile Gary Lineker had when he was a professional footballer in the 1980s. In what would be his only season at Everton in 1985-86, he scored 40 goals that season – including a hat-trick or three, only to end up as a runner-up in both the then First Division, and also in the FA Cup Final despite opening the scoring. Later that summer in the World Cup in Mexico, he became the tournament’s leading goalscorer including this hat-trick against a highly-rated Poland side that came third in 1982. Barcelona snapped him up shortly after the tournament ended.

…followed by another four goals in Italia ’90 to add to the six in Mexico to become England’s leading goalscorer of all time at World Cups. That’s also not including the penalty he had to take in the excruciating penalty shoot-out against the old West Germany (the last the latter would play as a divided nation as the Cold War came to an end following the fall of the Berlin Wall less than a year before) during the World Cup Semi-Final. At the same time he was a relative failure in the European Championships playing in all the group games in West Germany in Euro ’88 and Sweden ’92, not scoring a single goal – for which he was heavily criticised. So in that sense being on the receiving end of a media storm isn’t anything new. Just in this case the context is different.

“I’m Sportacus!”

Some people noted as the commitments of support for Mr Lineker were posted and publicised, they missed the opportunity for the above statement. But the person who deserves huge credit for being the first of the BBC Match of the Day team of pundits to stand up and be counted was Ian Wright.

Note that Ian Wright and Gary Lineker go back a long way – the latter being one of the elder statesmen in the England sides of 1990-92 when Ian Wright and an even younger Alan Shearer got their first call ups from the late Graham Taylor.

Alan Shearer quickly followed Ian Wright’s social media post by announcing that he would not be appearing either.

It then snowballed from there, which made people (eg me) wonder whether the commentators would pull out.

…and once the commentators started pulling out, the questions as to whether pundits would pull out of BBC radio coverage emerged, with people speculating who would and would not participate. Cambridge United Director who made his name at the club in the late 1980s/early 1990s, Dion Dublin made his position clear.

As a result, BBC Five Live was reduced to broadcasting some old podcasts instead. This has forced the BBC Director General to issue an apology.

Above – published in the course of me writing this blogpost – reflecting how fast the story is moving.

…and it also resulted in the Prime Minister having to make a hasty statement too. Because ministers generally do not make embargoed statements to the media on a Saturday evening except in extreme circumstances.

It wasn’t just the Conservatives that got caught out – it was Labour too.

Above – the post from historian Florence Scott quoting/posting the comments by Shadown Home Secretary Yvette Cooper MP, contrasting with the comment from the Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell – who shadows the MP for South East Cambridge Lucy Frazer KC MP, recently appointed as Culture Secretary and the latter of whom presumably will have to make a statement to the House of Commons on Monday about all of this.

Above – Lucy Powell MP the Shadow Culture Secretary, who would respond to any ministerial statement by the Culture Secretary (And would probably table an Urgent Question to force ministers to answer questions from MPs if no statement was offered).

Finally, the Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer spoke out on the actions and inactions of the BBC – noting a comment response to former BBC journalist Jon Sopel, one of several who have since left to pursue their own ventures, about what more of the public has learnt about the BBC and politics generally as a result.

Not surprisingly, the high churn/turnover of BBC reporters now free to speak their minds has resulted in much more sharper and nuanced criticism of the corporation than we have seen in the past. What makes it feel all the more hard-hitting is that so many of us are familiar with the likes Emily Maitlis and co being regular presenters on BBC programmes. Which makes their analysis much more informed and important.

Above – Emily Maitls rinsed the corporation’s decision-makers at the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival 2022

Which brings us back to the challenged posed by historian Robert Saunders at the start of this blogpost

” (How) do we talk about [the -f- word]?”

The Gladstone Diaries – 10 March 2023

One of the things historians do is look at the primary sources, and also listen to the experiences of people who lived through the horrors of life under such totalitarian states.

Hence Joan Salter on 17 January 2023 here.

With the British Newspaper Archive we can get an idea of what was being printed in the German print press of the inter war years by keyword searches for syndicated articles in UK newspapers that reported which newspapers were publishing what. It’s worth noting that at the time of posting, the BNA has only digitised about 10% of its print press archive of newspapers. But even with that 10% we can get some sort of idea – however partial, of what was happening, what was being reported, and with what frequency/intensity. For example, pick a key word and compare the number of returns over your time period of choice.

Above – the British Newspaper Archive, which is free to access from public libraries and most schools, colleges, and universities with corporate subscriptions.

It wasn’t just the reporting – inevitably editors and proprietors along with the letter writers would have their say in print. This from the Dundee Courier via the BNA of 27 March 1933 is particularly disturbing given what we know that followed.

The final paragraph and final ending I find particularly haunting (below), even accounting for the political line of a publication being pro-Conservative and anti-Communist.

Above – The Dundee Courier 27 March 1933, from the British Newspaper Archive.

Five years ago while doing a research project in the Cambridgeshire Collection during the heatwave of summer 2018 (taking advantage of an air-conditioned research room), I went through every copy of the Cambridge Daily News from about 1936-1939. I wrote about them. Part 1 here, and Part 2 here. The evidence transformed my understanding of the Second World War – not least when it began. Ditto the book Forgotten Ally by Rana Mitter that covered the long and brutal war between the old Republic of China and Imperial Japan from the 1930s to 1945.

And despite the news of the wars and atrocities happening abroad, the Cambridge Daily News ran a ‘what would you do if you were the dictator of Cambridge for the day?” competition in August 1936.

Which stands in contrast to the serious but pacifist stance taken by Cambridge Labour’s Dr Alex Wood a few weeks earlier – pictured here with former Labour Leader and Cabinet Minister George Lansbury (Angela’s Grandfather).

Above – Dr Alex Wood would be criticised by fellow Labour members such as Leah Manning for his overtly pacifist stance in the face of fascism in the 1930s, the latter believing it should be confronted (especially following the latter’s experience in Spain).

The conclusion?

As Robert Saunders states:

“When we talk about incendiary subjects – and talking is at the heart of democracy – are we careful that our words do not inflame hatred and division? When we invoke ‘the people’ as an authority, do we recognise that they speak with many voices; that opponents and minorities are not ‘enemies of the people’ but members of it?”

The Gladstone Diaries – 10 March 2023

And when it comes to ‘that’ tweet, the combination of the British Newspaper Archive and either a purchased subscription or your local public library means we have the ability to read digitised copies of primary sources of the time and judge for ourselves.

Food for thought?

If you liked this blogpost (where I normally post about local democracy in/around Cambridge, but sometimes cover national politics to – being an ex-civil servant, feel free to:

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