On Lineker, the only reasonable expectation you should have of a service is its professionalism, not avoidance of offence…

Gary Lineker, eh? I’m not so much of a soccer head that I missed either edition of Match of the Day this weekend. It’s more a nostalgia act for me from the days when it was the closest thing we could get to watching live soccer on television.

As for the larger question of whether we should be listening to football commentators for our political analyses, I’m kinda with Julie Birchill writing in The Spectator:

When I was a girl, footballers had a somewhat limited vocabulary. That wasn’t to say that they were seen as inferior to wordy types – on the contrary, like blind piano-tuners, they were seen as accessing a higher level of excellence in one specific realm which we Normals had no chance of achieving.

Thus when they spoke of being over the moon/sick as a parrot, we accepted that their brains were in their feet and happily indulged them. Even when humble hometown heroes were succeeded by flashy feet-for-hire mercenaries from Best to Gascoigne, who were worshipped like deities, their fans wouldn’t have given tuppence for their opinions on any burning moral issues of the day.

Today, not only does everyone have an opinion, they have the means to spread it far and wide, no matter how mean-spirited or regressive it is. As we see from the release of documents in the Fox News/Dominion case, aggregated they can have real power.

Media power once lay with those rich enough to own a printing press, or a radio/tv station. Owning the means of distribution was power. Now all you need to be feared by the wealthy and powerful is an echo chamber big enough to hurt them.

BBC News highlights this odd state of affairs perfectly in this passage:

Dominion’s filings show, Fox executives worried that sceptical coverage of the president’s election claims would drive conservative viewers to other right-wing news outlets, such as Newsmax.

Mr Carlson said Fox was “playing with fire”.

“Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience?” he asked in a text to a producer. “An alternative like Newsmax could be devastating to us.”

According to Dominion’s lawsuit, this was the financial motivation behind the network’s decision to continue to air election denialism that it knew to be untrue.

“It’s remarkable how weak ratings make good journalists do bad things,” Fox managing editor Bill Sammon wrote in an email lamenting the network’s focus on election fraud claims.

This is akin to the dilemma facing the BBC. The quaint days Julie describes are gone, and for good. The fourth wall is not only open it is pouring deeply un-contextualised views onto the lighted stage and getting those inside its production teams in a funk.

It’s worth remembering this is the same mad (and maddening) Twitter driven world in which the BBC is expected to operate (depending on who is asking and why) to seamlessly high impartial standards often by rivals who are not so tied themselves.

Agree with Lineker’s response to the tone of the Home Secretary’s language or see his reference to 1930s Germany as offensive: when did we start taking the politics of footballers so seriously? Since Twitter conferred him with 8.8 million followers.

And it is precisely why I left that hell-space last summer. My favourite English commenter on UK politics, Stephen Bush has this to say in the FT:

The pursuit of impartiality can make people do mad things. A number of journalists I know abstain from voting in order to maintain it. This has always struck me as a revealingly tribal way of viewing the world: is the only critical judgment they make about politics whether to tick a red or blue box at election time?

Inevitably if you raise children, look after elderly relatives, drive, use public transport, rent, have a mortgage or a portfolio of properties, you reach conclusions about whether your country is run well or badly.

Tim Davie, the BBC’s director-general, is now grappling with the fallout from his own moment of madness. In banning Gary Lineker, the former England international, from presenting the football highlights over his intemperate tweets about the rhetoric used by Conservative ministers to justify their new asylum policy, he ripped up the corporation’s established precedent.

Madness is right. And I don’t mean the question over whether someone is an employee or not. It’s obvious that someone can handle political debate in a relatively impartial way and still have their own politically biased interests outside the Beeb.

Andrew Neil’s name came up as someone with real politics outside his work for the BBC. He doesn’t only tweet his personal views but publishes a whole centre right magazine with budgets and commissions and an impartial slant on current affairs.

But when he works for the BBC he’s impartial enough for one outgoing Tory PM to so desperately want to avoid being interrogated by him on the way to winning the last General Election that he refused the interview.

Often people use impartial to mean an absence of views, others (plainly) reduce it to a mechanical abstinence from voting. If that’s what you need to help you to do the job well, fine. But it is no guarantee that other, softer intolerances will not intervene.

As Stephen goes on to note, the challenge for the BBC and others is “to argue that the only reasonable expectation you have of a service is professionalism: not that their social media feeds will be free of anything you find disagreeable”.

I’ll take a pass on the asylum debate, other than to say that illiberality creeps up on societies slowly (and it doesn’t all come in from the right). The BBC has a charter and a unique role in UK society, something that needs real clarity going forward.

We have our own forms of intolerances in Ireland (north and south), often from liberals (often unconsciously) acting out their own illiberal fantasies of “the other” and striking down the too few voices that run against the general madness of the crowd.

All of us can strive to be professional, but none of us will be perfect in a world far more confusing and difficult to know than it was in earlier, pre digital times. Whereas uncontested moral certainty can take us, if we let it, to some very dark places indeed.

“If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
– Karl Popper

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