Hasta la vista, Auntie?

Fuelled by nothing more than Coke Zero and Fanta Limon, the Small Data Forum Podnosticators pop up for a special, flash, mini, 15-minute micropodcast, recorded during our podcast retreat in Andalucía over the weekend of 10-13 March.

Our topic? The titanic struggle emerging on the future of independent, impartial broadcasting manifested in the battle of Gary vs Suella.

For a change, Neville blows the starting whistle to get us going, passing the ball to football lovers Thomas and Sam, with a shared passion for Liverpool, Arsenal, Fulham, but probably not Brighton.

Neville’s tone is jocular but his intent is deadly serious, as he picks over the carcass of the spectacular collision between former England hero and currently-suspended presenter of the BBC’s showcase football programme, Match of the Day, and the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman.

Thomas brings us up to date in what – perhaps more than anything else – is a case study for future generations on how not to handle a PR crisis. Well done BBC board, leadership, and management for making every wrong step possible. One of the first analyses of this bizarre battle features in the New York Times.

Last week, the U.K. Government published its draft Illegal Migration Bill, aimed according to Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, to “stop the boats” which last year bought 45,000 economic migrants and asylum seekers – none of them able to be “illegal” until assessed by British courts, note.

The Bill was introduced by Braverman, with a caveat burned into the cover page which reads: “EUROPEAN CONVENTION ON HUMAN RIGHTS: I am unable to make a statement that, in my view, the provisions of the Illegal Migration Bill are compatible with the Convention rights, but the Government nevertheless wishes the House to proceed with the Bill”.

European Convention on Human Rights

No further comments needed.

In media articles (most notably in the Daily Mail, which has at least 84 years of “previous” in this area), Braverman talked about the 100 million people who are currently displaced, and the “billions more” headed to the U.K.

Sam blogged about the Home Secretary’s data storytelling fails at the end of last week, here, and our 15-minute mini-pod format doesn’t give us time to go over that ground. Thomas tells us – for the record – what happened next.

  1. Gary Lineker – well-known for his personal stance against injustice and support for migrants’ rights – shared Braverman’s official Home Office statement launching the Bill and it’s headline-grabbing title “Enough is enough. We must stop the boats” with the single line “Good heavens, this is beyond awful”. Tweet number one is here. That was 1.18pm on Tuesday 7 March.
  2. After a fair bit of traction, Lineker went on to reply to a tweet using Braverman’s inflammatory rhetoric of “a huge influx” of migrants with the comment: “@a_webb @secrettory12 There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. 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, and I’m out of order?” That was sent just over an hour later, at 2.25pm. The tweet is over there.

It’s fair to say that this fast-moving story has accelerated over recent days.

First Lineker and the BBC said they’d talked and everything was fine. Then Lineker was asked by the BBC to “stand down” from presenting Match of the Day this week. He was supported by MoTD summarisers and fellow former professionals, Ian Wright, Alan Shearer, and Alex Scott in boycotting the show, followed by half-a-dozen commentators, production stuff, players and managers who’d refuse to give interviews.

The BBC announced the programme would just be game footage, then it was forced to cancel its pre-match show Football Focus and its match reporting service, Final Score.

Hours of live and recorded programming which usually delivers it stellar audience numbers – sport’s like that – all replaced by geriatric broadcasting fodder such as Cash in the Attic. Neville reports that the spread of action by journalists has been accelerated by the National Union of Journalists encouraging a boycott.

For Sam, the BBC’s handling of the crisis has been a catastrophe. If we thought its handling of the fallout of revelations about the serial paedophile Jimmy Saville was bad, this debacle is plumbing new depths.

There’s nothing currently in Lineker’s freelance contract that requires him – as a sports commentator and summariser – to steer clear of political commentary on his personal social media accounts, such as Twitter.

Sam argues it’s hypocritical of the BBC to allow Lord Sugar to present The Apprentice – the U.S. version of which rehabilitated one Donald J. Trump sufficiently to enable, in part, his election as U.S. President in 2016 – and yet make racist comments about African footballers and openly support the unflushable Turd Johnson in the 2019 General Election. Or cookery doyenne, Prue Leith, to tweet her support for Brexit while on the BBC payroll.

With great reluctance, Thomas wheels out the “u” word – “unprecedented.” This could be the beginning of the end of the BBC, known for more than a century as the bastion of unbiased, balanced reporting and journalistic standards across the world.

But things have changed. With Theresa May’s ex-spin doctor, Robbie Gibb, on the BBC board and driving a partisan, pro-Government agenda, an agenda which former Tory candidate and BBC Director General, Tim Davie, is happy to promote. The BBC, whose Chairman brokered a loan of several hundreds of thousands of pounds to Johnson while his application to become Chairman was under active consideration.

Sam is in even more trenchant mood than normal.

He believes that the BBC’s impartiality is a busted flush, wrecked in the wake of the Andrew Wakefield / MMR / fake research scandal. At the time, the BBC felt compelled to give equal footing to the mother of an autistic child who “believed” in Wakefield’s bogus research – remember, he was subsequently struck off the General Medical Council because of this fake work – and actual professors of epidemiology. Apparently belief and being spokesperson for a charity equates to a career in science.

The BBC has signally failed to adduce Brexit as a possible cause of the cost-of-living crisis, the U.K.’s stubbornly-high inflation rates, or failure to bounce back after COVID. Sam asks for a bullet to be put in the back of the head of Auntie, pleading for mercy.

While Neville and Thomas wouldn’t perhaps go that far, Thomas agrees. And he cites the freedom of expression and authenticity of former BBC journalists once they’re freed from the shackles of “impartiality”, most notably Maitlis, Sopel, and the other one (Lewis Goodall) on our favourite other podcast, The News Agents.

Thomas accedes – too generously? – that it’s OK for Braverman to say what she says, be supported by far-right politicians in other countries. Provided, of course, it’s also OK for Lineker to say what he said, too.

Many right-wing British politicians and media commentators have wilfully misquoted Lineker, saying he said that Braverman’s bill echoes the policies of Nazi Germany. He didn’t. He said the language did. And that – as Death of Stalin’s Armando Iannucci pointed out most eloquently – is incontrovertible.

Sam hold out hope that on this sporting Saturday, Liverpool F.C.’s insipid defeat at Bournemouth – coming but six days after the season’s stop-start club annihilated the Evil Empire of Manchester Untied 7 (seven) nil – would not count, as it won’t be reported on at Final Score or commentated upon on Match of the Day. He hopes this for the club, for the many in his family – wife, son, brother-in-law – who are Reds, and for long-time friend of the show, Will.

Reports on the terraces on Saturday suggest that The People are more with Lineker than Auntie. 

Is this the end of the BBC as we know it? You know, it very probably might be.

Listen to Episode 68:

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