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On Lineker, the BBC has smashed it into the back of the(ir own) net

Congratulations BBC, you’ve set the gold standard for how not to practise crisis communications.

Where to begin?

How about with timing? The BBC waited too long to issue a statement in response to the Gary Lineker furore, which let others set the narrative and made the BBC the story. If BBC brass couldn’t see that suspending one of their highest-profile presenters would be an issue, that brass is in need of a serious polish.

How about stakeholders? The Beeb failed to bring Lineker’s co-hosts and other BBC presenters on-side. As a result, those co-hosts and colleagues stood up – or stood down, rather – in solidarity with Lineker, impacting vast swathes of programming.

The BBC’s mismanagement of Lineker’s tweet points to a deeper failure to recognise that the way you brand your organisation must be demonstrated in practice, especially for a crown corporation which relies on public trust and confidence.

When BBC Director-General Tim Davie declared his founding principle to be “impartiality” in 2020, he set himself up for failure.

Impartiality is hard to operationalise. The BBC has a long history of presenters expressing political views on the right and left, including Lord Alan Sugar and Nadiya Hussain. But they mistakenly assumed concerns of its executives’ partiality could be addressed by the same case-by-case basis that presenters like Lineker are.

An inevitable and high-profile impartiality row over a presenter therefore becomes a black hole that sucks in the top bosses. That includes Chairman Richard Sharp who helped secure an £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson, which is currently under investigation. A recent YouGov poll shows 38% of Brits think Sharp should resign, versus 16% who say he should stay.

If you can’t practically implement a policy, don’t announce it as your governing principle. But, if you stake your credibility on the foundation of “impartiality,” that means you actually have to be impartial – especially when it’s hard.

To regain trust, the BBC must have a hard conversation with the public and with itself.

First, the BBC must own up to this massive own-goal, recognise its mismanagement of this crisis undermined trust with staff and the public, and admit it has an inconsistent record with implementing impartiality.

However, it should emphasise that its presenters – be they sports commentators or cooking show hosts – are not beholden to the same impartiality standards to which the BBC must hold its news and current affairs staff and executives… including Sharp.

The BBC has a choice: either propose to the government that future Chairs be appointed by an independent body. Or, Sharp resigns immediately, acknowledging that even the most thorough conflict-of-interest investigation will distract from the good work at one of the world’s most trusted media brands.

Make no mistake: another impartiality row will happen. With two years left in Sharp’s chairmanship, the BBC must ask itself how many more crises of confidence it can withstand in that time.


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