The BBC is one of the oldest and most recognized media outlets in the world. But for one weekend, the BBC was the news and the center of a huge debate.

The British public network suspended Gary Lineker, host of “Match of the Day” and a former soccer star, because he criticized the immigration policy of the Conservative Party, currently in power, in his personal Twitter account. He called it an “immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”

The suspension led to a rare boycott on the part of employees, who walked out to show support for Lineker. This is why on March 11, “Match of the Day” went on air for only 20 minutes instead of 90, and all of the soccer coverage was reduced. Lineker was finally reinstated on March 13.

BBC management defended the decision, invoking the impartiality principle that Tim Davie, director general of the network, promoted as a key standard since the beginning of his tenure in 2020. But this scandal triggered the debate around that concept. Especially since Richard Sharp, the broadcaster’s chairman, is at the center of two investigations because of his alleged financial ties with the Conservative Party.

The guidelines debate

The BBC situation revived the debate around a major issue in global journalism: social media guidelines and the line between regulation and censorship.

“It is a fine line,” says Mark Anfinson, a lawyer and professor specializing in the First Amendment. “I’ve drafted those policies for media organizations and it is really difficult, because you don’t want to inhibit your own journalists from doing what they’re supposed to be doing − sharing information. But there are many pitfalls, because if you’re not careful, you can get your organization in trouble.” Some examples would be “saying something that’s libelous or disclosing information about the news organization itself,” he adds.

“But I’m a bit shocked that a news organization like the BBC would have a policy that says the journalists can’t criticize the government,” he says. “That would never happen here” in the United States.

Mark Anfinson

Mark Anfinson, lawyer and professor of Information Law

After the scandal, Davie announced a review of the BBC’s social media guides to be conducted by an independent expert.

Anfinson, who teaches Information Law at St. Thomas University, explains that social media guidelines “would never go to court because private companies can impose speech restrictions on their own employees.”

Mark Neuzil, professor and chair of the Department of Emerging Media at St. Thomas University, says: “Any kind of guidelines have to be general enough to cover everything, but specific enough to have sanctions if they’re broken. It seems to me that the BBC has none of these things. In this case, the BBC has been very hit and miss in terms of their enforcement. They punish one guy, but not somebody else. And so that’s a mess. You don’t give up your rights as a citizen by being a journalist.”

Neuzil recommends that reporters should put a caveat in their social media accounts saying, for instance, “my views don’t reflect my employer’s.” But in the BBC guidance, it is considered that this kind of disclaimers are ineffective and “should not be used.”

If you are interested in this topic, Press Gazette reviewed social media guidelines from nine different media outlets and these are the conclusions.