The media storm in Britain around a television personality speaks volumes about why the United Kingdom has become a dysfunctional state.
It is difficult for outsiders to appreciate how significant it is that Gary Lineker, a former England footballer, will not be permitted to present tonight’s Match of the Day on BBC television, following comments by him on the British government’s xenophobia towards refugees.
To get a handle on this we need to call in aid the late Ulrich Beck’s concept of ‘risk society’. What Beck meant was that we now live in a world of ‘side-effects’, in which capitalism is constantly reacting unpredictably against itself, rather than just replacing tradition, throwing up unanticipated and unsettling phenomena—and leading some to react by retreating into ‘constructed certitudes’ drawn from the past.
One of those unanticipated phenomena was the ‘social media’ which have emerged in this century as a successor to the offline ‘public sphere’ Jürgen Habermas conceptualised in the last. Those Californian corporations include Twitter, on which Lineker has had a strong presence while being a longstanding anchorperson for the Match of the Day weekend reflection by the classic British public-service broadcaster on top-flight English football.
Lineker has become the centre of a media storm because of a Tweet he posted this week critical of the Conservative government’s proposed legislation—in recognised defiance of the United Nations Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights—to deport asylum-seekers fetching up from the English Channel, including to Rwanda, rather than permit them to make asylum claims and to address those on their individual merits, as those international obligations require. These asylum-seekers, mainly fleeing conflict-ravaged societies such as Iran, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, are the flotsam and jetsam of Beck’s globalised ‘world at risk’, in which capitalism can no longer guarantee a stable, liveable existence but rather evokes all kinds of reactions, some fundamentalist, amid the insecurity it engenders.
The intensity of the debate in Britain has been exacerbated by the argument that it has been Lineker’s Tweet, rather than the human dignity of asylum-seekers put at hazard by the government, which has been the source of headlines this week—not just in the corporate right-wing press but also on the part of the BBC itself. Emotions have been further dialled up by the recent revelation that the current chair of the board of the BBC, an institution whose reputation stands on its independence of government, assisted in brokering a loan to the last-but-one prime minister, Boris Johnson—who has a notoriously spendthrift lifestyle—while he was a candidate for the position.
At the heart of the argument has been the BBC’s critical commitment to ‘impartial’ reporting. Although coloured by Britain’s imperial history, unchallenged by any process akin to Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung (dealing with the past), the service has because of its commitment to impartiality been able to sustain (despite the refusal of a hostile government to maintain its budget) a huge global audience. With English now the world’s lingua franca and United States media rendered less trustworthy because of the abolition under the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s of the ‘fairness doctrine’—enabling the ideologically driven Fox News established by Rupert Murdoch—the professional BBC has been of global significance in an unregulated ocean of ‘social media’ misinformation.
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The problem is that, blinkered by Britain’s American-replicated first-past-the-post electoral system, the BBC has interpreted ‘impartiality’ as reflecting the adversarial institution of the House of Commons at Westminster: it should offer ‘balance’ between perspectives broadly reflecting the major contending parties. This not only means that it gives voice to fundamentalist political positions, however indefensible on the evidence, from ‘Brexit’ Euro-myths to climate-change denial, if these are espoused on one side of the Commons aisle. It also bends with the political wind, especially where—as on refugees—Labour is too cowed to offer any challenge to the dominant discourse (that the desperate journeys by raft across the channel, often ending in tragedy, are all got up by traffickers of the ‘migrants’), which the BBC then faithfully echoes.
Elite English football reflects in a concentrated fashion Beck’s ‘really existing cosmopolitanisation‘ of a globalised world on the move. The England (men’s) manager, Gareth Southgate, celebrates his squad’s ethnic diversity and distanced himself from the ‘racial undertones’ of the English-nationalist Brexit project. Both the men’s and women’s teams remain committed to ‘taking the knee’ before internationals to demonstrate their opposition to all forms of intolerance and the Premiership periodically follows suit before league games. This ‘woke’ behaviour stoked the ire of the xenophobes but now attracts genuine applause from supporters after initial reserve.
Lineker unwittingly turned the screw, unleashing the storm, by standing up for universal norms—the rule of law and human rights—which the far-right faction currently in control of the Conservative Party, as with the Republicans in the US, now ritually trashes as the frothings of ‘lefty lawyers’, to which they have recruited (however improbably) the mildly centrist Labour leader, Keir Starmer. Lineker raised so much ire because he compared this ruling faction’s populist rhetoric to that deployed in Nazi Germany. The legislation the government is seeking to push through could require it to join Russia (expelled last year) and Belarus outwith the Council of Europe—set up in 1949 to say ‘never again’ to Nazism and all that—whose 46 members are all required to be signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights, the organisation’s core instrument.
Actually, the moral compass for professional journalism should be, empirically, the pursuit of objectivity and, ethically, commitment to these universal norms. By the first is meant the ability to recognise and correct self-critically one’s own prejudices to reflect the real world more truthfully. That means going beyond the lazy journalism of ‘he says, she says’ to probing under the surface and doing real research, so as—as the former Czech dissident turned president, Václav Havel, put it—to ‘speak truth to power’, rather than journalists being mere stenographers for the powerful.
The second, relatedly, requires however that journalists do not editorialise unless they do so in congruence with democracy, human rights and the rule of law and that those who have the specific responsibility of writing clearly-demarcated leaders or personal columns recognise that obligation as particularly binding. That does not in any way constrain their freedom of speech—but it does mean that the practice, widespread in Britain’s corporate press, of running inflammatory editorials on the front page masquerading as reportage has to be subject to democratic regulation.
Following the revelation of widespread invasion of privacy by the British press, especially in the empire controlled by Murdoch, the need for proper regulation of the media, to safeguard fair and accurate reporting while protecting freedom of expression, was finally recognised. But the pressure for action gradually dissipated and the right-wing press—so influential in bringing about the Brexit disaster it still refuses to recognise—remains unbowed, in a manner unlike anything else in western Europe outside of the Bild tabloid in Germany.
Behind all this, most fundamentally, is another British peculiarity among democracies—the absence of a written constitution which should set the framework for a deliberative public sphere. It was long assumed that this was unnecessary in the United Kingdom, on the grounds that ‘chaps’ who were members of the patrician, male ruling elite would appreciate and comply with its unwritten conventions.
Those lacunae have in recent years been ruthlessly exploited by ideologues and demagogues, such as Johnson—drawn from that very ruling caste while representing themselves on the contrary as the voice of the ‘common man’—determined to unshackle executive power from judicial constraint while promoting intolerance and quashing dissent. Until such times as that challenge is addressed, in a gyrating world at risk Britain will be one of the tops spinning most inchoately towards who knows where.
Robin Wilson is editor-in-chief of Social Europe, an adviser to the Council of Europe on intercultural integration and author of The Northern Ireland Experience of Conflict and Agreement: A Model for Export? (Manchester University Press) and Meeting the Challenge of Cultural Diversity in Europe: Moving Beyond the Crisis (Edward Elgar).