Democracy Café, March

March 2023

This was the first meeting in our new home at the Library. It turned out to be a good location with no distracting noise and of course it is central.

The first topic was almost a forgone conclusion: namely, Gary Lineker who was the subject of a major row. Gary is the presenter of the BBC’s Match of the Day and following the announcement of the latest bill by the government to deter refugees travelling by boat across the Channel, declaring them automatically illegal, had tweeted “An immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.” This had prompted his suspension from the programme and as the other presenters decided not to appear meaning the programme would have to be aired without a presenter at all.

A large number of points were made in what turned out to be an interesting debate. The first point was that he was freelance and not a BBC employee. As a sports presenter, he should be free to express his political views as a matter of free speech. If he had tweeted his support for the government’s proposals, what someone wondered, would have been the reaction?

The view was expressed that celebrities from other realms of work should not be allowed to express their political views (this did not receive much support).

The BBC’s view was even though he isn’t a political commentator, he has an enormous following and is thus influential.

An important point was made that this whole row had acted as a distraction to the real issue namely the immigration and asylum system itself and the failure of government policy to tackle this issue adequately. Was the bill merely theatre someone wondered? The government knew it wouldn’t work it was suggested but just wanted to show that they were trying to do something knowing it had little chance of becoming law. Someone who had met the local Conservative MP in the past few days reported he did not think his party to be in power after the election which might support this view. Greg Dyke, former DG of the BBC, was quoted as saying in an interview that he thought the BBC was mistaken as it gave the perception they had bowed to government pressure.

A feature of the debate – and a key element of Lineker’s tweet – was the issue of free speech. It was noted that Lineker did not use the word ‘Nazi’ that some commentators and politicians had accused him of. Was the range of recent bills inhibiting protest and limiting access to judicial review, together with attacks on the BBC in general and Lineker in particular, signs of growing authoritarianism a la Germany in the ’30s? Was the reported decision, also by the BBC, not to broadcast the final episode of the forthcoming Attenborough series because of a fear of a right-wing backlash, a further example of a creeping curtailment of free speech?

It was noted that over the past few weeks, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries and Lee Anderson, all currently serving as Conservative MPs, had been given their own shows on GB News. They will be free to air their views every week yet there has not been an outcry about their appointments or conflicts of interest. We were also reminded of the scandal surrounding the appointment of Richard Sharp as chair of the BBC following his substantial contribution to the Conservative party and his failure to declare to the selection board his role in securing a major loan for Boris Johnson, prime minister at the time, who subsequently appointed him.

The debate moved on to the issue of impartiality and was true impartiality ever possible anyway? There is a legal case at present where the views of Fox News presenters appeared to different from those aired during the Trump era. This aspect of the debate arose around the question of ‘balance’ which sat alongside ‘impartiality’ at the core of the problem. Climate was an example where the BBC balanced reporting of climate change by inviting speakers who did not accept global warming to debate with scientists who did. This resulted in a false balance since the ‘deniers’ had little science to support their views. After a prolonged outcry, this no longer happens. On the other hand, employees of local government, government departments and agencies are not allowed to engage in political activity or air their views on these matters in public.

Linked to this was the failure by broadcasters to ask who was funding some of the people they interviewed. Some contributors were funded by fossil fuel interests which was not declared to the listening or viewing public.

Hard to sum up but there was a feeling that it was important for commentators to be free to air their views. There was a simmering sense that with the foreign ownership of our media and with hostility towards the BBC (and we might have added Channel 4) we were at risk of losing key elements of free speech and a slow drift towards a one party state was not impossible. The first thing the BBC should do someone suggested is not follow what the government says.

In the second half we attempted to tackle the question who runs Britain? You cannot say we lack ambition.

The first theory out of the blocks was it was all rooted in money. The City and other interests were focused on this aspect. It was money which gave you power someone said. Second was the influence of public schools and their desire to maintain their influence in society and, it was claimed ‘to keep at all costs, the socialists out [of power]’. They devoted great efforts to maintain their role in society.

The media was mentioned on the basis of ‘who controls the media controls the message’. Whether that is so true today with such a diversity of platforms is to be questioned. We were then introduced to the Beckhard and Gleicher’s change formula – which is probably the first time a formula has been introduced into our proceedings – and that is (D x V) + FS > C where D is dissatisfaction, V is vision and FS, first steps. Latterly, the C component has been replaced by R representing resistance to change. If the first set of factors is greater than the second, change might happen. To note is that if any of the left hand terms are zero, there will be no change.

Corporations were another source of power and the multi-national ones in particular. Not all were venal it was pointed out and some did want to improve the lot of their fellow man.

China was mentioned and the role of Deng Xiaoping who, following the death of Mao, told the Chinese to ‘go out and make money’. This led a discussion of the seemingly impregnable one party states like former East Germany and Romania which, despite having formidable security apparatuses, collapsed quickly following modest protests. Would China be like that despite their highly sophisticated surveillance system? Their swift change of course on Covid lockdown in the face of protest was noted. However, the failure of the Arab spring demonstrated that not all protests and uprisings led to happy results – look at Egypt.

One of the paradoxes of politics today in relation to who runs the country, was the fundamental belief of the current government in less government following the neoliberal agenda. They believed in freedom and the ebb and flow of markets to decide matters, not government interventions. Well that was the theory.

Two debates which circled freedom of speech and good government. The first focused on a specific incident and a tweet by Gary Lineker, the second on the more general issue of where the power lies in our country. The support Lineker received, while we were debating this issue, and resulting in the disruption of the BBC’s sports coverage, perhaps demonstrated that power can often be illusory and hard to control.

Peter Curbishley

Book mentioned: Another Now, Yanis Varoufakis, 2020, Vintage

Of relevance:

Who Governs Britain? Anthony King, 2015, Pelican

Posh Boys: how the English public schools run Britain, Robert Verkaik, 2018, One World