Legenday soccer player Gary Lineker has three rules for Tweeting. First, never do it if you’ve been drinking. Two, don’t do it when you’re mad. Three, as you read your Tweet, if you have even a 1 percent doubt, don’t do it. That’s what he said in an interview with BBC journalist Ros Atkins.
Nevertheless, it’s no suprise that Lineker, a sports broadcaster with the BBC since 1999, ran into trouble with a Tweet he wrote in defense of immigrants. After all, the former captain of the English national selection has been very free with his opinions on social networks. So when the conservative British government announced new measures to deter the arrival of migrants aboard small boats, Lineker sent this Tweet: “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.”
Lineker was suspended shortly afterward for violating the BBC’s “due impartiality” policy, and he was not allowed to participate in his weekend Match of the Day program. In solidarity, several of his colleagues refused to participate and the broadcaster was forced to produce the program with a skeleton staff.
The BBC’s impartiality guidelines are extensive and clearly more strict than most other communications media. One of its clauses says audiences “should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal opinions of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy.” It adds that they “may not express personal views on such matters publicly, including in any BBC-branded output or on personal blogs and social media.”
The first problem the BBC faced was that Lineker is not a full time employee, but a freelancer contracted for specific programs. There is a debate over whether the BBC’s impartiality guidelines apply to him. What’s more, he participates in sports and not news programs. And, finally, Lineker always says what he thinks.
After a week of arguments and complaints that the BBC was bowing to political pressures from the conservative government, Lineker was allowed to return to the sports program. The British public broadcaster is meanwhile trying to find a solution to a problem faced by newsrooms around the world: what can journalists Tweet and what can they not Tweet.
The social networks have transformed journalism. No one waits for the evening news or the morning newspaper to find out what’s going on around the world. The Golden Rule would hold journalists to treating social networks with the same care, professionalism and ethics we uphold when we appear or write in the traditional communications media. But not everyone does that, and sometimes it’s impossible to be impartial in 280 characters or a one-minute video.
The reality is that many journalists consider their social networks – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, etc – as personal rather than corporate platforms. After all, most of the accounts use our own names. There are leading journalists on social networks who carefully protect their credibility and their sources. Those are the ones I follow. But it’s also true that we frequently use our platforms to give our opinions and comentaries and even reveal the most intimate details of our personal lives. And that is the key aspect of this column.
Our principal social responsibility as journalists is to question people in power. As well as to inform with precision and truth. That’s what journalism does. And so that’s our task – to question power and report the reality – on social networks as well as communications media.
There is no doubt, for example, that Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are ruled by dictators. Or that ultra-right politicians in the United States have made racist and anti-immigration statements. And in those cases, we have to take a stand. When it’s about racism, discrimination, corruption, public lies, human rights abuses, dictatorships and the destruction of the environment, the duty of journalists is to report it, question it and denounce it.
That’s why I believe Lineker was right when he denounced the new anti-immigration measures in Great Britain. It does not matter that he is a sports commentator or a freelancer. He is a journalist, and when he saw an injustice, he reported it and criticized it.
I deeply admire the BBC. When I was young and starting out on Mexican radio, I tried to go to London to work with it. And although the attempt did not work out, I have enourmous respect for its practices and its journalism. The BBC is a journalistic benchmark around the world, and I follow many of its extraordinary journalists on social networks and the radio.
And while the BBC is now studying whether to tighten or ease the restrictions on the use of social networks by its journalists – and prevent another crisis like what happened with Lineker – I am sticking to my rules of Tweeting or posting only what I can defend … and waiting for 60 seconds before I hit the send key.