During March, the BBC took its best-known sports presenter off-air after he criticized the government’s asylum policy on his personal Twitter account.
Gary Lineker, a former England soccer captain, tweeted on March 7 the government’s plans to ban asylum seekers and economic migrants who arrived on small boats from settling in Britain was “immeasurably cruel” and said the language being used was “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”
The U.K. government, which sets a tariff to fund the BBC, wasn’t pleased. The BBC said it had a “frank conversation” with Lineker about its need to remain impartial. The broadcaster subsequently took him off air on March 10.
The fallout was swift and embarrassing for all parties—except Lineker, who was quickly reinstated.
The government was forced to defend a policy many believe is unworkable, illegal, and a waste of money, while the BBC’s heavy-handed attempt at disciplinary action turned a comment that was probably at best cursorily read by less than half of Lineker’s followers into a news story that dominated its own headlines for weeks.
In the immediate aftermath, the BBC was forced to air pared-down sports coverage as fellow presenters walked out in solidarity.
The broadcaster also had to defend its record on impartiality, including the conduct of its latest chairman, Richard Sharp, a Conservative Party donor who is currently being investigated by a parliamentary committee for helping to facilitate a loan of 800,000 pounds (U.S. $1 million) for former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson appointed Sharp to the role just weeks after he got the cash.
Long term, the BBC is preparing to work out how it can better distinguish its guidelines on impartiality, which apply to journalists only, from guidance, which sets the tone for how employees should behave. It is also reviewing its guidelines on social media accounts.
The problem was—and still is—Lineker is neither a journalist nor a BBC employee: He is technically a paid freelancer. As such, there has been debate around to what extent the rules could—and should—apply to him and whether less-famous freelancers would have been subject to the same kind of treatment and allowed to keep working.
More widely, the incident has forced employers to reconsider whether they have the right to discipline employees or contractors for what they do outside of the work environment or for the opinions they hold. Similarly, workers have become more alive to the concept they should be owed—and not owned—for the work they do.
Until now, employers in the United Kingdom and Europe have trawled employees’ social media accounts to find evidence to back up their reasons for firing or disciplining them. Employment lawyers admit posts showing drunken holiday activity, offensive language, racist memes, and sexist behavior have often been highlighted in cases seeking to prove an employee broke a company’s code of conduct—however vaguely it is written—and caused unspecified “reputational damage.”
While some posts might be ill-judged and even repugnant, there is often little evidence they have dented the company’s reputation or were seen by anyone who would make the link the person had any connection with the organization in question.
In Lineker’s case, his comments were against the government; they were not derogatory remarks against the company, colleagues, or customers. As such, most would regard them as “fair comment”—though open to challenge, depending on one’s political views—but not a breach of contract, editorial guidelines, or even the organization’s social media policy.
The BBC’s public mishandling of the situation might be a wake-up call for companies monitoring social media posts to hold employees in check. Such a method could be deemed no longer appropriate—or certainly not as easy a way to discipline staff as previously thought.
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