There has been a lot of noise about celebrity freedom of speech. As heroes and role models, examples of aspirational success, and as influencers, celebrities shape the current media narrative. This narrative is one that, conforming to post-truth principles, replaces truth with opinion and beguilingly aims at emotion instead of reason. But there it is: a truly postmodern clatter of voices where everyone is seen to be both right and wrong, and where only when the nursery is full of broken toys can the decorators move in and clean up.
We know too that there are issues of life and death, which fortunately still seem to matter to most of us. And then there is sport, existentially and sociologically and epistemologically infinitely superior to life and death, seeing life truly in the round, replete with goal-centred decision-making, subtly aware of the status of points and prizes, proud of its contribution to national health and well-being, nurturing the dep-seated human instinct for competitive advantage, and regularly dislodging trivial issues like wars and the environment off the top pages.
Call me cynical if you like, but it should come as no surprise to clear-thinking people that neutrality like that argued for in the BBC policy for its employees, above all high-profile ones, should be seen as parochial. How can there be – in a multimedia age where traditional broadcasting set out to survive in a jungle of competing media – any success in restricting what people say and think in their lives outside their jobs to the jobs they happen to do? Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka must have known about the long-term harms chocolate can do to the human body, and cleverly never said so when he was marketing his products, but we must wonder how aware he really was about the wider scheme of things.
Gary Lineker, Chris Packham, Michael Portillo and many others have been very successful on television. We love the first for sports coverage, trust the second for his evangelical support of the environment, and enjoy the third for his seemingly effortless enjoyment of train travel and eccentric apparel. Each one we know says things – has and will for sure – say things beyond the 'strict brief' of what they do for the BBC: sports presenting, nature programmes, travel. Each one of them, like each one of us whenever we go into work, brings the inevitable baggage of who we are. This makes us three-dimensional after all.
So the dilemma, if indeed it is one, is the extent to which – in specific terms, the terms of the contract we have with employers are broken by what employees say or do; and in general terms, the real-life reality of human interactions and expectations in the wider world of work and play – it is possible to find a fair balance between control and freedom. Between free speech and censorship. The trouble is that this duality is in itself essentialistic – there are nuances and ambiguities, and these clearly have yet to be resolved, not just by the BBC but by society at large. And at the heart of all this lies the fluid status of the freelance writer/presenter/celebrity. Being freelance by definition gives one the space to write/perform/work for potentially anyone: your time is for hire, your copy for fees. You trade your talent, personality, time, skills, in what is basically an exchange relationship between supplier and customer.
The 'contract' or rules of engagement may insist on or lay out specific ins and outs, boiler-plate clauses on intellectual property (eg done in employer's time or on their equipment or clearly assigned) and both sides should know the score about that. However, the ever-changing arena of academic freedom is typical of where simplistic differences between what is allowed and what is not get truly blurred. Outing by wokery has effectively re-shaped the ways numerous ideas are presented to students, and, more of concern, examples in recent years show that emotions can ratchet up and cause forced resignations and even witch-hunts.
Picking up the thoughts so far in this piece, we have celebrity with its own charisma and pack-appeal, reaching out beyond any specific task (like presenting a TV programme or publishing a detective novel) to a wider market – a wider constituency keen to relate to what the celebrity is and does rather than what they do only in the job. Then we have the thought that any well-known personality (celebrity or author or presenter or whatever) brings colour and substance, street-cred and gravitas to the role they may happen to play in any TV programme or advertising enterprise. And then the further idea that relationships between parties to any contract, however loose, such as employer and employee, have mutual responsibilities and expectations.
And then the sting in the tail, as the scorpion said to the spider: the status of the freelance. How free? – the occasional columnist on the paper, the guest editor, the reviewer and peer-reviewer (usually independent and for sure not all in-house). Out of all this arises the query as to where and how does the free-standing position of the freelance entitle him or her to ask if what they say in one walk of life is necessarily subject to the same rules as what they say when they're choosing to work in a specific job? Lineker is fully entitled to say what he wants (within the law) – his analogy of Tory treatment of small boats being Nazi propaganda is implausible and emotive, but did he say it when presenting Match of the Day
? If not, case closed.
But, alas, it's not case closed – because first there is the understandable expectations on the BBC's part about neutrality: if left to itself, any looseness of contractual language would drive a coach and horses through any mutual trust. And second there is that real-life problem of who people are and are seen to be (above all by scores of followers and fans, and even objective observers): they are not defined by the job neither as human beings. If they have any fame or status at all, they're 'media personalities' (or equivalent). When Ant and Dec advertise, things fly off the shelves.
There is then a King Cnut-like overtone to some of the recent controversies, which themselves have been blown up by a culture that takes side over everything and that prefers opinion to truth. There are times when broadcasters need to and must tell the truth, the facts, as they know them – Steve Rosenberg reporting on Russia, Katia Adler on Europe, Justin Webb on the Today
programme, Matt Frei on Channel 4 News
… But, when they report, they report, stick to their brief, do their job to contract. It is clear to most of us that when you do the job, you do the job.
The fusion between freelance and celebrity has changed a lot of that, at least in the mind of many viewers and readers 'out there'. Some of us would blame Angela Rippon's legs for starting the rot: after seeing her dancing on the Morecambe & Wise Show
back in the days of yore, newscasters would never be the same. Does Clive Myrie lose any credibility as a newscaster by being on Mastermind
, or Baroness Varsi for appearing on Have I Got News For You?
No, because they and we all know the terms of engagement in context.
I love the BBC: don't get me wrong. Its status as an independent news outfit is a key part of our democracy, not a propaganda arm of any government. Yet events outstrip us all, even the great and the good. If the BBC wants to survive in the real cut-throat world of global social and commercial media, it surely cannot continue to insist on its programme of artificially restrictive contracts for freelances.
However, there should be a corresponding responsibility on the part of any freelance contributor, celebrity or otherwise, to pay full regard to the context in which they say, do and perform. When they do this (and it's always a matter of choice for them – they don't have to do it) they acknowledge that they are as big as the job and no bigger. In other words, 'no little big man [or woman]'. If they can do this, and be seen to do it, not only would factitious altercations like recent ones not occur, but we the audience (society?) would feel we too were being treated like adults living in the real world.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland