Gary Lineker, the BBC, social media and what it means for freelancers
Rarely has a single Tweet been the cause of so much controversy and division. Gary Lineker’s comment on the government’s illegal immigration bill, and the ensuing drama, doesn’t just draw attention to the small boat policy, it also raises wider issues such as BBC impartiality and whether individuals should be free to voice opinions without it impacting their commercial engagements. For IPSE, it’s this last one which is the most interesting – particularly as Lineker is a freelancer.
Shouldn’t freelancers be free?
In its purest sense, freelancing refers to the exchange of services for payment. The term originates from medieval times when mercenaries would fight for whoever would pay them. Outside the set parameters of the agreed work, freelancers should be, well free: free to say what they want, to whomever they want. But the quid pro quo is generally that their clients are also free to stop using their services – and they don’t necessarily have to provide a reason.
In Lineker’s case he seems to have won the battle. The BBC suspended him but then quickly brought him back after several other BBC presenters – most of them freelancers too – downed tools in protest. Lineker has not issued an apology and has stood by the comments that caused the furore in the first place. But Lineker is in a fairly unique position and it is hard to imagine that his experience would apply to the rest of us. So what, if anything, can other freelancers learn from this spat?
Does an organisation's social media policy apply to freelancers?
Yes, they can do. It’s likely to depend on the nature and length of your engagement.
The BBC’s social media policy, that is now under review, has a section for ‘who is covered by this guidance’. It says “Everyone who works for the BBC should ensure their activity on social media platforms does not compromise the perception of or undermine the impartiality and reputation of the BBC, nor their own professional impartiality or reputation and/or otherwise undermine trust in the BBC.” The term ‘everyone who works for’ is no doubt intended to include freelancers – but there is inherently some ambiguity there.
IPSE Ambassador and social media expert Luan Wise comments, “The challenge with Lineker’s case is that he is so closely associated with the BBC, it is in the eyes of the public to interpret that association when viewing his social media activity. The public are unlikely to have a detail of understanding to dissociate Lineker as a worker and representative of the BBC based on the nature of a freelance contract.”
She adds, “I have certainly seen similar headings in the social media policies I have reviewed for organisations I consult for. Similarly, I have seen clauses in terms and conditions that cover social media, in terms of confidentiality and not sharing details of the work being undertaken without express permission.
I would suggest that if a freelancer is publicly associating themselves with an organisation, as an employee might, then a social media policy could well be applied.”
What about freelancers that are not public associated with their client?
Most freelancers don’t host TV shows in front of millions of people. They are not household names and if they express their views on social media it is unlikely anyone would associate the comments with their client, or even know who their client is. But it is not inconceivable that a client might notice comments made by the freelancers they engage.
Freelancers should be free, and to a large extent they are – free-er at least than most employees. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t expect what they say on social media not reflect on them and their business. Clients don’t need a reason not to renew a contract, so it may be wise not to give them one.
Lineker and IR35
It’s worth noting that HMRC dispute Lineker’s freelance status. The taxman wants a bigger slice of the money he earns from his engagements with the BBC and BT Sport and it has launched an IR35 investigation. As IPSE members will know only too well, just because HMRC say Lineker should be taxed as an employee, doesn’t make him an employee. Even if he loses his IR35 battle, it won’t automatically change his employment status. So Lineker is now, and will likely continue to be, a freelancer – which could well have material effect on how much control the BBC can exert over what he says on social media.
Meet the authors
Director of Policy and External Affairs
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