What the controversy over the BBC football presenter’s tweets says about Britain
Editor’s note: On March 13 the BBC Gary Lineker said that Gary Lineker will return to “Match of the Day” this weekend. They also announced an independent review of their social media management.
ETHE FIRST ICE, the football games are changing. Except one. First broadcast in 1964, “Match of the Day” is a staple of the BBCand Saturday night schedule. But on March 11 the football highlights program was stripped down to a skeleton, including clips of the day’s action without commentary or studio commentary. It was all in 20 minutes instead of the scheduled 80. The show’s famous theme tune, and even its title, were also missing. A static screen simply read: “Premier League Highlights”.
The bare-bones treatment was the result of a particularly British streak, fueled by the government’s harsh policy on asylum seekers. The ruckus has involved several interrelated national institutions: not only the BBC, the national sport and the premier football show, but also Gary Lineker. A lethal striker in the 1980s and 1990s (only three men have scored more than his 48 goals for England), Mr Lineker today presents “Match of the Day”. Although it is cheap, it is not BBC employee, is the company’s highest-paid presenter and one of its most famous. The controversy, which is both serious and mischievous, is a true reflection of Britain’s political divisions.
It all started on March 7, when Suella Braverman, the home secretary, and Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, unveiled legislation intended to “stop the boats” that forced tens of thousands of people on across the English Channel to seek asylum. The bill would have detained almost all of them and permanently deported them. “Good stuff, this is beyond awesome,” Mr Lineker tweeted on the same day. When a respondent objected, he fired back: “This is just an incredibly cruel policy targeting the most vulnerable in language not unlike that of Germany used in the 30s, and I’m out of order? “
Yes, you are a thundering Tory BPs and key writers at the Daily Mailseizes on Mr Lineker’s reckless bias towards Nazi Germany – and calls for the BBC suspend or delete it. Plenty of others defended his right to speak as he found. Mr. Lineker stood his ground quietly; he has not deleted the tweets. After a couple of days of pen tapping, the BBC concluded that Mr Lineker had breached his impartiality rules and said he would “step back” from “Match of the Day”.
If the broadcaster thought the matter would end there, he was wrong. Mr Lineker’s colleagues on the show – like him, former stars in the England team – said they would not appear either. So did stand in and match reporters. Other football programs were also canceled earlier in the day (although live radio coverage continued). Right before the highlight reel went out, the first ten minutes of BBCthe main news magazine (out of 17) was awarded to the series.
The fur divides Britain’s political and editorial classes along predictable lines. If you know where someone stands on Brexit, asylum seekers, libertarians or footballers taking the knee or wearing rainbow armbands, you probably know where they are standing on this. (As for free speech, probably not: many on the right who want Mr Lineker’s head have opposed “eradicating the culture”.) It could still simmer down. The BBCThe director general, Tim Davie, said on March 11 that he wanted Mr Lineker back on air and was prepared to revisit impartiality rules for freelancers.
Mr. David has established a large resource by protecting the BBCimpartiality – the broadcaster is regularly attacked from both the right and the left – but it is not clear exactly how Mr Lineker breached his social media guidelines. These say about “representatives that are specifically related to the BBC“that” their actions on social media have the potential to harm him BBCimpartiality.” Although Mr. Lineker is undoubtedly identified with the BBC, few could have mistaken his opinion for that of the group. He is not a political presenter and he did not say anything on air.
Although Ms. Braverman has blasted Mr. Lineker, Mr. Sunak is trying to stay out of it. On March 11 he praised Mr Lineker’s talents as a footballer and broadcaster and said it was the business. BBCin repair. That is not as helpful to the corporation as it could be: the opposition parties are already accusing him of being too ready to bend to the will of the government. Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer has been accused of “stepping into the Tories” BPs” by stopping the asterisk. The argument has brought further calls to Richard Sharp, the BBCChairman, to resign and some to ask Mr. Davie if he will quit (he says no). Before Boris Johnson appointed him, Mr Sharp, a Tory donor, introduced the then prime minister to someone willing to give him money. Mr Sharp denies having any part in arranging the loan. Mr Davie was once a Tory council candidate in the 1990s.
That’s one of his most famous shows, the BBC there will be a commercial problem as well as a political problem. Although it is funded by a license fee, it still needs viewers, and Mr Lineker and his colleagues have options other than voices. Mr Lineker is no longer responsible for a week BBC slot for publicity, if he ever did – thanks to his brilliant career, other media work and the small matter of 8.8m Twitter followers. Other broadcasters would certainly jump at the chance to sign him, and even pay him more than the corporation.
And in all this, something has been forgotten: dinghies full of people are still moving dangerously across the channel. The government insists that its policy is practical, legal and compassionate; his critics say he is just the opposite. But don’t worry: “Match of the Day” will be back soon – or at least, long before a safe answer to the plight of asylum seekers is found. ■