For those of you who have been living under a rock this past week or so, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster at the BBC.
It all started sometime last week, as, in their latest attempt to distract the general public from the “cozzie livs” crisis, the never-ending series of strikes, the collapse of the NHS, and the general incompetence of their scandal-ridden government, the Conservative Party set out new hard-line measures on immigrants. You know, the people who have nothing to do with any of the above. Effectively, anyone who has arrived in the UK illegally (aka via “small boats”) will be detained and deported, most likely to Rwanda, a place it would be rather generous to refer to as “safe.” This is unless the people in question are from the Ukraine, Hong Kong, or Afghanistan. The Home Secretary, Cruella- I mean, Suella Braverman has refereed to the numbers coming into the country as “an invasion,” despite Britain taking in far fewer refugees than its European counterparts.
The UK currently has no legal methods for migrants to come into the country, forced to flee wars, famine and poverty in pursuit of a better life, now to be turned away because the desperate droogs in Downing Street want to give themselves an air of power before the next general election. The policy has, rightly, been widely condemned and has been taken up with the European Court of Human Rights, such is the severity of the bill the government is keen to pass. Because there’s nothing classier than winning political favour than actively discriminating against migrants and the poor, especially in one of the most unequal countries in the world.
You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with football. Well, those of the disposition of “keep politics out of football” will be sorely disappointed with what’s coming up, even though sport and politics are inseparable and have been for several centuries now. Well, amid all the chaos of people being rightly outraged about the policy, Gary Lineker, former England star and World Cup Golden Boot winner and current Match of the Day presenter at the BBC, had the audacity to post this on his Twitter account:
A pretty innocuous, normal opinion for people with a shred of decency in them to hold, particularly from someone who has welcomed refugees into his home in the recent past. But, with this being the UK, Lineker’s tweet became more talked about than the actual subject matter, and headlines from the usual suspects, The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Daily Mirror, all fixated on the same issues; that Lineker had called the Tory government “Nazis” (he hadn’t) and had broken the BBC’s impartiality rules (he hadn’t).
To clarify, Lineker had said that the language used by Suella Braverman and the Tories was similar “to that of Germany in the 1930s.” He is not suggesting that Rishi Sunak is the second coming of Hitler, or that we are living under a fascist dictatorship. He is pointing out that describing migrants and refugees as “invading” the UK is offensively similar to the language used to describe Jews in 1930s Germany. He’s not comparing this situation to the Holocaust, but to how it started – through this sort of language. And when you have Holocaust charities and organisations pointing this out, as well as a literal Holocaust survivor telling this to Suella Braverman’s face, it hardly seems that unreasonable a comment to make.
Karl Marx once said “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” It is the farce that Lineker is trying to get us to avoid.
So we’ve established that Lineker’s comments were reasonable, and, as a free-thinking citizen in a democracy, legitimate for him to make. But after the furore from the right-wing media, Lineker was pulled from presenting Match of the Day on Saturday the 11th of March and placed under investigation over his use of social media. Naturally, this didn’t go down well among his colleagues at BBC Sport. Alan Shearer, Ian Wright, Jermaine Jenas, and Micah Richards all pulled out of providing punditry on MOTD, and Mark Chapman announced he wouldn’t be presenting Sunday night’s coverage. Alex Scott and Jason Mohammed wouldn’t present Football Focus or Final Score respectively, and the MOTD commentary team boycotted the show as well.
In the end, MOTD and MOTD2 were presented as 20-minute highlight segments, Football Focus and Final Score were taken off air at the eleventh hour, and coverage of the WSL was provided by the BBC World Service. Oh, and no manager or player was willing to provide interviews to the BBC afterwards either.
That all seems quite the fuss to go through over an innocuous comment by a football presenter. But, the issue of ‘impartiality’ was fixated on to no end over the next few days.
The BBC, as a public service broadcaster that is funded by the taxpayer, has often prided itself on its ‘impartial’ status – that they supposedly don’t show a specific political bias and focus on their core ethos of being ‘inform, educate, entertain.’ That is, to provide the public with educational information without bias.
But this is where things get tricky. Because while Lineker was certainly expressing a political opinion, not only was he doing it outside the sphere of the BBC, on his personal Twitter account, but Lineker isn’t actually a full-time BBC employee, working there on a freelance basis.
Now, Lineker has often been outspoken on political issues and his comments often draw ire from the right, and they usually fall into the ‘impartiality’ bracket. Except when they don’t, such as when, in 2017 during a general election, he tweeted ‘bin Corbyn,’ in relation to the then-leader of the Labour Party. Now, he is free to think what he wants about Jeremy Corbyn, but surely the same impartiality rules would apply much more stringently when an influential figure such as himself is actively trying to influence the outcome of a general election?
And yet, nothing was mentioned. The same applies for when Jeremy Clarkson said that striking workers “should be shot in front of their families,” made a string of racist remarks towards Asian people, and even used the n-word, all while he was presenting Top Gear, one of the BBC’s most popular shows when he was host. He apologised for some of the remarks, but it never resulted in him being taken off air, and took him punching a producer to be dismissed from the corporation in 2015.
Or what about Andrew Neil, the literal face of the BBC’s political coverage for 25 years, whilst acting as chairman of the right-wing newspaper The Spectator before leaving to found GB News, the most right-wing channel in the country right now. Would that not represent a slight conflict of interest when it comes to keeping the BBC impartial?
When issued with complaints about Neil breaking impartiality guidelines due to his activities outside of the BBC, this is what the corporation had to say:
One rule for the right, another for everyone else. Probably not a surprise when the BBC chairman Richard Sharp is a strong Conservative donor who personally financed former Tory PM Boris Johnson with a personal loan, and when Director General Tim Davie previously stood to be a Conservative Party councillor. Again, total impartiality on all fronts.
It’s also worth noting that the same day Lineker was suspended, it was also announced that the corporation would not be broadcasting an episode of David Attenborough’s new series Wild Isles, as they feared it “may upset members of the right.” The episode in question focuses on the issue of rewilding, which isn’t even that controversial a subject, unless it points out the damage caused to the environment by greedy business magnates for a bit of profit. Good job educating and informing us, BBC.
At this point it’s clear that the term ‘impartial’ effectively now just equates to ‘whatever the Tories like’. Because it’s only ever questioned when a public figure calls them out on their bullsh*t. Cast your minds back to when we had the leadership election most of the country wasn’t allowed to vote in, between the mentally unstable Liz Truss and Will from The Inbetweeners, Rishi Sunak, in which Truss became Prime Minister for 45 days before Sunak became PM anyway. So much has happened since then it almost seems another lifetime ago.
Anyway, towards the end of their campaigns, comedian Joe Lycett went on former BBC editor Laura Kuenssberg’s (again, not exactly the most impartial of people) new show to make fun of how Truss has no discernible credentials to be Prime Minister, how the two candidates are the ‘backwater’ of what’s available, and, in one of his finer moments of comedy, pretended to be a big Truss fan because he’s “actually very right-wing.” That raised an inquiry into impartiality in the Commons, and whether comedians should be allowed to comment on politics (in much the same way Gary Lineker should supposedly “stick to football”).
You see the pattern emerging here?
Anyway, Lineker was brought back into the fold for the BBC’s coverage of Manchester City’s FA Cup quarter-final with Burnley, despite suffering from a cold. Alan Shearer, who provided the punditry, said on the show he was happy for things to be back to normal, which Lineker agreed with and was thankful to be back. What was his punishment? Well, he refused to apologise, didn’t agree to stop tweeting, and was reinstated when the BBC realised what a monumentally stupid decision they had made.
What lessons are to be learned from this exactly?
Well, I fear I have spent most of this essay pedaling and repeating things that people who are much more well-informed than I am have already covered in great detail. But I think, personally, this is the latest event in what will prove to be long-lasting change.
Gary Lineker will not lead the revolution. As already mentioned, he is a critic of Jeremy Corbyn and is more of a centrist with some left-leaning tendencies. Much the same as football’s other great ‘reformer’ Gary Neville. But what he said, and the response to suspension, is evidence enough that the power of the collective will prevail, and that change will come through being outspoken and pressuring those in charge. It is hardly equivalent to Matthias Sindelar dancing and jeering in front of Nazi officials after the Anschluss, but it is another example of sport, and namely football, is intwined with everyday life and politics, and how important it is in fighting societal issues.
I’ve always been a fan of the BBC’s football coverage, and it is a wonderful national institution to have. It’s ethos is laudable, but in order to stick to them faithfully, real change needs to happen. To have the two most senior positions at the corporation occupied by men with such strong links to the ruling party, is it not surprising that we find ourselves focusing on this mess, not only instead of focusing on the people set to suffer from this policy, but also that the same party is trying to wage a ‘woke war’ on the corporation for being ‘too left’?
If this sorry incident is an indicator of anything, it is that the BBC is fundamentally not biased towards the left, and pretty much no-one other than Mark Lawrenson would tell you otherwise, since it’s clear they are virtually a Tory mouthpiece now. Because literally the only times the BBC is ever accused of not being impartial is whenever it broadcasts something vaguely left-wing. And this wasn’t even broadcast on the BBC, by someone who isn’t a full-time employee!
It is perhaps because Lineker is such a high-profile figure with an enormous social media following, and because he is the BBC’s highest-paid presenter, that this issue was given the amount of publicity that it did. Or maybe it’s because the government is becoming increasingly desperate to distract the British public from this appalling policy, getting the right-wing press to make libelous claims about his comments to present him as the real pariah in this situation, as a free-thinking man with a valid opinion. They seem to be doing whatever they can to blame everyone but themselves for being genuinely awful people.
If the BBC is to achieve true impartiality, something that is sadly hard to do in this day and age, then it starts with getting rid of Sharp and Davie. Who they are replaced with is a tricky issue, so perhaps a collective management of people representing different major parties (Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats, etc.), which would hopefully reflect who they get to appear on shows such as Politics Live and Question Time, instead of skewering their coverage with disproportionately right-wing views, as they unapologetically did during the Brexit referendum and the previous two general elections. They can give a voice to the genuinely under-represented voices, to give a proper voice to socialist views that can spark actual change in the UK, and reflect a corporation that gives a safe voice for people to rightly criticise the government in troubling times such as these..
A few weeks ago, I wrote that 2023 would, I hope, be the year that we start seeing change in football, and in wider society. I didn’t expect it to be this soon, and I didn’t expect it to begin in the Match of the Day studio. But now is the time to capitalise. Gary Lineker and his colleagues have won this battle, but there are several more to fight from here on in. The sooner Sharp and Davie are out of the BBC and the sooner the Tories are out of power, the sooner we can feel lucky to have an impartial and informative national broadcaster, and, far more importantly, those who are most vulnerable can feel free to come here without risk of deportation and to start a better life for themselves.
The revolution may have started with Gary Lineker, but it won’t end with him.