How this incident is one of many involving sportspeople speaking up
Anyone who argues sport and politics shouldn’t be mixed shouldn’t read the following article. The BBC found themselves in a storm of their own creation two weeks ago as they decided to suspend the much-loved host of their flagship football program Match of the Day, Gary Lineker. Lineker had tweeted his opposition to the government’s recent unveiling of their migrant boat policy, and argued the language of Suella Braverman’s announcement was “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”.
His suspension prompted a walkout by the majority of the BBC Sports football correspondents, whether commentators, pundits, showrunners or editors. Ian Wright tweeted his ‘solidarity’ — his onscreen punditry partner Alan Shearer joined shortly after — and Alex Scott shared a meme implying she would turn down the job to replace Lineker were she asked. Jermaine Jenas and Micah Richards were among others to express the same stance. He even found an unlikely ally in Piers Morgan.
Critically, the BBC’s commentators for the weekend’s games, including Steve Wilson, Conor McNamara, Robyn Rowen and Steven Wyeth, followed suit, and it looked uncertain whether the BBC could put out a Saturday show at all. The eventual result was a twenty minute commentary-less, almost noiseless, cut-and-pasted compilation of that day’s fixtures, and it was much the same thing on Sunday’s MOTD2.
Eventually, Lineker was reinstated, and the BBC has announced a review of its social media policy to remove grey areas. BBC Editorial Guidelines previously stated those with a significant public profile should shy away from speaking out on party political issues, but while they claim they "have never said Gary should be an opinion-free zone”, it begs the question - what opinions is he allowed to voice?
According to a YouGov survey, 53 per cent of the public believed the BBC was wrong to suspend Linneker, compared to 27 per cent who answered it was the correct decision and 20% who didn’t know. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 75 per cent of Labour voters sided with Lineker, compared to only 36 per cent of Conservative voters, for whom the majority believed it was the correct decision to remove him from MOTD.
The Internet (Twitter in particular) has turned up a number of examples to highlight what it sees as the BBC’s hypocrisy; Lord Sugar tweeted in December 2019 he would vote for Boris Johnson’s re-election as prime minister but remained the host of The Apprentice, and in a confusion over Chris Packham’s tweets about Geronimo the alpaca set to be put down, the BBC issued a statement clearly stating how the “constraints for a freelance presenter [...] are not the same as they are for, say a BBC News or current affairs presenter”.
Lineker is employed by the BBC as a freelancer; he works for them in a very high-profile role, yes, and has a massive online following which attracts significant attention. But isn’t this something of the BBC’s own making? His platform exists largely because of his role on MOTD for over the past two decades. Before pay-to-view became as commonplace as it is in today’s televisual world — before even YouTube highlights and score lines popping up as notifications on your phone — Lineker’s face was the one to greet and guide you through the fixtures. The BBC has to remember this.
In an age when pay-to-view football content is growing season by season, Lineker has remained loyal to his beginnings. To have kept an almost exclusive hold on some of the best names out there is remarkable; rivals such as Sky, BT and Amazon are often left playing second fiddle, picking up said talent whenever their BBC schedules allow. The BBC may have now risked these stars moving permanently elsewhere, where their platforms aren’t compromised by an employer and their salaries will be greater and less publicly scrutinised (the BBC annually publishes the wages of its highest earners).
Maybe rightly, maybe wrongly, the buck has stopped at the door of the director general, Tim Davie. He has already had to apologise to licence fee payers for the disruption, and his climbdown within 72 hours has left his authority over the organisation looking shaky. Granted, the BBC was stuck between a rock and a hard place: leave Lineker on air, and receive significant criticism from the government of the day, potentially losing current affairs content. But their decision to remove him is the greater of two evils, as the overriding perception from the outside is that the BBC bowed to political pressure from the sitting government in response to a publicly expressed view they didn’t like. The episode has also thrown light on the appointment of Richard Sharp, the BBC’s current chairman and significant Conservative party donor, who failed to declare he provided assistance to Boris Johnson in securing a loan before his nomination by the prime minister for the role.
We must, however, acknowledge that Lineker’s comparison was extreme, and one which is incredibly sensitive for many in a country with the second-highest number of Jewish people in Europe. He has been condemned by those such as Board of Deputies of British Jews member and Holocaust survivor Agnes Grunwald-Spier for the extremity of his comparison; shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said that although Lineker should be allowed to express his opinion and not taken off the air on grounds of partiality, it was not “right to make comparisons with the 1930s”.
Across the globe, sportspeople are constantly speaking out on political issues they care deeply about. Not only in football, but across all disciplines in the last twelve months or so, we have seen political issues take centre stage in sporting arenas. Russia being banned from various competitions in light of the invasion of Ukraine, the global reaction to Qatar hosting the world cup, and Formula One drivers speaking up in countries such as Hungary on issues such as government censorship on LGBT+ issues are just some examples of when sports and politics can’t be divided.
Lineker looks to use his platform to spread awareness. If he had tweeted his support for the policy, what would have been different? That would have also been a demonstration of impartiality, and yet would he have been taken off the airwaves for that? If you think probably not, you’re probably right. Arguably, speaking out - especially if against the government in power - attracts more pushback than speaking in favour.
Sportspeople have throughout history always been at the forefront of political movements and social justice, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Lewis Hamilton in the present day. While the BBC’s stance of impartiality is critical when it comes to political reporting, it shouldn’t have the consequences it did.
Image: Wikimedia Commons