Why there are no winners after the BBC’s two-footed tackle on Gary Lineker | Gary Lineker
Keep politics out of sport. Ha, yeah. Good luck with that. Meanwhile, in what we must, if only out of a sense of convention, call the Real World, we have this: the strange and sinister developments of Friday evening in what will now come to be known as the Lineker affair.
The suspension of Gary Lineker from BBC presenting duties – not Newsnight or Question Time, but the bloodless warm bath of Match of the Day – over a tweet sent on Wednesday afternoon criticising government policy on migrants is, frankly, a jaw-dropping act of political intervention.
Of course both the BBC and the government will deny that this is an act of direct intervention. The only real response to that is: do you believe them?
And let us be clear: it really doesn’t matter what Lineker has been banging on about on his Twitter feed. It doesn’t matter if you like him, or agree with him, or feel annoyed by him. Perhaps you just want to watch the football. Perhaps you actively dislike and fear migrants. Perhaps this is in part because the government and friendly media keep stating (incorrectly) that the UK is being disproportionately assailed or invaded or colonised by them.
The fact is everybody loses, everything is diminished, when it is in the gift of the government of the day to decide who gets to say what on issues of basic human kindness. What we have here is the de facto state censorship of a man who says things like “and now to Goodison” in between footage of people playing football, for the crime of having freelance opinions on social media.
The title of stupidest, nastiest national discourse is, of course, a hotly contested global title. What makes the actions of the BBC in suspending Lineker over his personal tweets that bit worse is that with the other hand it will preach to others about press freedom and editorial integrity. Meanwhile it will also cave, without resistance, will be bullied and lectured on probity by the cheapest of political classes, by a home secretary who resigned over a breach of the ministerial code just six months ago.
So Lineker, who makes dad jokes and talks about Leicester, will now be absent from our screens over the contents of his original tweet, in which he compared the language used by the Home Office in framing its policy on migrants to that of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
And you do have to admire the unstinting effort that has gone into constructing out of such thin material not just a white noise of distraction; but weaponising Lineker’s own words against him.
It should be no surprise. If Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages have taught us anything, beyond the fact Matt Hancock is a kind of rancid human margarine poured into a shiny blue suit, it is that the current political class is obsessed with managing the message.
Gary Lineker scores for England against Poland at the 1986 World Cup. Photograph: Bongarts/Getty Images
Lineker’s key mistake was to throw Nazi Germany in there. However fine and nuanced his understanding of the semiotics of National Socialist messaging in the years 1930-1940, it would be good generally if people could stop using Nazi Germany as a kind of bad things emoji. Better to explain and use detail. Save Nazi Germany. Keep it in your back pocket for those occasions when only Nazi Germany will do. In doing so he offered up an opportunity. And an opportunist will never miss one of those.
And so Lineker’s comments were gleefully gobbled up, gloatingly amplified, used as a dead cat with which to beat him around the head. At the end of which the only real certainty is that Lineker has been played like a piano, thrashed like a human piñata by a government which already has quite the record when it comes to sport and cheap public relations.
His suspension will, of course, be linked explicitly to the fact BBC presenters are supposed to avoid political statements. But the use of this power here feels arbitrary. Lineker is a freelance football pundit with a private Twitter account. He doesn’t do politics for the BBC. It is bizarre to suggest there is some public good issue, some threat to independence, that justifies threatening him into silence on his personal social media.
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At the end of which there are only two sensible things worth saying about any of this. First it remains an extraordinary thing that Lineker has become a source of such wild and polarised rage. The world is full of much richer, more cynical and more annoying people. Lineker was an admirable footballer. He’s good at talking on TV while an invisible clock counts down. His views are unremarkable broad left. Where does the hate come from?
There is some snobbery too, the dead hand of the class system, the old feudal super-ego. Lineker has been painted as uppity, ungrateful, a working-class lad who doesn’t know his place. Where does he get off, exactly, with his thoughts and feelings and sympathies, while also being allowed to be rich and successful?
Plus there is some pretty obvious behind the scenes shenanigans in play. The BBC is currently being reshaped by a government unhappy with its workings. It isn’t hard to wonder how the power dynamic works here.
The paradox is that Lineker has been told, repeatedly, to stick to sport: but unfortunately this is now impossible. Football has become the popular culture, with a reach into people’s lives beyond any other medium. As a consequence it is also fiercely and relentlessly political. Lineker’s own “rant” to kick off the BBC’s coverage of the Qatar World Cup wasn’t really politics at all. It was simply telling people what is happening. This was an event staged solely to peddle political and financial clout. To gloss this, to pretend that the show was just a show, would have been a significant choice in itself. Where, exactly, are the politics here? In telling the truth, or staying silent?
As things stand Lineker’s suspension is a suspect moment for the public discourse. It isn’t necessary to agree with what he says or even the fact of him saying it, to be diminished by this. The fact is we all lose when the state, no matter how third-hand or arm’s-length, is able to engineer the silence of public figures; even, or indeed particularly, those whose screen time is largely taken up with talking about goal of the month or having opinions on David Moyes.