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13 March 2023

Gary Lineker played into the hands of the BBC’s right-wing enemies

Those who want to defund a vital national institution have emerged stronger from this saga.

By Martin Fletcher

Everyone else has had their say on the ludicrous row over Gary Lineker’s tweets that has convulsed the country for the past few days (and that has mercifully now concluded). Here’s my take.

Firstly, I think Lineker’s comparison of the language the government has used to justify its efforts to stop cross-Channel migrant crossings to that of the Nazis in the 1930s was crass.

I share his disgust at the Illegal Migration Bill. I agree with him that it is “immeasurably cruel”. By effectively barring many genuine refugees from entering the UK it probably violates international law, and certainly breaches this country’s proud tradition of offering sanctuary to the persecuted. The idea of sending any asylum seeker, genuine or not, to Rwanda, governed by one of Africa’s nastiest regimes, is unacceptable.

The bill would be marginally more defensible were it easier for asylum seekers to enter Britain legally, but unless they come from Ukraine, Afghanistan or Hong Kong they face almost insuperable obstacles. Last November the Home Affairs Select Committee asked Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, what safe and legal route a teenage orphan suffering religious persecution in an East African country could take to join a sibling living legally in the UK. She was unable to answer.

But to implicitly compare this government to Hitler’s regime? I hate what the Conservatives have done to Britain, but I don’t think they are quite that evil.

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My second observation on the controversy generated by the goatee-wearing Sage of Leicester is that he is a football presenter, not a news or current affairs journalist, and should be free to express his political views. How strange that right-wing critics of the left’s “cancel culture” should seek to practise it themselves.

My third is that those critics don’t actually give a damn about the notion of media impartiality in general, and of BBC impartiality in particular.

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Would they have been as outraged if Lineker had tweeted profuse support for the migration legislation? They did not complain when other BBC stars such as Andrew Neil, Alan Sugar and Geoffrey Boycott, the Brexit-supporting cricket commentator, gave voice to strident right-wing views.

Where was their outrage at revelations that Richard Sharp, the BBC chairman, was not only a friend of Boris Johnson’s and a generous Conservative Party donor, but actually facilitated an £800,000 loan to the then-prime minister shortly before his appointment? 

[See also: Sack him or back him, the BBC cannot win the row over Gary Lineker]

Where was their condemnation of Robbie Gibb’s appointment to the BBC board, Gibb having previously served as Theresa May’s communications director in No 10? Where was their indignation at Johnson’s repeated efforts to install Paul Dacre, the long-serving former editor of the wildly partisan Daily Mail, as head of the broadcast regulator Ofcom, or at the bizarre spectacle of Nadine Dorries, the Tory MP, interviewing Johnson, her political heartthrob, on TalkTV?

The problem this government and its tabloid supporters have with the BBC is not with its alleged liberal bias. It is with the corporation’s determined (if sometimes imperfect) pursuit of impartiality – a pursuit that impedes their best efforts to co-opt and politicise our national broadcaster and to bend it to their will.

That is where I really take issue with Lineker, because in his apparent quest for martyrdom he played into the hands of his employer’s enemies.

As one senior BBC insider told me over the weekend, the Lineker row was not just about the right of a famous sports presenter to express his political opinions. “It’s also about something else – how the BBC retains the trust of people of conflicting views in a time of deep political divisions deliberately fuelled by opportunists and populists,” he said. “My worry is that Gary has dragged us into a political and culture war designed to pit those who claim to be on the side of ordinary working people against a ‘blob’ of ‘leftie lawyers’, activists, civil servants and, now, the BBC.”

[See also: Tim Davie and Richard Sharp have lost the BBC dressing room]

He’s right. The Lineker saga has been a disaster for the BBC. It has handed potent ammunition to Tory politicians, and to the Telegraph, Mail, Sun and Express, in their relentless drive to portray the “Brexit Bashing Corporation” as a creature of the liberal metropolitan elite that is hopelessly out of touch with the mass of ordinary people who pay its £159 licence fee.

In 2004 Dominic Cummings, later Boris Johnson’s chief strategist, wrote a blueprint for advancing a right-wing agenda for his think tank, the New Frontiers Foundation. He called the BBC a “mortal enemy”, a “determined propagandist” whose “very existence should be the subject of a very intense and well-funded campaign”. More specifically, he proposed “the undermining of the BBC’s credibility” and “the creation of a Fox News equivalent… to shift the centre of gravity”. The advent of GB News and Rupert Murdoch’s TalkTV has begun that process.

Lineker’s suspension from his Match of the Day duties by Tim Davie, the director-general, has also fuelled the left’s suspicions that the BBC has once again bowed to political pressure from the Tory government – just as it believes the corporation has done in its Brexit coverage. As Keir Starmer observed, the BBC did not act impartially last week by “caving in” to “whingeing Tory MPs”.

The upshot of this sorry mess will be, alas, a further erosion of public support for what is, for all its faults, a genuinely “world-beating” institution. It will give a further boost to the Defund the BBC movement, and it will further enfeeble the broadcaster at a time when our fractured, polarised, ill-informed country desperately needs a trusted, independent source of news and analysis to counter the tsunami of lies and misinformation disseminated by those politicians and newspapers determined to destroy it.

[See also: When will the BBC get over its fear of the right-wing press?]