Gary Lineker’s Match of the Day saga is a depressing sign of the times for the UK If the BBC won’t support someone so famous and beloved, what are the chances they’ll back a lowly reporter trying to hold the Tories to account?
Gary Lineker must sit back and wonder sometimes how it got to this. How did he, the world’s most manifestly vanilla [normal] footballer, the apogee of mild-mannered English decorum when he played, how did that guy become a figure of UK-wide national outrage? It’s like hearing Cliff Richard turned out to be a crypto bro or that Su Pollard’s third act was as head of Combat 18. It doesn’t compute.
This is Gary Winston Lineker we’re talking about. Yes, after Churchill. A sportsman so bland, so studiously inoffensive that he went through his entire career without once getting booked. Who actually began his post-football life as a pundit but was so unopinionated that the BBC had to find another role for him. Too nice for the Match of the Day couch – has faint praise ever been so damning?
Yet if you cocked an ear to our friends across the water this week, you’d come away convinced that the very fate of modern Britain is predicated on Gary Lineker’s Twitter account. Depending on where you’re standing, Lineker is either a Martin Luther King for the 21st century or a pinko disgrace and a danger to the state. This is quite the turn of events.
His tweets this week comparing the pointedly cruel language of Tory Home Secretary Suella Braverman on refugees “to that used in Germany in the 1930s” has plonked him right into the nexus of the culture wars over there. For the foreseeable future – and most likely long after it – he will be a lightning rod for the peculiar brand of conservative English mania that has taken hold of post-Brexit Britain.
It’s wild when you think about it. A man so devoted to the quiet life in his playing days that he preferred snooker to golf as a post-training pastime on the basis that it was less tiring – true story! – has somehow been reinvented as a scourge of government, a voice for the voiceless, a truth-teller in a world of right-wing spivs and charlatans. All because he uses his platform and his 8.7 million Twitter followers to occasionally talk with humanity and decency about the world around him.
When you step back from it, the most interesting aspect of the week wasn’t that he had a go at a sitting Tory minister. It wasn’t that he compared her words to those of Nazis in the 1930s. And it definitely wasn’t the risible notion that his Twitter account was somehow a threat to the BBC’s sacred impartiality.
No, far more interesting was the fact that it worked. The BBC got spooked and didn’t stand by their man. They tried to browbeat Lineker into an apology and when he refused, they pulled him off air. One of the great institutions of British life ultimately quailed at the feet of the Tory government and the right-wing press. In doing so, they provided a lovely distraction from the troubles of the former and dished up a tasty weekend morsel to feed the beast for the latter.
So much of this stuff is noise, peddled for profit, nakedly disingenuous rabble-rousing. Bad enough that the BBC had already led their two most-watched news bulletins on Wednesday evening with Lineker’s Tweets around Braverman’s refugee policy rather than the refugee policy itself. Imagine the delight in Tory HQ when they saw that. Another day down, another news cycle survived. What’s next off the bullshit conveyor belt?
Well, it turns out nothing is. Roll on a couple more days and by Friday afternoon, the BBC had decided to pull Lineker off-air altogether. Oh, how green must the valley have been in the Home Office when the news came through. Nobody is spending the weekend talking about brown people dying in boats in the English Channel. Everything is centred now on the Twitter account of an English sporting hero. They’ve had a right result here.
The BBC had a busy day, as it happens. Even the sainted David Attenborough fell foul of them. It was reported earlier in the day that the final episode of his upcoming series on wildlife in the British Isles won’t be shown on the mainstream BBC for fear of upsetting right-wing politicians and press. It will instead be held back and only be shown on the iPlayer.
Imagine telling someone in 1990 that the BBC would one day side with government and anti-immigration, anti-environment vested interests over Gary Lineker and David Attenborough? They’d wonder what sort of dark dystopian Britain the future had in store. That’s the power of the people Lineker has annoyed this week.
Here’s the really depressing thing. If Gary Lineker can’t survive a week of the culture wars, who can? Lineker is a genuine sporting giant, one of England’s all-time 24-carat greats. And in his second life, he has been an established feature of the sporting landscape in the UK for over a quarter of a century. Nothing that’s said about him in the Daily Mail or the Telegraph or even on the BBC will change any of that.
Put it this way. By pulling him from Match of the Day, the BBC have probably put him out on the open market. Who loses? Not Lineker. He’ll have no shortage of suitors only delighted to pay him the £1.3m a year he gets from the BBC. And when it comes to his Twitter account, do you can the suits in Sky or BT or wherever give a tuppenny damn what he says? Or will they just see the 8.7m followers he brings with him and hope he doesn’t ask for an extra million quid because of them?
Gary Lineker will be fine. But if he can’t stand up against a politician like Braverman, someone who describes seeing a plane leave Heathrow for Rwanda filled with asylum seekers as “my dream, my obsession”, who will?
If the might of the BBC isn’t deployed to support somebody as famous and beloved as Lineker, what are the chances they’ll back a lowly reporter trying to hold the Tories to account? And if someone like Lineker gets chewed up by the culture wars machine, what does that say to the next generation of sportspeople when it comes to standing up for the downtrodden and the vulnerable?
Nothing good, that’s for sure.
Ed: Here’s a link to Malachy Clerkin’s original article in the Irish TImes.