The BBC – which appears to be the blatantly bungling corporation – has, as the old expression goes, got its knickers in a twist. It has suspended its most popular on-screen sports-pundit and presenter Gary Lineker, football hero and outspoken critic of the present Tory government.
Here’s what happened. The Home Secretary Suella Braverman, announced a new bill she was introducing to the Westminster parliament to keep ‘illegal migrants’, who enter Britain by small boats crossing the English Channel from France, out of the country.
The bill doesn’t exactly say how this is going to be done, but Braverman promised parliament that her bill has the severe intention of forbidding anyone who arrives by boat from applying for asylum, no matter what the anti-humanitarian circumstances may have been. Many of them pay migrant-traffickers to get on that boat and risk the hazardous crossing.
Braverman’s announcement, which has the desperate backing of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, is a febrile attempt to claw back some public political support. Sunak’s government is in deep trouble, unable to solve the economic and social crises that a decade and more of Tory government and their embracing of Brexit have brought about.
The cost-of-living crisis has forced millions of Britons – no, not earthquake hit Syrians (you read it correctly: British citizens!) – to rely on ‘food banks’ to feed themselves and their children. The price of fuel has caused millions of this same population to have to chose between heating their homes and a square meal a day.
Organised and unionised workers in sectors such as the railways, postal services, immigration office, ambulance workers, fire engine service, nurses, care home staff and junior doctors among others have initiated and threatened further strike action as their wages are falling far behind the 11% rate of inflation. The National Health Service seems in terminal decline under this and previous Tory governments. Labour shortages have crippled the transport and hospitality industries.
I could go on, but let the poll statistics speak instead: over half of the population now believe that Brexit, supported and campaigned for by both Sunak and Braverman, was a grave mistake. The Tory party is according to several opinion polls the furthest behind the Labour Party it has ever been.
Yes, Braverman and Sunak have reason to be desperate as they want to cling on to office. Sending 800 asylum seekers to Rwanda, or spending £500 million on a detention home in France for would-be boat-crossers won’t stop others taking boats and landing up on the shores of this sceptred isle. None of these proposals will do anything to solve the crises that beleaguer the nation.
So Braverman and Sunak have been reaching for the rhetoric that they feel will be popular with the electorate. Keep Johnny Foreigner out! Or as Braverman said in parliament, “Stop the invasion”.
There you have it, the context in which Gary Lineker tweeted that he wanted to speak on behalf of those who have no voice. His tweet, in reaction to Braverman’s legislative proposal said, “This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the ’30s, and I’m out of order?”
There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order?
— Gary Lineker 💙💛 (@GaryLineker) March 7, 2023
At first the BBC said they would take no action against Lineker for expressing his private views on a political matter. After all, he had on previous occasions tweeted his opinions opposing Brexit and on other matters which could be deemed ‘political’. The BBC’s initial decision to turn a blind eye to Lineker’s free speech was fair enough as Lineker is a freelance commentator who analyses football games on the popular show ‘Match of The Day.’ His personal political opinions, accessed by 9 million people, are never about whether Manchester United should score decisively against Tottenham Hotspurs. They are about fairness in political speech and action.
But then the BBC changed its mind.
Its policy for ‘employees’ clearly states that thy should not publicly express any political bias as this would or may transgress the political impartiality of their pronouncements on screen. It’s pretty obvious that this injunction must prevail in the case of political and news commentators who are salaried employees of the BBC. It also does and should apply to those who edit or commission items and programmes and don’t appear on screen.
Allow me to deviate with a personal but relevant anecdote. In the late 1990s when I was an employee as a commissioning editor for Channel 4, I was invited to lunch by a Labour parliamentary candidate, the wife of a popular author, to meet with Labour MPs Peter Mandelson and Robin Cook. I went to the lunch. Writer Hanif Kureishi was also invited. Mandelson explained why we were there. A general election was soon to happen and the Labour Party wanted the two of us, among others of course, to write speeches for Labour candidates to mouth.
Between starters and the main course, served in this Labour candidate’s mansion by South East Asian domestic workers, I asked whether we could make up policy. It was just mischief and of course they said they would dictate policy. We were, as Labour sympathisers, being asked to put it into appealing, convincing words.
I went back to my office at Channel 4 and thought I should report the proceedings at lunch to my immediate boss, Liz Forgan, the Director of Programmes. Her response was, “Absolutely not.” As a commissioning editor I could not publicly side with any political party as that would indicate a violation of the political impartiality of Channel 4.
Back to the present, 24 hours after the decision to overlook Gary’s tweet, the BBC decided to censor him. They suspended him from presenting ‘Match of the Day’ on Saturday, March 11. The Director General of the BBC, Tim Davie, was careful to say that it wasn’t a dismissal but a suspension pending an enquiry into how the guidelines on political impartiality ought to apply to Gary Lineker and others in the same relationship of employment.
The suspension proved to be a disaster.
The BBC (basically blundering cop-out?) didn’t foresee the consequence of this suspension. Not only did it dominate the headlines over every bit of national and international news and concern, it resulted in the withdrawal from on-screen games commentary by all, possibly 15 or 20, presenters of sports programmes on the channel.
Prominent names declared that they were withdrawing their services, self-suspending in solidarity with Gary Lineker. None of them, as far as the reportage went, said that they completely agreed with the views expressed on his tweet – that Braverman’s pronouncements and plans had some similarity to those of the 1930s in Germany. He wasn’t exactly saying the two ministers were Nazis. Not exactly. So his colleagues weren’t endorsing the substance of his tweet but were making a concerted gesture to support his freedom to speak, or, in this case, tweet.
In addition, the Football Association announced that it was requesting its members, the players, to deny the BBC any interviews about the games in support of Lineker.
The damage to BBC’s sports coverage was devastating.
Its Saturday football coverage had no commentators on the programmes and had to be cut short. The sports fans dedicated to watching these programmes were not amused. I assume that most of these millions of fans couldn’t give a damn what Lineker thought.
Perhaps a substantial majority of these fans would support Braverman’s “stop the invasion” rhetoric and might even be swayed to vote for the Tories as this proposed legislation was attempting to achieve.
The elephantine or mammoth question is why did Tim Davie make this U-turn? Did the BBC have its arm twisted by the Tories?
Here’s the likelihood and the shame of it: the Chairman of the BBC’s board of Directors is one Richard Sharp. He was appointed to the position by Boris Johnson when he was PM. Sharp is an ex-banker, and his appointment to this extremely prestigious and important position are the subject of a public enquiry as it is alleged that Sharp was instrumental in securing an £800,000 private loan to Boris and was rewarded with this post.
I started by saying the Beeb has its knickers in a twist. I should modify that to conclude that the Beeb has its knickers in a fist, possibly Richard Sharp’s Tory fist?
Lineker refuses to retract, apologise or in any way modify what he tweeted. Tim Davie says he is doing everything to resolve the dilemma of what his most popular commentator can and cannot opine. Davie should say that he is hell-bent on finding some way to wriggle out of a situation which should in all fairness result in his resignation. The hippopotamal hypocrisy of the corporation consists in the fact that Richard Sharp has not suspended himself or been suspended from his post while an investigation is being carried out, while Lineker, probably with Sharp’s consent, knowledge or even demand, has been.
There’s more. Another star of BBC programming is one Alan Sugar who presents a show called ‘The Apprentice’ in which he sets young people wanting to join his capitalist empire some team tasks. He then eliminates candidates till he gets to the last one who is then rewarded by joining his firm as an apprentice. In the past weeks and months Sugar has been expressing his political opinions against the railway unions and their representative Mike Lynch. His vituperation against Lynch and the strikers can be seen to be political in its context. Sugar wasn’t suspended or told to cease and desist.
— Lord Sugar (@Lord_Sugar) March 11, 2023
Parallel to the row over whether Lineker’s suspension was manipulated by the Tories who are understandably apprehensive about such a popular figure criticising their Home Secretary and what they see as a key vote-winning policy, is an allegation that the BBC has ‘censored’ a popular critical programme.
David Attenborough, the well known naturalist, is another extremely popular programme-maker and presence on the Beeb’s screens. His latest series of programmes examines the effects of climate change and other human activity on the British Isles. Out of the six programmes he has made, the last one is dedicated to the destruction to wildlife and nature that government policies and neglect have possibly caused.
This programme has, according to some critics of the BBC, been separated from the series and taken off air. The BBC says it was never part of the five-part series and can be accessed on some internet platform. The suspicion lingers that the BBC has acted on a diktat from the climate-change sceptics, the anti-vaxxers and the capitalist developers’ lobbies in the Tory party to censor Attenborough’s critique.
It is no secret that the Tories accuse the BBC of having in-built left-wing bias in its DNA and that their ‘culture’ secretaries have contemplated plans to destroy it by denying it the compulsory license fee which funds it. Nadine Dorries, the minister for culture under Boris Johnson, mooted plans to do just this while also publicly pronouncing that Channel 4 be privatised. She egregiously told parliament that this would save taxpayer’s money – which of course it wouldn’t as Channel 4 is funded by on-screen advertising and costs the taxpayer not a counterfeit penny. Does one really need a minister of culture who doesn’t know the difference between Mozart and mozarella?
Even ignoring Mad Nad, there are persistent voices in the Tory party and in the right-wing commentariat, the sort of people who support Braverman and deny climate change, who persist in their demand that the BBC be ‘defunded’.
By suspending Lineker, Tim Davie is playing into the hands of those who would destroy the corporation and consequently him. He will now undoubtedly come to the conclusion that Gary Lineker deserves no more than a warning and has to return to the screens as soon as possible. Poor Davie has no alternative, apart from resigning and leaving the mess he has created to a successor. There is no chance that Gary Lineker, in pursuit of his continued role on the BBC will agree to refrain from expressing his strong political opinions.
‘Aunty,’ as BBC is known, will have to live with that and no doubt face some antagonistic action from the Tory lobbies, the same hypocrites who profess to be on the side of unlimited free speech.
Farrukh Dhondy is an author and novelist, whose latest book is Hawk and Hyena.