The Gary Lineker Saga

At the weekend, Gary Lineker was stood down from presenting duties on Match of the Day, numerous other commentators and panellists refused to participate in solidarity. The result in the end was severe disruption to the BBC’s sporting schedule.  Some people might argue that this was generally for the better including those who think there’s too much sport on TV and the radio but perhaps also those of us who think that the analysis and discussion is at times questionable and maybe gets in the way of just being able to watch the highlights. However, there are more serious issues at stake here.

Lineker’s suspension  came after he spoke out on twitter about the Government’s latest announcements on immigration policy.  He described the announcement as

“An immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”

What did Gary Lineker tweet? | The Independent

So, was the BBC right to suspend Gary Lineker and was he right to use that language?  Well these are two separate questions and themselves distinct from the original question which was whether or not the Government’s immigration policy was morally and practically justifiable.  As I’ve argued before, I think it is neither and there is a risk of course that debating Gary Lineker distracts from that point. So, let’s make sure we don’t lose it.

Was the suspension right?

This question is about whether or not this amounted to an attack on free speech, especially if it partly resulted from Government pressure.  This means, we must handle the question separately from whether or not Lineker was right to make the argument he did.  You see, we may consider his argument wrong, we may consider it lazy, crass, offensive even but if we believe in free speech then we must accept that disagreeing with or even finding someone and their views offensive is not an excuse to silence them.

However, the primary argument for suspending Lineker was that he breached BBC guidelines on impartiality.  The BBC is in a peculiar position. It’s a state owned entity with public service duties but it is not a state broadcaster in the same way that you might see in other countries. This means that it is not meant to be seen as providing propaganda for the government but of course, it needs to be careful that it does not counter that risk by in effect becoming a mouthpiece for the opposition either.  So the BBC has guidelines for its prominent employees that require them not to be seen to be taking a particular political line. This includes when it comes to their private social media accounts. This is important to note because I frequently see Christian leaders use a disclaimer in their social media profiles to the effect that views expressed do not reflect or represent their employers.  However, it is difficult to disassociate the two. 

On a strict interpretation of those guidelines, it would seem therefore that Gary Lineker was in the wrong and the BBC were right to stand him down.  However, I think it’s a little bit more complex than that. You see, we need to remember what the intent of the guidelines were.  It was to ensure two things, first to help the public to have confidence in the corporation’s news output so that they could be regarded as a trusted voice.  Secondly, it was to protect the BBC itself from becoming a political football between the major parties.  It is a way of helping to preserve its privileged status as publicly owned, royally chartered but editorially independent.

On that basis, the purpose of the guidelines should be to ensure that those who present and comment on news and political items are seen to act impartially.  They should not really apply to a freelancer who is invited in specifically to comment on sport.  We should be more concerned about Gary Lineker’s ability to remain impartial between Spurs and Arsenal than between Labour and Conservatives, providing he does not use MOTD itself as a political platform for his pet projects.  If the guidelines have been interpreted correctly, then I would argue that they themselves are wrong and not fit for purpose. They need to be replaced. 

So, in my opinion, it was wrong to remove Lineker from presenting and this sets a concerning precedent for the future.  Will others be prevented from getting involved in aspects of BBC coverage because of views they’ve expressed?  For example, Dan Walker is a Christian and has been involved in sports and day time TV presenting?  Will his well known religious and ethical views act as a bar to his public role?

Was Gary Lineker right to say what he said?

This question breaks down into two parts as well. The first is whether or not his argument was justifiable and credible. The second is whether or not it was correct.  It could be legitimate for Gary to make the argument he did even if her were wrong.  The response from others should be to show why he was wrong not to denounce him for making it.

The reason why some people believe that Lineker was wrong to make the argument he did was because comparing things we don’t agree with to Nazi Germany is seen as a pretty crass and lazy thing to do.  It has also been suggested that holocaust comparisons would diminish the seriousness of the holocaust and so could be seen as antisemitic. It’s worth noting at this point then two things. First, making comparisons between modern Israel and Nazi Germany/The holocaust is given as an example of something that could be antisemitic. There’s a reason for that, those comparisons can be used not for helpful debate but to cause intentional race based offence.  Secondly, Lineker’s analogy was not specifically to the Holocaust itself but to the way that the 1930s Nazi regime in Germany acted. This is broader than the Genocide initiated against the Jews.

There have been numerous concerns raised over recent years about how UK politicians have acted and spoken in regards to sections of society including immigrants but also to ways in which they’ve been seen to try and circumnavigate constitutional norms as well as perceived attempts to silence dissent in the media and discredit the judiciary and the legal process, especially by politically labelling lawyers who act on behalf of clients against government departments such as in Judicial Review cases and in the obvious example of immigration cases against the Home Office. 

This is important because whilst comparing anything I disagree with  to Nazi Germany may be crass and lazy, if that’s my default, this does not mean that I cannot nor should not ever compare something to then.  This is true, even if there are other examples are available.  One thing that is often not considered is as to why that is the comparison we instinctively choose.  Why, for example do we not make comparisons with Stalin’s Russia, China at various points in the last 50-60 years etc or even if we are thinking about the dehumanisation of migrants and asylum seekers how Jews have been treated here in Great Britain throughout history. 

There’s a very simply reason for this.  There is something about the horrors of Nazi Germany that dominate our collective consciousness to this day.  So, when we seek to reach back into our memories for something comparable, this is the thing that immediately comes to mind. Consider how, when the prophets attempt to find comparisons for what lies ahead for Israel and Judah as they go into exile and will later return, they reach for two big images, one is creation and the Garden of Eden, the other is the Exodus. 

It’s not to diminish the horrors of the 1930s to make the comparison because people are attempting to find the most vivid image possible and because they are rightly or wrongly (wrongly in my humble opinion) afraid that what we are seeing today will lead to comparable horrors tomorrow.  Now perhaps we should ask why some of those other examples do not resonate so strongly. Perhaps they should.

This leads us to the other half of the question.  Whilst I believe it is legitimate to seek to compare with Nazi Germany, I don’t think the comparison is right.  You see, I think there are crucial differences between what we saw then and what we see now.  The specific problem in Germany was not just an expression of authoritarianism or ugly rhetoric. Rather, there was a cult that managed to take over a country motivated by a pseudo-religious ethnically based ideology and with a willingness to kill and destroy for the sake of that ideology. 

Now, whatever you might think of today’s politicians, I would argue that this does not generally describe those at the heart of political life in government and opposition. In fact, generally speaking, despite what they say about each other, they are not driven by much ideology at all. They are there for a mixture of reasons, including a desire to do public good but also to do well for themselves.  In that respect, when they engage in anti-immigration rhetoric it is often a visual presentation to ameliorate their more socially liberal views for the sake of sections of the electorate they need to appeal to.  When they try to circumvent the constitution or avoid accountability from the media, it is usually simply because they want as quiet a life and as easy a ride as possible.

Now, one word of warning here. Just because the protections may be in place now, and just because the particular evil motives are not there does not mean that all is well and there is room for complacency.  The risk of course is that if we allow our constitutional protections to be weakened and the state of public discourse to be diminished or even become toxic then we may well allow the kind of environment for those with a more malign agenda to prosper. 

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