Lineker has exposed the depth of culture wars

Published by The i paper (13th March, 2023)

I have been in Ukraine, reporting on a nation fighting for its future while watching an explosive debate at home sparked by a former footballer’s tweet. Truly, these are weird times.

But let me try to unpick the fuss over Gary Lineker, which shone a spotlight on the government’s latest attempt to weaponise refugees while provoking another crisis for the beleaguered BBC.

I should declare my interests: as an Everton fan, I have natural affinity for someone who responded to jibes from a previous Tory prime minister over his transfer fee by scoring 40 goals and winning the Golden Boot at the 1986 World Cup during his single season at my club.

Lineker tried to bat off Margaret Thatcher’s criticism in parliament of his £800,000 fee with a joke before pointing out she had not understood the issues surrounding money in football. He was sold for £2.8m a year later, the club displaying financial acumen that should have pleased that particular prime minister before going on to win the league.

Now Lineker’s entanglement with another Conservative leader is proving far more serious for both the government and his main employer, disrupting BBC programming and dominating the news agenda.

Let us start with the infamous tweet. Lineker was broadly correct: there is no huge influx – although even without Ukrainians the number of asylum applicants rose last year to its highest level for two decades – while Britain is in the lower half of Europe’s league table in terms of applications per capita. Government policies are hostile towards vulnerable people and some language used by home secretary Suella Braverman has been vile, leading a Holocaust survivor to confront her two months ago.

‘When I hear you using words against refugees like ‘swarms’ and an ‘invasion’, I am reminded of the language used to dehumanise and justify the murder of my family and millions of others,’ said 83-year-old Joan Salter.

So his tweet was defensible. For all the fuss over 45,756 people illegally crossing the Channel last year, Germany has twice taken in more than one million people in the past seven years. Rishi Sunak – whom I first met ten years ago when he told me how much he agreed with my liberal stance on migration – is playing nasty political games by shutting down legal routes for refugees, pressing on with plans to send asylum seekers to a repulsive dictatorship in Rwanda, boasting of pushing human rights laws to the limit and promoting the idea we should blame lefty lawyers if his bid to thwart illegal Channel crossings fails like previous Tory attempts. Labour attacks the Tories but limply offers no solutions, now shown up by Lineker’s stand, while drownings continue and smugglers grow richer.

But was it wise of Lineker, given his prominence as the BBC’s highest-paid presenter and the rising political heat ahead of a looming election and divisions sparked by this issue? Probably not – and I say that as a fellow freelancer. But then Lineker has used his fame to fight for rights of refugees, arguing against dehumanising government policies and housing two in his home. I find this admirable, having spent much of my recent life reporting on conflict and meeting so many folks risking everything to find a more secure life for themselves and their families. Do not forget also the corrosive legacy of our imperial history, disastrous military interventions and backing for brutally-repressive regimes that often lurks behind their plight. 

Yet this furore is laced with dark irony. Lineker may end up helping ministers drive home their message by provoking a fierce row. Studies show our nation becoming more relaxed over immigration; one last month found Britons least likely among 20 Western populations to back strict limits or link it to crime. Yet ministers, behind in the polls, know tough talk on this issue plays well in key Red Wall seats, even if many systemic problems result from gross state incompetence. As former Downing Street pollster James Johnson says, the Match of the Day debacle ensures millions of voters hear about a policy on illegal migrants they like – with support running at 80 per cent amongst 2019 Tory voters, despite the horror in more liberal areas.

But the biggest victim is the BBC, demonstrating again its tragic lack of confidence, inconsistency and managerial incompetence in face of criticism by ending up in a no-win situation. Whatever your view of his tweet, it is disgraceful Lineker gets suspended while the chairman retains his job despite helping fix an £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson, which he failed to declare to an appointments panel before being handed the job.

The director-general witters about impartiality – yet Tory peer Karen Brady stars on The Apprentice while ranting about ‘the asylum crisis’ and criminal migrants in her Sun column. No wonder Tim Davie refused to say if Lineker would have been pulled from air if he had praised Braverman. And he orders staff not to support campaigns ‘no matter how apparently worthy the cause’ – but promotes the aid industry to push an outdated idea that spraying cash around the planet is an indisputable virtue through Comic Relief, which he used to chair.

There are many more examples of BBC hypocrisy as it grapples with impartiality in this age of social media, reliant on a state-imposed tax in a divided country while challenged by wealthy streaming rivals. This affair has exposed both a presenter’s popularity and low BBC morale.

It would be lovely to think the fuss over Lineker’s tweet might provoke serious debate about the need for fresh thinking on refugees, or even on the future of broadcasting. Instead, a former England star finds himself battling a prime minister again – but this time, exposing the depth of our culture wars as feuding factions dig themselves into trenches. It is depressing to witness – especially coming home from a country where people united with such vigour to protect freedoms we take for granted.

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