It is said that the British are resistant to change. This, after all, is a country where the peaceful departure of a 96-year-old monarch can dominate the news cycle for weeks, where tennis players at Wimbledon can be asked to change outfits if they break the all-white dress code by wearing too much color, where some private members’ clubs in central London still refuse to admit women, and where graduation ceremonies at Oxford and Cambridge are still conducted in Latin.
Put yourself in the shoes, then, of the nearly 2.5 million viewers who tuned in on Saturday evening to watch Match of the Day—the British Broadcasting Corporation’s weekly football highlights show—only to discover that the typically two-hour-long broadcast had been condensed to 20 minutes of action without accompanying commentary and studio analysis. As someone who grew up on Match of the Day, which has been running in the same format for as long as I’ve been living, the experience was akin to being ejected from your favorite restaurant before finishing your soup.
The reason behind the butchering of the broadcast was, as it happens, unrelated to football. BBC employees had refused to work on the program after their colleague the former England captain Gary Lineker, who has presented the show since the late 1990s, was suspended for a tweet criticizing the Conservative government’s controversial asylum bill.
The “Illegal Migration Bill”—unveiled on March 7—permits the secretary of state for the Home Department to “make arrangements for the removal of people who enter the UK illegally…regardless of whether the person has submitted a legal claim challenging their removal, including an application for judicial review.” The bill further stipulates that the home secretary would be duty bound in such an instance to refuse to process any asylum claim, “along with any claim that removal to their country of origin would be a breach of their human rights.”
According to the government, the proposed legislation, which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has called a clear breach of the 1951 Refugee Convention, is an attempt to stop asylum seekers from taking non-seaworthy boats to cross the English channel, a perilous journey that has claimed countless lives. Critics, meanwhile, have called it an attempt to use public anxiety over immigration to fashion a reactionary narrative capable of reviving the political fortunes of a party that has been racked by allegations of sleaziness and incompetence. “This bill will mean that if you come here illegally, you will not be able to stay,” said the secretary of state for the Home Department, Suella Braverman, in a video message unveiling the legislation. “Enough is enough,” she concluded. “We must stop the boats.”
Lineker took to Twitter to respond to Braverman’s message. “Good heavens, this is beyond awful,” he said. When criticized by a follower, he published a second tweet in which he doubled down on his opinion. “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?”
"swipe left below to view more authors"Swipe →
Lineker’s tweets raised the ire of several conservative ministers who raised questions about the BBC’s impartiality both in Parliament and during media appearances, leading the publicly funded broadcaster to suspend Lineker from hosting Saturday’s edition of Match of the Day. A spokesperson for the BBC explained that Lineker had been suspended because his social media activity had been “in breach” of the corporation’s guidelines on impartiality. “We have never said that Gary should be an opinion-free zone, or that he can’t have a view on issues that matter to him, but we have said that he should keep well away from taking sides on party political issues or political controversies,” they added.
Except that the BBC’s impartiality guidelines aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. On the contrary, the events of the week have demonstrated just how deeply the British right has sunk its tentacles into the organization. Among the more egregious examples of conservative cronyism at the heart of the BBC—and there are too many to list here—was the appointment in February 2021 of Richard Sharp as chairman and head of the BBC board. A former investment banker who spent 23 years at Goldman Sachs, Sharp has made donations in excess of £400,000 to the Conservative party and was instrumental in helping Conservative former Prime Minister Boris Johnson to secure a loan of twice that amount while the latter was in office.
No less troubling is the influence of BBC board member Sir Robbie Gibb, who has served as chief of staff to former Conservative member of Parliament Francis Maude and as director of communications to Conservative former Prime Minister Theresa May. The journalist Emily Maitlis, who spent more than two decades at the BBC, described Sir Robbie as “an active agent of the Conservative party” and alluded to the hypocrisy of allowing him to serve as an arbiter of impartiality in the corporation’s news output.
In stark contrast to the way Lineker was treated, the BBC was happy to employ Andrew Neil as its chief interviewer, even though Neil was (and remains) chairman of The Spectator, a weekly magazine of current affairs and conservative opinion that is notorious for publishing some of Britain’s most inflammatory columnists. Neil himself has often used social media to comment on public policy in a way that could be described as partisan—to say the least.
If there is anything to be gleaned from the controversy over Lineker’s tweets it is that there are different rules for the right than there are for the left. This is, in and of itself, unsurprising. Of the 10 most popular newspapers in the United Kingdom, seven are owned by right-wing ideologues, which means that the political discourse is constantly being shaped from the right rather than the left. In such a partisan and ruthless news environment, to deviate from the conservative status quo is to invite more scrutiny than the BBC is capable of withstanding, especially as it is forever being threatened by the loss of public funding.
But the controversy has also shown the power of collective action. When the presenter was taken off air, dozens of his colleagues at the BBC decided not to participate in the program. The impromptu strike meant that the BBC had to broadcast the football without presenters, pundits, or commentators. In the end, the director general of the corporation, Tim Davie, himself a former Conservative candidate for public office, admitted that the BBC had to rethink its guidelines around impartiality. “I’m very sorry for the disruption,” he said. “What I would say is that we’ve been listening hard. We care about our audiences…. I think we have to do a bit of thinking about the balance between how you are delivering impartiality and also the ability for people to—particularly freelancers—say things online.”
As of Tuesday, Lineker was reinstated as presenter of Match of the Day. But the crisis has had a potentially longer-lasting effect: It has exposed the politicization of one of Britain’s most beloved and influential organizations and delivered a blueprint to the left on how to resist right-wing hysteria. It may be the most important goal of Gary Lineker’s career.