In an ever-changing world, at least there are some things you can rely on: Suella Braverman frames breaking international law as merely “a novel interpretation of the law”. Conservatives believe that immigration will win them the next election. A government minister thinks a freelance presenter working for the BBC shouldn’t express opinions about anything except football.
Conservatives call for Gary Lineker to be ‘cancelled’
In case you live in a cave with poor web connectivity, the nub of this story is that Gary Lineker tweeted a response to the government’s announcement of new legal measures which they say will prevent refugees and asylum seekers coming to the UK in so-called ‘small boats’.
“Good heavens, this is beyond awful”, he tweeted on Wednesday morning. The previous evening, he had replied to several respondents’ charge that he was “out of order” by saying:
“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?”
Reaction to this was swift and predictable. Immigration minister Robert Jenrick said on LBC’s Nick Ferrari show that Lineker should be sacked by the BBC.
Predictably perhaps, Conservative Party chair Lee ‘30p Lee’ Anderson also waded in with comments to the same effect: “Instead of lecturing, Mr Lineker should stick to reading out the football scores and flogging crisps.”
Braverman herself opined that she was “very disappointed” by the comments and told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that “Equating our measures – which are lawful, necessary and fundamentally compassionate – to 1930s Germany is irresponsible and I disagree with that characterisation.”
This view was not shared by the UNHCR who stated on their website that:
“The legislation, if passed, would amount to an asylum ban – extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be, and with no consideration of their individual circumstances… This would be a clear breach of the Refugee Convention and would undermine a longstanding, humanitarian tradition of which the British people are rightly proud.”
‘I only believe in free speech if I agree, otherwise… ’
Jenrick’s response is interesting on several levels. Firstly, Lineker isn’t a BBC employee. His BBC work is as a freelancer, as he also presents on BT Sport and other outlets. Second, Jenrick appears to assume that any opinion is invalid unless backed with large-scale market research. This logic doesn’t, it appears, apply to government ministers appointed by a PM elected only by their own party’s membership.
Anderson’s contribution is curious given that he’s just joined GB News to host his own opinion-based show, and demonstrates, if nothing else, how long it is since he watched BBC’s Final Score, which Lineker has never presented (unless, of course he is referring to the single occasion Lineker presented Grandstand on the day of the Grand National in 1997 when he stood in for Des Lynam while the usual host anchored from Aintree. Possibly not).
An anonymous BBC spokesperson was quoted as saying Lineker would be “spoken to” and “reminded of his responsibilities”.
However, several people, notably the writer Caitlin Moran on Twitter, pointed out that the BBC’s rules on impartiality only apply to BBC News presenters. Lineker works freelance for BBC Sport.
A quick glance at the BBC conduct guidelines would seem to confirm this. A glance at the relevant section 4.1 states:
“Audiences expect artists, writers and entertainers to have freedom to explore subjects from one perspective and to create content that reflects their own distinctive voice. It must be clear to audiences where personal views are being expressed.”
Football, being an entertainment, would seem to exempt Lineker, plus his words were expressed via his personal Twitter account. In addition, who might “have a word” isn’t clear. The BBC chair, Richard Sharp, embroiled as he is in former PM Boris Johnson’s financial affairs might give it a Ronaldo-style step-over in the circumstances.
Lineker’s comments pass the scrutiny test
However, negative pushback wasn’t typical of the online response. Most of his tweets garnered tens of thousands of likes, some exceeding 100k by midday Wednesday. Various public figures, including Labour MP Jess Phillips and LBC’s liberal phone-in host James O’Brien, offered support and a quick glance through Lineker’s Twitter account replies showed a majority of respondents being sympathetic.
One feature of many of those attacking Lineker on Twitter is how few of them appeared to have their photo attached, prompting some to question whether or not fake accounts and bots might be involved.
So, is Lineker being truthful?
If we take his tweets in turn, there are three main points:
- The UK takes fewer refugees than most countries.
- The government uses inflammatory language “not dissimilar” from that used in 1930s Germany.
- It is a bad (“awful”) thing to adopt a policy the UN considers an “asylum ban”.
On the first point, he appears to be on firm ground. Several of the BBC’s own presenters, like Ros Atkins, have presented fact-based segments in news bulletins showing the UK 19th in Europe on the numbers of refugees taken in. On the second, it is a matter of record that MPs and other agencies have often described the language used by ministers as “inflammatory”.
Braverman certainly couldn’t be accused of playing down the levels of immigration. Despite official figures putting the numbers in the tens of thousands per year, she claimed in several TV interviews that 100 million refugees were coming to the UK. It’s not clear where she plucked this figure from. The best guess is that this figure was given recently by the UN as the total number of people over the whole world fleeing from war, though, perhaps significantly, others have referenced this, not Braverman herself.
The third point is Lineker’s ethical and moral judgement, though even the most ardent Conservative would be hard pushed to reconcile being condemned by the UNHCR as compatible with the idea of ‘Global Britain’.
Step forth all ye hypocrites
So, Lineker appears to be responding to verifiable facts and has formed an opinion about it that government ministers don’t like. Lineker is a sports presenter, and therefore an entertainer, not a news broadcaster. In what sort of country is offering a view contrary to government policy, stating well-based facts, a sacking offence?
The ministers who find Lineker’s alleged impartiality problematic have, so far, not commented on a piece on the BBC news and sport websites regarding a government announcement to promote girls’ football.
The piece is presented 100% positively with no dissenting voices or qualifying statements as to how much actual impact it will have. It reads like a piece of government or Football Association PR puff. There is a glowing endorsement from Rishi Sunak. Maybe, ministers might accept Lee Anderson’s advice and “stick to talking about football?”