This article was updated and expanded at 8.30am, Saturday March 11, reflecting the news that Gary Lineker and all Match of the Day presenters, pundits and commentators have stepped away from presenting the show.
Interviewing the great American athlete Michael Johnson recently, I asked him how much it irritated him that whenever he expressed a view on politics or the state of the world, he was immediately urged to “stick to sport.”
“A lot,” was the answer. And though once he felt that it was a matter of individual choice whether a sportsman or woman chose to ‘use their platform’ for social good, and to help fight some of the burning injustices in the world, he believed today they have not only the right to speak out, but the duty.
Repressive forces, symbolised by Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency, don’t want fairness, he said. They don’t want equality. They want to reverse progress made on so many fronts.
“I would love to stick to sport,” he said, “but I can’t. The issues are too
important. We have a platform that is too important not to be used.”
Gary Lineker, like his fellow former footballer turned social commentator Gary Neville, is used to being told to “stick to football” by some among their millions of social media followers, and by Tory MPs who would like nothing better than to have them speak out on politics if they were urging their followers to back the government.
The critics are usually the same people who claim that their right wing populism is motivated by a belief in ‘free speech’ which ‘snowflakes’
like Lineker want to deny them.
So the BBC, which sees nothing wrong in having a chairman who made huge
donations to the Tory Party, and who helped Boris Johnson secure an £800,000 loan, decided it would ‘speak to’ the former England international who is now the Corporation’s highest-paid presenter. I don’t know whether the “speaking to” was done by said chairman and close pal of Rishi Sunak, Richard Sharp.
Perhaps it might have been left to Robbie Gibb, formerly head of BBC
Westminster who wafted effortlessly from that role to being a full-time Tory
propagandist, before landing a senior role back at the Beeb, where he helped
ensure the impact of Brexit and sundry other government failures were played down, all the while enjoying the conventional media wisdom that the place was full of liberal pinko lefties.
Whoever it was, it led to Lineker standing up for his rights, standing up for refugees, and refusing to toe the line simply because a bunch of hard right Tory MPs and right-wing rags had whipped up a frenzy. Result: Commentator-less Match Of The Day in chaos, some of the country’s best-known and most loved pundits on strike, utter confusion among freelance
presenters, and Suella Braverman’s Bill and Sunak’s trip to France drowned
out in all the noise. Is there anything this government can do competently?
Let’s just take a look at what Lineker said that caused such offence, and
enabling rentaquote Tory MPs to move from synthetic rage about civil servant Sue Gray’s appointment to Keir Starmer’s team to synthetic rage about the Match Of The Day presenter’s Twitter account.
“Good heavens, this is awful,” he said of the home secretary’s video message
about her new Illegal Migrants Bill. Given that on the face of the Bill the
possibility that the policy may itself be in contravention of the law is admitted by Suella Braverman, “awful”, in a country supposedly governed by the rule of law, is pretty mild.
It’s as though “illegal” is there to describe the Bill, not the migrants who would now, whatever their story, be incarcerated and deported, though at this stage nobody, least of all Braverman, knows where or how. Sounds pretty awful to me.
Then, when the usual “stick to football” right wing snowflakes piled in on
Twitter, Lineker added: “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?”
No huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European
countries. That is what we call a FACT. Indeed Ros Atkins, one of those BBC
journalists still able to resist the coverage of politics as gossip and theatre, had recently done a short film making exactly that point. With facts. I could add that it is not just other European countries that take more than we do. Here are the world’s top ten. Turkey. Lebanon. Syria. Germany. Uganda. Bangladesh. Greece. Canada. Pakistan. USA. Sweden.
Yet to hear Sunak and Braverman and their many media cheerleaders, the
whole world is trying to come here. “100 million of them,” said Braverman,
ludicrously, Sunak nodding and smiling behind her on the Commons front
bench. In the Mail she then upped that to “billions.” We are being invaded,
apparently. By swarms, apparently. Helped by lefty lawyers, apparently. And unless we support this new policy we are all “betraying Britain”, apparently. Yes, if you don’t sign up to every line of the Braverman Bill, you’re basically a traitor, a message screaming at you every time you pass a
Language not dissimilar to Germany in the 1930s, said Lineker. Too bloody right. Swarms. Invasions. Left-wing lawyers. The liberal elite. They all starred in the story of the rise of fascism. Judges as “Enemies of the People?” Remember that one, which not a single member of this government condemned? Exactly what the pro-Hitler press called judges in the ’30s.
Indeed, if I were doing a media studies PhD right now I would be tempted to analyse the similarities between Der Stürmer and the Völkischer Beobachter in 30s Germany and the Mail, Express and Co of recent decades here, in terms of headlines, story selection, consistency of populist messaging, denial of critical voices.
I am up to speed on this right now, having researched it all for the book I have just finished on how our political and media culture has gone all wrong, and what we need to do to fix it.
Polarisation. Populism. Post-truth. The 3Ps of modern autocracy. I honestly
thought Sunak might be different. He is certainly not as incontinently dishonest as Johnson, or as utterly useless as Liz Truss. But that is such a low bar it is hardly worth making the comparison.
On the 3Ps, at his “Stop The Boats” press conference and in his exchanges with Keir Starmer in the Commons, he showed himself to be just as bad as his predecessors.
I have written at length about 3P autocrats and the parallels between today and the 30s in the book, But What Can I Do?, which is out in May. At the end of a passage about Anne Frank, I recall a speech by Camilla Parker Bowles at an Anne Frank Trust lunch in 2020. She said she would “never forget” a speech she had heard by Marian Turski, a Holocaust survivor who had talked about the laws discriminating against Jews in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and the relevance of this to our own time.
“He described how people – victims, perpetrators and witnesses – can gradually become desensitised to the exclusion, the stigmatisation and the alienation of those who have previously been friends. Marian warned us that this can happen again. But he gave us, too, the answer to preventing it: “You should never, ever be a bystander”.”
Camilla continued: “Let us not be bystanders to injustice or prejudice. After all, surely our personal values are measured by the things we are prepared to ignore.”
She was not speaking about today, or about the country of which she will soon be Queen Consort. However, that central message, that we should never be bystanders to injustice or prejudice is highly relevant to the UK today, because there is so much of both, and the Tories are spreading one and exploiting the other.
That is the message Gary Lineker was speaking to. So should anyone with a
voice, and a platform, and concern about what kind of country this is
becoming. So well done Ian Wright. Well done Alan Shearer. Well done Mark Chapman and Alex Scott. Well done Steve Wilson and Jonathan Pearce and Conor Macnamara and all the other commentators who refused to be bystanders and downed their microphones in protest.
Now let’s all of us refuse to be bystanders in the creeping right wing
authoritarianism that gave us “will of the people” Brexit, is undermining the
judiciary, curbing protest, making it harder for young and poor people to
vote, easier for the Tories to break election law, easier to reward their
friends and donors with power and public money, all surrounded by
industrial-scale lying and gaslighting ventilated by right wing rags and their
new friends and fellow ventilators across TV and radio who cow the rest of
the media into pandering to, rather than challenging, their vile agenda.
Gary Lineker is at the centre of the storm now. But, with all due
respect to a great footballer turned terrific broadcaster, this was about
bigger things than him. It was about what sort of country we are becoming. It was about what happens when the seeds of fascism are being sewn, and we are too slow to see what that might reap.
The great service done by the row Lineker provoked is that, finally, people are starting to wake up to the dangers.