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Lineker, Impartiality and Free Speech

Gary Lineker, a BBC presenter and former professional footballer, posted a polarising tweet criticising the Home Secretary’s speech on the 7th of March 2023. This caused a reaction from the BBC, who announced he would not be presenting his usual Match of the Day segment. Some commended Lineker’s stance and condemned the BBC for punishing free speech. Others however questioned how he could be so publicly impartial while contracted to the BBC. 

He has since been reinstated with the BBC, who in turn are promising to review their social media guidelines. 

The sorry saga left no winners - the BBC appeared disordered and weak, while Lineker may not be able to continue to tweet as he does and work for the BBC as the guidelines are reviewed. Whether one sides with Lineker on the matter or the BBC - his comparison of Braverman’s speech to the language used in Germany in the 1930s has created more discussion on maintaining that while we do have free speech, we must also take responsibility for the language we use. We have to accept that we can say what we want, but what we say can be called out and have consequences.

This is not the first time that Lineker has caused problems with the BBC through his Twitter account. In February last year, he made a comment about the Conservatives taking money from Russian donors. The BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit stated then that Lineker’s post did not meet the BBC’s impartiality standards. This is a significant example as it highlighted the blurred lines that come with Lineker being the face of BBC Sports but not a BBC employee. He has been the Match of the Day presenter for almost three decades and is currently the BBC’s highest-paid presenter despite the fact that he is still regarded as a freelance sports presenter and so not technically subject to the same levels of impartiality as directly employed journalists of the BBC are.

The presenters latest tweet has caused the most uproar however and highlighted the issues between his status with the BBC, the BBC’s own rules on impartiality and concern about the consequences or lack thereof of people, particularly those with a large following, freely saying certain things in a poorly worded way. 

Lineker’s tweet was in response to Suella Braverman’s speech about stopping migrant boats crossing the Channel, something that he, like many others, strongly opposes. The BBC, headed by Tim Davie, saw this as a breach of Lineker’s updated impartiality agreement with the BBC, which he signed in 2020 and includes avoiding bringing the BBC into disrepute. Unlike his tweets in the past, this one appeared to be a step too far as he was told to step back from presenting the following episode of Match of the Day. 

This decision became highly publicised and was met with a great divide. Many stood by Lineker’s side, including fellow Match of the Day pundits Alan Shearer and Iain Wright, who both tweeted that they would not be appearing on the show either as a point of solidarity towards their friend and colleague. The BBC’s other football shows Football Focus, Final Score and BBC Radio 5 Live had to be pulled as the presenters of those shows also refused to work in support of Lineker, including Alex Scott, who felt it wouldn’t be right. Another big name to speak in favour of Lineker was blusterer Piers Morgan, who brought up the fact that Lineker is free to voice his opinions as he is not a journalist for the BBC, again rehashing the blurred lines mentioned earlier in regard to Lineker’s contract with the BBC as a freelancer.

On the other hand, there are many who were against Lineker’s response. Former Crystal Palace owner turned radio presenter Simon Jordan saw this as an opportunity for Lineker to leave. He advocated for a new trio of young presenters trying to make their way into the public eye instead of Lineker, who has warred with the BBC over numerous tweets only to remain in his luxurious position. Mark Lawrenson, a former presenter on Match of the Day, argued that Lineker should be sacked along with the others.

Matt Le Tissier, a former football and pundit for Sky Sports was quick to point out the hypocrisy of how Lineker was supported, particularly by Ian Wright. Wright was quick to offer no sympathy to Le Tissier, claiming that it was no bad thing that a middle-aged white man got sacked, only to come out and support Lineker, a man of the exact same status. Unsurprisingly, Braverman herself stated her disappointment in his comments. GBNews also concluded that the tweet was unwarranted, with presenter Nana Akua acknowledging that whether or not Lineker is a freelancer for the BBC, he would still be, and clearly is, bound by rules of impartiality. She went on to encourage him to leave the BBC if he really did want to speak his mind without repercussion, as she herself did when she left the BBC and ended up working for GBNews.

This aftermath has created a pressing issue with the words that Lineker used, and therefore the big discussion of accepting the potential consequences that can result from expressing ones freedom of speech. While it is clear there was opposition to Lineker for not remaining impartial, his decision to use 1930s Germany as a comparison to politics in the UK has sparked ongoing outrage - myself included. Nana Akua made a point about the insensitivity and ignorance of such a comparison, while Braverman herself saw it as unhelpful to use such an analogy when talking about politics.

Some of those who defended Lineker point out that he did not use the word ‘Nazi’ when referring to the language of Braverman in her speech, but it was clearly a deliberate phrasing to demonstrate the severity, Lineker felt, about her language. It certainly wasn’t a coincidence that Lineker cited this exact period of Germany, but it was one made ignorant of facts.

As early as 1933, for example, a law was passed allowing for forced sterilisation of those deemed ‘unfit’. This included people with mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and epilepsy. This is one example of what the lawful language was in early 1930s Germany, and of course, the murder and hate continued and increased, ultimately leading to war in 1939. 

In summation, Lineker’s tweet opened up a national discussion for both calling out the BBC and their unclear impartiality rules, as well as providing clarification on the fact that ultimately Lineker, like the rest of us in this country, does have free speech, but we must also accept the consequences that go along with it - which, in Lineker’s case, was a potential breach of contract. Despite this resolution in terms of the BBC u-turning and reinstating Lineker, who accepted, the discussion about freely expressing one's opinion continues beyond this story. Ultimately, if one wants to say something, one can, but in order to avoid misunderstanding, ignorance or condemnation, it is best to make sure that what is said is well-informed and compassionate, whether agreeing with the issue or not.

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Tags: Immigration Government Twitter Free Speech BBC Lineker GB News Match of the Day Braverman Home Secretary


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