A British national broadcaster’s self-professed “world’s most famous football show” was an unlikely lightening rod for a fiery debate over UK government policy.
But on Saturday March 11, the BBC’s Match of the Day was at the epicentre of an argument which went to the very top of UK politics.
The chaos was sparked by a tweet from host Gary Lineker in response to the British government’s new Illegal Migration Bill-a set of laws designed to prevent people crossing the channel on small boats to claim asylum.
His initial reaction tweeting “good heavens, this is beyond awful” alongside to a video of home secretary Suella Braverman saying “enough is enough. We must stop the boats” may have ruffled a few feathers, but it was he added to the social media thread that lit the fire.
“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?” He wrote.
Lineker never actually used the word ‘Nazi’, but to Braverman the might as well have done.
Her response showed not only was one of Britain’s most powerful politicians paying attention to what a soccer presenter was tweeting about her policies she was taking it to heart.
“I think it is, from a personal point of view, to hear that characterisation is offensive because – as you said – my husband is Jewish, my children are therefore directly descendant from people who were murdered in gas chambers during the Holocaust,” Braverman said on the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast.
“To kind of throw out those kind of flippant analogies diminishes the unspeakable tragedy that millions of people went through and I don’t think anything that is happening in the UK today can come close to what happened in the Holocaust.”
This riposte turned out to be only the start of an even greater escalation, Lineker’s tweet somehow ended up at the top of the country’s news agenda.
The culture secretary, Lucy Frazer, told the British parliament “as somebody whose grandmother escaped Nazi Germany” she thought the comparison was inappropriate.
Frazer also suggested in was wrong for the presenter to be expressing such views as a representative of a national broadcaster.
This opinion rapidly gained traction because, unlike other media outlets, BBC employees are supposed to adhere to strict rules about impartiality.
These range from journalists obscuring visible branding on items of clothing during live broadcasts, so as not to be seen to endorse a product, to, sometimes controversial, decisions to source speakers from both side of a debate in live TV discussions.
Following this principle has been made a whole lot harder by social media blurring the lines between the personal and professional acts of BBC staff.
Opinions or preferences which would never normally go beyond a reporter’s family and friends are these days broadcast to millions of people and judging what was impartial a harder task.
In the case of Lineker, who has become a pretty outspoken social media personality, there was a helpful loophole the corporation had been using to get out of policing his online activity; he wasn’t technically an employee.
Like many of the other most famous performers on the national broadcaster Lineker is hired on a freelance basis, this not only enables him to front coverage for other media outlets, it also, until now, meant he wasn’t subject to the guidelines in the same way.
As long as he didn’t embark on political speech whilst presenting one of the shows he’d be fine, he was, after all, a sports broadcaster and therefore unlikely to be handling such topics.
However, faced with a barrage of criticism from senior politicians in the government about Lineker’s comments the BBC was willing to take another look at this stance.
After saying it was “in discussions” with the presenter he was eventually asked to take “a step back” from presenting Match of the Day.
But that was only the start of more drama.
The Premier League becomes involved
Starting with regular pundits ex-Arsenal star Ian Wright and Newcastle legend Alan Shearer, but rapidly extending to fringe figures like former Brighton forward Glenn Murray, the on screen talent refused to take to the air in solidarity with Lineker.
Suddenly the BBC found presenters for entirely separate soccer shows were refusing to work while Lineker’s situation was unresolved and it faced the prospect of either cancelations or radical alterations to formats.
As is increasingly the case, the next group to become involved were the players and clubs who, it was reportedly discussed whether speaking to the BBC would be viewed as a ‘political act.’
Perhaps heading off any embarrassing situations that might unfold the BBC pulled all its TV interviews.
But it turned out blushes wouldn’t be spared because as the first Premier League game following the crisis concluded Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was asked to comment on the situation anyway.
“I’m not sure if it is a language issue or not but that is the world we are living in. Everybody wants to be so concerned about doing things in the right manner, saying the right stuff. If you don’t do that then you create a s***storm, it is a really difficult world to live in,” he told reporters
Before adding: ”If I understand it right, it is a message, an opinion about human rights and that should be possible to say.”
Hearing a Premier League manager discussing a tweet about government policy which has caused chaos at a national broadcaster perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise.
Since the stance taken by soccer players in connection to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, the division between sports and politics has been pretty much obliterated.
From discussions about ethics because of who hosts a World Cup to social media posts about government policy; dealing with these issues is English soccers new reality.