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Was this really “Match of the Day”?
UK’s news agenda was briefly dominated by a contest in which both sides turned in a poor performance
As a society, we are so used to the idea that freedom of speech is a fundamental right that we tend to forget that it is also fundamental to a well-run society that some jobs are reserved to people who voluntarily surrender their right to speak on specific topics. Well-known examples include judges, civil servants and BBC football presenters. But I’m willing to bet that not many people knew about that third group a couple of weeks ago.
It will be interesting to see whether football pundits remain in this special category following the VAR-style re-think that the BBC has promised to carry out after a weekend in which the Saturday night football viewing figures shot up as a large number of people decided to see what it’s like to watch football without a commentator. Turns out it’s a bit like going to a football match but without the travel (and with better toilets).
But what about freedom of speech? Many employers have reasons for not wanting their staff to speak out on certain topics. And some employers even have legitimate reasons. The BBC is one of them. But only up to a point. Which is a problem when someone like Gary Lineker believes he is entitled to make his own point.
As a public service broadcaster, the BBC has a statutory duty to inform, to educate and to facilitate informed debate about news and current affairs. But it is also required to display due impartiality at the same time. The BBC is not unique in being in that position. ITV and Channels 4 and 5 are also public service broadcasters. (Essentially, the term applies to all of the outlets that used to be granted space on the free-to-air analogue spectrum when such a thing existed.)
But the BBC is perhaps alone in frequently tying itself up in knots trying to figure out what impartiality is. Not long ago, an innocent remark by Naga Munchetty flummoxed the BBC into a comical own goal. During lockdown, Dominic Cummings moved his family into a blatantly offside position, but it was Emily Maitlis who was criticised by BBC management for pointing out the offence. And who can forget that, until recently, every climate change discussion on the BBC had to end in a score draw even if the deniers had failed to get a single shot on target.
Faced with so hopeless an opponent, it is hardly surprising that Gary Lineker finds himself comfortably ahead of the BBC after the first leg. But some find it startling that he got himself into a potentially winning position despite employing tactics that backfire when deployed by almost anyone else. Lineker has bucked the trend that, when you invoke the Nazis in an online debate, you lose the argument.
His supporters argue that Lineker didn’t actually invoke Nazi behaviour. He was, they say, merely alluding to language in the early 1930s while the National Socialist party were in government, but before the Holocaust. Nice try, Lineker fans. It’s a tactic deployed by many a hard-tackling player: gesture vehemently that you got the ball. It never works on the football pitch and it shouldn’t work here.
Language associated with alienation and discrimination has existed throughout every decade in which humans have been in contact with people from another country. Mercifully, it is only rarely that xenophobic language turns into genocide. So, yes, of course, it is almost certain that some of the language used in today’s debate about migrants and refugees will have its equivalent in the language used previously. But without Lineker identifying specific examples of words from today’s government which were exclusive to 1930s Germany – or to periods which led to 1930s-style atrocities – the best one can say of his comment is that it was meaningless.
It could have been a very different story. Lineker’s tweet could so easily – even if unintentionally – have generated a widespread belief that today’s government is in some way comparable to the government of 1930s Germany. So, it is right that his remark has been called to account. Not because of some misguided belief that, as a BBC sports presenter, Lineker needs to be impartial. But because, with nearly 9 million followers on Twitter, he really needs to think more carefully about the inflammatory language of his own.