Former footballer turned TV presenter’s criticism of draft legislation to ‘Stop the small boats’ sparks a big argument over ‘impartiality’ at the BBC.
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With an election likely next year and, currently, 19 points behind the opposition Labour party in the opinion polls, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government is in deep trouble. To stay in power, it must win again the poorer, traditionally Labour party supporting, areas that voted Conservative in 2019. The government has decided that the best way to keep those seats is not to invest the money those places desperately need, but, instead, to focus on immigration, a traditionally unpopular subject in poorer areas of the UK.

Sunak’s rallying cry is a promise to ‘Stop the small boats!’- namely preventing asylum-seekers being sent by human traffickers across the English Channel from France on small, crowded, inflatable dinghies to enter the UK. The government’s plan is to deter the ‘boats’ by passing a law making it impossible for anyone entering the UK illegally to claim asylum. Anyone who does, will be immediately deported to their home country or a ‘safe’ third country, such as Rwanda, which the UK is willing to pay to take asylum seekers. There will be no right of appeal or any legal representation.

Many think the government’s plan is against international law. Many more believe it inhuman. Among those is England football hero Gary Lineker, who presents the BBC’s (British Broadcasting Corporation’s)flagship football programme, Match of the Day. In a Tweet on 7 March, Lineker said that there is no ‘influx’ of refugees. He has a point. Some 45,756 people crossed the English Channel illegally in small boats in 2022. This compares to 75,000 people who, inexplicably, go to Old Trafford to watch Manchester United every other week. Lineker went on to describe the proposed new law as ‘immeasurably cruel’ and the language used against refugees as not ‘dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 1930s’.

How dare he?

Lineker’s reference to Nazi Germany sparked predictable outrage on the political right. Government ministers and supporters criticised Linker fiercely. Some argued that as a high- profile TV presenter, he had breached the BBC’s guidelines on impartiality. In response, the BBC announced that Lineker would not present the Match of the Day scheduled for 11 March, adding that while he was entitled to his opinions, Lineker should not take sides on ‘political controversies’.

Then the real storm started as the argument shifted from refugees and ‘impartiality’ to one of free speech. Lineker’s colleagues ex-Newcastle and ex-Arsenal strikers Alan Shearer and Ian Wright, both former England players, along with other commentators and staff refused to appear on Match of the Dayor any of the BBC’s football programmes. The usual 90 minutes of football on a Saturday night was cut to 20 minutes with no commentary or analysis. It was pointed out that other BBC employees who had supported the government’s asylum-seeker plans had not been accused of being impartial.

The real concern was the BBC management was not neutral and that it acted against Lineker because of pressure from the government. The Conservative party has long criticised the BBC of bias, supporting a left-wing agenda and being over-critical of the government, conveniently overlooking the fact that it is the BBC’s job to question any government. The BBC is funded uniquely by a licence fee that all TV owners must pay. The licence is at around Euro 180 a year, is about the same as a Netflix subscription, except that the BBC also provides world, national and local news, radio and one of the world’s best websites. The BBC is a public broadcaster whose operating charter is renewed every 10 years. Successive Conservative governments have threatened to privatise the BBC, but have never, yet, dared.

Partial impartiality

Accusations of the government interfering in the BBC over Lineker were strengthened by the Conservative party’s close connections with the two people holding the most senior posts at the BBC, its chairman Richard Sharp and its director-general Tim Davie. Sharp, who took the decision to suspend Linker, faces two investigations into his appointment as chairman in February 2021. It has emerged that Sharp donated around Euro 450,000 to the Conservative party. He also helped ‘facilitate’ a Euro 900,000 loan to the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, who recommended Sharp for the post. Sharp was also Rishi Sunak’s boss when they worked together at Goldman Sachs.Davie has been at the BBC since 2005. He was made director-general in 2020. Davie was a conservative party candidate for local elections in London in 1993 and 1994.  This is not to say that the two men cannot put personal politics aside to work professionally for the interests of the BBC, but both have had their credibility and their own impartiality damaged.

Lineker has now been reinstated. Director-General Davie has said that Linker has agreed to abide by editorial guidelines, while the BBC reviewed its social media policy. Davie is trying to save face. There is no evidence that Linker broke any guidelines, which apply to political reporters, not the personal comments of football presenters. For his part, Lineker has graciously thanked all those who supported him and said that the issue was blown out of all proportion. Match of the Day is back, and Saturday nights have returned to normal.

For its part, the UK government continues with its plans to ‘Stop the small boats!’ and the draft legislation passed its first stage in parliament on 13 March. Not all the Conservative MPs who did not vote oppose the government’s plans. Many Conservative MPs from traditional Labour party supporting areas support the ‘Stop the small boats!’ campaign, believing that it will help them to be re-elected. It is true that poorer people tend to support anti-immigration policies. Based on what they are often told, poorer people often conflate asylum-seekers and economic migrants. They alsolink immigration to cuts in and demand on public services, which are, in reality, very different issues. However, the Conservative party is mistaken if it thinks that poorer people favour cruelty. They want the boats stopped because they oppose illegal entry into the UK. They do not oppose granting asylum-seekers legal ways to come to the UK, something that the UK government has refused to do in its proposed legislation.

The UK government’s attempts to use immigration as a ‘culture war’ issue is unlikely to be a successful as they hope. Indeed, its draft law may not be passed. This sordid affair proves two things. First, that it is easier to bully vulnerable asylum-seekers desperate for some form of security than it is to browbeat rich, white men, especially, if they are famous footballers. And second, that governments, no matter how desperate, should not mess with Match of the Day.

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