A few days before the BBC took Gary Lineker off Match of the Day because he had tweeted his criticisms of the Tory government’s asylum policies, I happened to be at a festival on the far side of the world.
I was speaking at Writers’ Week in the Australian city of Adelaide, where outrage over a tweet also led to demands to cancel one of the participants, or indeed the whole event. Yet this was not quite the same grim story.
What happened in Adelaide was in fact a good example of what sanity looks like in these situations. It even featured a serving prime minister acting as a rock of good sense.
In this case the tweet that caused offence was almost a year old. In March 2022, not long after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Palestinian-American novelist Susan Abulhawa tweeted that “no Palestinian should support a corrupt, Nazi-promoting Zionist like Zelenskiy”.
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This was outstandingly stupid. The Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy does not promote Nazis. The reference to him as a “Zionist” verged, in the context, on anti-Semitism – it was “relevant” only because he is Jewish.
Adulhawa is also, however, a highly distinguished novelist. Many Irish people will have read Mornings in Jenin, a worldwide best-seller. She was invited to Adelaide, not to talk about Ukraine, but to discuss her latest novel, Against the Loveless World.
Malinauskas said the most important thing that must be insisted on in all of these controversies: that it is not the business of governments to start dictating to independent public organisations
Egged on by the Murdoch press, the Liberal Party (actually Australia’s conservative party) demanded that the prime minister of South Australia, Labour’s Peter Malinauskas, should intervene to demand the cancellation of Abulhawa’s appearance at Adelaide Writers’ Week, with the threat that otherwise public funding would be withdrawn. Because all the events at the festival are free, it could not function without state subvention.
The pressure to cancel Abulhawa increased when two Ukrainian writers who had been due to speak at Writers’ Week withdrew in protest at her presence. There were also protests from pro-Israel groups who objected, less to her views on Ukraine, than to her pro-Palestinian activism. One of the event’s big sponsors, a law firm, withdrew its funding.
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All of this created a context in which it was much easier for the festival to withdraw its invitation to Abulhawa – and much easier for the prime minister, Malinauskas, to play to the gallery and threaten to withdraw state support if it did not.
Yet the festival’s director Louise Adler remained calm and pointed out that its purpose was to discuss books, not tweets. Malinauskas, too, held his nerve and managed to keep his eye on the larger principles that are at stake in these games of competitive outrage.
He acknowledged that he had “seriously considered” pulling State funding from the event. He called Abulhawa’s view on Ukraine “patently absurd”. He said that her presence at the festival “doesn’t sit comfortably with me”.
And then he said the most important thing that must be insisted on in all of these controversies: that it is not the business of governments to start dictating to independent public organisations.
“If I make that decision to withdraw funding from a cultural event on the basis of the fact its contents don’t accord with my taste, or the government-of-the-day’s taste, we start to go down a dangerous path,” he said.
“Event organisers, festival promoters – particularly those that are premised on the whole idea of freedom of speech and contest of thought and debate – they would live in fear that at any moment, if they’ve got someone appearing that the government of the day doesn’t agree with, they’ll withdraw funding.”
“That then, at its logical extension, takes us to some pretty dangerous places where governments act as a stifler of public debate, and that takes us down a path to wherever Putin’s Russia is.”
Lineker’s real sin in the eyes of the Tory press and the Conservative government is to be a popular figure who does not amplify their hysterical and hate-filled messages.
This, of course, is exactly what the British government is now doing to the BBC. Its threat to cut public funding to its national broadcaster is implicit rather than explicit, but it is perhaps even more effective for that.
In this case, Lineker’s tweet was less offensive than Abulhawa’s. But it was ill-judged.
Lineker compared the language being used about migrants by the UK’s Home Office now to that used in Germany in the 1930s. He would have been wiser to leave the Nazis out of it.
But none of this has anything to do with Lineker’s actual job for the BBC which is to fill the space between match highlights with amiable chatter and Christmas-cracker jokes. His real sin in the eyes of the Tory press and the Conservative government is to be a popular figure who does not amplify their hysterical and hate-filled messages.
This is all part of the continuing saga of Britain eating itself. The BBC is one of its greatest creations, admired around the world precisely because it is seen as broadly independent of government. In the name of making Britain great again, actual British greatness is being vandalised.
There is, though, a larger question: can liberal democracy survive if it does not stand, in the face of social media hysteria and governmental bullying, for the greatest possible degree of openness? If it can’t, we are all going “down a path to wherever Putin’s Russia is.”
* This article was amended on March 145h, 2023 to correct a date.