One interesting aspect of the Gary Lineker affair that dominated so many headlines over the last week is that the BBC’s guidance regarding impartiality on social media applies less strictly to presenters who work in sport compared to those who work in news, current affairs and factual journalism production.
Considering sports presenters in a separate category from news ones reflects two embedded ideas: that sport and politics exist in separate worlds, and also that sport isn’t really serious and so doesn’t really matter.
The first of these ideas is outdated. It is difficult to make sense of modern football without understanding something about the political world that increasingly shapes it.
[ BBC confirms Gary Lineker’s return to Match of the Day presenter role ]
You can’t understand Manchester City’s domination of the Premier League without understanding their link to Abu Dhabi. It’s absurd to think that Messi, Mbappé and Neymar all play for one medium-sized club in France until you grasp that PSG is an instrument of Qatari foreign policy.
The debate over whether Eddie Howe is doing a great job is sure to rage and rage, but the fact that one of the Newcastle chairman’s other companies, Saudi Aramco, just posted the biggest annual profits in the history of the fossil fuel industry ($161 billion in 2022, if you were wondering) adds useful context. Football is becoming a continuation of politics by other means. Never has it been more relevant to ask, with apologies to CLR James, “What do they know of football who only football know?”
You might think the merging of politics and football would lead to a greater emphasis on “impartiality” when discussing it, but the opposite is the case. Even the BBC dispensed with impartiality in football broadcasting long ago. Now the fashion is for star pundits to present themselves as superfans of one or other big club. Match analysts are chosen for their connections to the clubs that are playing and are essentially expected to act as a cheerleader for “their” club. It would take a brave guest pundit to say anything critical. Any Newcastle United “legend” who said on TV that they would rather Newcastle were not owned by Saudi Arabia might as well delete their social media accounts.
[ Match of the Day review: After a day of thunderous controversy, a deafening silence swallows BBC One ]
The broadcasters have concluded that everyone knows Jamie Carragher and Graeme Souness want Liverpool to win, everyone knows Gary Neville is Manchester United and Thierry Henry is Arsenal, so they might as well be open about it and turn these allegiances into part of the show. Whether this development is good or bad is a separate argument. The point is that it has been accepted. Impartiality is yesterday’s news.
Nobody seems too bothered about this, since attachment and partisanship are in a sense the whole point of following football, and almost every football fan views the sport through the prism of loyalty to a particular team.
The thing is, politics is like this too. The Americans understood it long ago, which is why all their highest-rated cable news shows are partisan opinion shows: Tucker Carlson Tonight, Hannity, The Ingraham Angle, The Rachel Maddow Show etc. Joe Rogan didn’t become the biggest broadcaster on the internet by being scrupulously impartial. All the evidence suggests viewers would rather watch people powerfully transmitting emotions than soberly considering the issues.
When you survey the contemporary infosphere, the BBC’s official commitment to impartiality can seem like a beautiful dream. Wouldn’t it be great if there was an impartial news source everyone could simply trust? The problem is, nobody believes the British national broadcaster really is impartial, not even the British themselves.
In April 2021, credible reports suggested Boris Johnson was blithely for the European Super League before he came out against it, having realised (thanks to spontaneous street protests) how unpopular it was
The BBC’s situation is complicated by having to answer to the UK’s erratic, fake populist government. That government’s core message is that they represent the voice of the British people against what home secretary Suella Braverman refers to, without apparent irony, as “the tofu-eating wokerati”.
Their fraudulence has been exposed every time they have got involved in anything to do with football. Time and again senior government figures have taken grandstanding stances on football-related issues because they think it will be popular, only to discover that what they are saying is actually deeply unpopular, and be forced to retreat.
In April 2020, then health secretary Matt Hancock said that Premier League players should be doing more to support the Covid-hit NHS, and received the first of the deluges of public derision to which he has since become so accustomed. Twice in 2020, Boris Johnson resisted Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals for disadvantaged children; twice he had to cave in to public pressure and back down. In April 2021, credible reports suggested Johnson was blithely for the European Super League before he came out against it, having realised (thanks to spontaneous street protests) how unpopular it was.
In June 2021, then home secretary Priti Patel dismissed the England team’s decision to take the knee before their Euros matches as “gesture politics”. Asked whether England fans should boo players taking the knee, she said “That’s a decision for them.” Later that day Downing Street had to put out a statement clarifying that the government did not, in fact, want England fans to boo their own team. By the end of the tournament, an Ipsos MORI poll showed 56 per cent supported the knee protests, again exposing the fake populists’ lack of understanding of what they imagine to be their base.
Such a record might have made them wary of further involvement with football, but then Gary Lineker described Braverman’s new migration Bill as “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”.
One might have thought that responses such as Lineker’s would be an essential part of the UK government’s cynical culture-war strategy. Of course a rich, out-of-touch, virtue-signalling liberal like Lineker will oppose the migration Bill, along with the do-gooders in the “activist blob”, the lefty lawyers, the Remainiacs, the tofu-eaters and all the other enemies of the people this fake populist government claims to champion. If figures such as Lineker really are as unpopular as the government calculates, then the more he attacks their new Bill, the better.
But they are as incompetent at the game of fake populism as they are at everything else. They successfully pressured the BBC to take action against their highest-paid presenter, which resulted on Friday in Lineker being taken off-air. Except Lineker turned out to be popular with his colleagues at BBC Sport at least, and thanks to their instant solidarity he now seems certain to return this week, although for how much longer is anyone’s guess.
The BBC should not waste the opportunity to reflect on whether their impartiality guidance still makes any coherent sense.