Sunak achievements overshadowed by Lineker controversy

Conservative pressure on the BBC to fire sports presenter Gary Lineker for criticising the government’s new migration policy has backfired

BBC TV presenter Gary Lineker prepares to broadcast inside the make-shift television studio ahead of the English FA Cup quarter-final football match.
AFP
BBC TV presenter Gary Lineker prepares to broadcast inside the make-shift television studio ahead of the English FA Cup quarter-final football match.

Sunak achievements overshadowed by Lineker controversy

Rarely has one tweet been so consequential. Last week BBC sports presenter and former England footballer, Gary Lineker, tweeted criticism of the government’s, “immeasurably cruel,” new migration policy that, he said, used language, “not dissimilar to that used in Germany in the 30s.”

The government responded angrily, with several leading Conservatives attacking Lineker and calling on the BBC to act, but when the corporation did so, it sparked chaos.

Lineker was temporarily, “stepped down,” from his main role of presenting the BBC’s popular ‘Match of the Day’ football highlights programme, until agreement could be reached on his social media use. The government-funded BBC is committed to impartiality and has strict guidelines preventing journalists expressing political opinions on social media.

However, Lineker insisted he is not a journalist, but a freelance sports presenter tweeting in a personal capacity and therefore did not breach the guidelines.

This was a grey area, and many other BBC presenters had supported government policies in the past on their personal Twitter accounts without facing similar censure.

Reuters
Leicester City fans hold up signs in support of former player and TV presenter Gary Lineker on March 11, 2023.

The BBC was accused of caving into government pressure and Lineker’s actions suddenly became a question of freedom of speech and the nature of the BBC’s impartiality.

Lineker’s colleagues were the first to draw a line in the sand, refusing to continue programming without him, prompting a mass walkout. The BBC’s weekend football coverage was decimated, with games broadcast without commentary, analysis, or interviews, which many footballers had said they would not give in solidarity with Lineker.

Public support for immigration policy

For the government of Rishi Sunak, this was a massive own goal. The new immigration policy that Lineker opposed was controversial but had some public support.

A YouGov poll found that 50% of British voters polled supported the policy of banning any migrants caught crossing the channel to the UK from ever returning to the country, a proposal that opponents argued could breach international law.

Sunak victories overshadowed

This was part of a wider effort by Sunak to claw back popularity for his ruling Conservative party after a year of controversies that has seen it plummet to -20 in the polls.

Alongside the immigration policy, he has recently agreed a new deal with the EU on Northern Ireland, improved ties with France (also impacting immigration policy) and announced extra defence spending.

Recent media coverage barely mentioned the summit with France or the new defence agenda. It was all about Lineker. Not only has this overshadowed Sunak’s new policies, but it also risked making his government even more unpopular.

Recent media coverage barely mentioned the summit with France or the new defence agenda. It was all about Lineker. Not only has this overshadowed Sunak's new policies, but it also risked making his government even more unpopular.

The crisis hits Sunak from both sides. Supporters of free speech characterised the government as draconian for pressuring the BBC. Meanwhile, the usually silent mass of sports fans was outraged by the absence of football coverage. In another YouGov poll, 53% said the BBC was wrong to have suspended Lineker, while only 27% approved.

The affair also kept media attention on the new migration policy and increased scrutiny. Even supporters, like former home secretary Priti Patel, raised questions about the provision for children within the new policy.

Such a negative outcome for the government was wholly avoidable. Lineker's initial tweet could have been brushed off, as have his many criticisms of the government in the past.

Yet multiple ministers and leading Conservatives, including the Home Secretary Suella Braverman, kept the issue in the headlines and called on the BBC to act, with some reports suggested they may also have privately pressured the BBC Director General.

Wider 'culture war'

This may be part of a wider Conservative 'culture war' electoral strategy. Echoing a similar divide in the US between supporters and opponents of Donald Trump, parts of the Conservative party like to portray opponents to their right-wing policies relating to immigration, 'wokeism' and Brexit as out of touch liberal elites.

Whether such a strategy will work is unclear when it comes to the next election but focusing on Lineker as their target was evidently an error that has backfired.

This may be part of a wider Conservative 'culture war' electoral strategy but whether such a strategy will work is unclear when it comes to the next election but focusing on Lineker as their target was evidently an error that has backfired.

It was no coincidence that as soon as the BBC had suspended the presenter and prompted the crisis, Conservatives who had previously demanded action were ominously silent. Sunak and other ministers, when questioned, now said it was a matter for the BBC to deal with, as if the government had played no role in the affair.

Popularity hit

With Lineker and the BBC agreeing on Monday to settle their differences and for the presenter to return to work, with new social media guidelines to be agreed, Sunak will hope the issue will blow over. But this seems unlikely.

While his hardcore supporters will no doubt rally behind him, his party's attacks on Lineker may have cost him the popularity boost he'd hoped for.

Of course, the damage is far greater for the BBC.

REUTERS
A man stands by a camera outside the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) headquarters in London, Britain, March 13, 2023.

The affair has prompted calls for both the Director General and the Chairman of the Corporation to resign, while the 'impartial' institution has come across as subservient to the government's agenda.

Sunak will hope the effects of the crisis can be brushed off in a few weeks, but it might hamper the BBC's image among the public and its staff for year. The government may have scored one own goal, but the BBC has faced a thrashing.           

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