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.
A final thought: however difficult the last few days have been, it simply doesn’t compare to having to flee your home from persecution or war to seek refuge in a land far away. It’s heartwarming to have seen the empathy towards their plight from so many of you. 3/4— Gary Lineker(@GaryLineker) March 13, 2023
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.
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.
By 50% to 35% Brits say that the UK does not have a responsibility to help protect the migrants who are arriving in England from France https://t.co/ukAWTp2dbh pic.twitter.com/55Hsxr9aYP— YouGov (@YouGov) August 11, 2020
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.