Match of The Day and the Whistle of Free Speech

This weekend, the BBC’s flagship soccer or football program, Match of the Day, aired without any of its celebrity presenters. For almost sixty years, MOTD has been the most popular football show in the UK and, indeed, worldwide. Its long-time host, Gary Lineker is a national hero and former winner of the Golden Boot, the equivalent of the Most Valuable Player in the League – he’s also a vocal user of social media, with a following that matches his public profile. And it is this that has brought him into conflict with his employer. 

What happened with Match of the Day and Lineker

Last week, Lineker posted a personal tweet expressing heartfelt outrage at the UK Government’s proposals to deport thousands of migrants and asylum seekers to Rwanda or their country of origin. He believes the policy to be ‘immeasurably cruel’ and said as much; the BBC, in its turn, suspended him from the air, and his co-host refused to act as stand-in.

The Match of the Day Fall-Out 

In events reminiscent of a satirical farce, the situation has been so mismanaged that other presenters and journalist withdrew their services, resulting in the cancellation of several more flagship programs. The BBC hierarchy has been widely criticized for heavy-handed tactics, selective application of its policies, and a blind spot to the optics of its own inconsistencies —not the least of which is its Chairman’s role in arranging an £800,000 loan to former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

All these issues have been extensively reported in the UK press, and as I write the situation may yet take a different turn. What’s more, I recognize that any summary of this sort risks omitting or emphasizing certain subtleties, for which I would ask your understanding. I’m merely trying to précis the background so that we can proceed to more material discussion.

And what is certainly agreed by all sides is that concern over immigration and how best to manage the number of arrivals is one of the most contentious in UK politics, cutting through party lines and dividing opinion across the entire social spectrum.  It’s therefore not surprising that Lineker, as with millions of others, has a strongly held opinion on the Government’s proposals.  

The difficulty, according to the BBC, is not his right to have a view but its statutory duty to be politically impartial. The Corporation claims that because of Lineker’s unique public profile, he must remain silent on politically sensitive issues, even when speaking as a private individual, on channels that have no connection to the public service and regardless that he is a freelance contractor and a sporting personality, not a directly employed current affairs commentator. 

Lineker is Right

For the record, I agree with the thrust of Lineker’s comments. The Government’s policy strikes me as ill-considered and lacking in the compassion I’d expect from one of the world’s richest nations. I make this declaration for reasons that I will come back to later but it should be clear that arguing for one side or the other on this policy divide is not the purpose or central thread of this article. If in the meantime, you get hung up on my particular view, you will be missing the point!

The Big Issue with the Lineker Debacle

For the heart of the matter that concerns me – and the bigger issue that I believe the Lineker debacle raises —is whether it’s a good or bad thing that our public figures (including those with profiles on the BBC) feel able to speak freely on political matters.  This is a separate issue to whether Lineker is right or wrong in their assessment of the Government’s policies. 

Rather, it is a question of whether, by limiting the freedom of its contracted presenters to express opinions offline and off the air, the BBC is undermining our wider responsibility to promote the robust and respectful debate that is critical to the proper functioning of a democracy.

In Defense of Free Speech

The late Christopher Hitchens was a Neo-Marxists whose views on many matters I disagree with strongly. But he was spot on in his passionate and very public defense of freedom of expression. Opinions that offend or appear plainly ridiculous ought never to be shut down, he said. Rather they should, in a sense, be encouraged and then countered with the robust argument that shows them to be false, illogical, prejudiced… or, in rarer cases, to acknowledge they may have some grain of truth from which we might learn. 

Hitchens, who died in 2011, was fully aware of the potentially divisive and, at times, the disproportionate impact of platforms like Twitter, and yet he never once averred from his view that free speech was worth whatever discomfort and difficulties it caused – even to the BBC!

Social Media Trolls Stifle Debate 

We live today in a world that has more channels and platforms for opinion and debate than ever before.  And yet, many of our most knowledgeable individuals, who could add so much to intelligent debate —and especially those with a public or corporate profile—are deeply reluctant to engage, fearing the backlash of social media trolls, cancel culture, and the Lord of the Flies mentality that’s typical of pressure groups that show no respect for the underlying freedoms that allows them to pursue their own particular agendas.  The hounding of those who dare to express polarizing opinions is well known, but it’s clear the reluctance to speak out now goes much wider than just these issues.

Everyone Should be Concerned about the Public Discourse  

This should concern us all far more than the BBC’s supposed pursuit of impartiality.

To put it plainly, we are now so impoverished in our public debate of sensitive issues that we need to encourage and not dissuade our public figures and influencers from speaking out. To do so, we need institutions like the BBC to be leaders in showing that it’s possible for public figures to express an opinion without vilification, threats of losing their job, or suggestions that they ‘get back in their box’. Indeed, unless there are overwhelming public interest considerations, I’d suggest that promoting free speech and supporting (even celebrating) those with the courage to speak their mind should trump supposed impartiality every time.

I support Lineker’s Comments 

Which is why I declared my hand earlier in support of Lineker’s comments. Not because my views matter in the scheme of things, but because we have to start somewhere – and if I’m writing this piece, then I need to live by that value too. Indeed, let me go further: I believe the immigration policies of the UK to be deplorable, the influence of politics on the BBC unacceptable, and Gary Lineker is absolutely correct in what he states. His 1930s comparisons may be hyperbolic, but he is absolutely on the right side of this argument, which is shameful in a constitutional democracy. 

That is strongly put and deliberately so.  The central point I’m making is that if you disagree with me, let’s not cancel the discussion—let’s exchange views, enrich the debate, agree to disagree…  That’s what healthy and respectful democracy is about, and we are all of us better off for its flourishing, which is why I say more power to Lineker and his like.  Living with a little tension in the corridors of the BBC is a small price to pay for a public discourse that isn’t cowed by cancel culture or sanitized by the powers that be. 

In fact, to my mind, that’s what true public service broadcasting is meant to achieve. 

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