Football is like faith to the Brits. Every weekend, close to a million or so go to the temples of soccer to pay homage to their heroes, praying for the right result. And then, on a Saturday night, as if for a second round of adulation, millions more tune into Match of the Day.
It is a ritual that I have followed ever since my father weekly rented a black and white Bush television and coaxial cables were strung up our terraced street in early 1970s Dublin.
There were four channels. But the BBC’s MOTD on a Saturday, and ITV’s Big Match on a Sunday, were never missed.
And what the pundits said then mattered. There was Jimmy Hill, who once scored five goals in a single game for Fulham, parsing the finer points of the old First Division clashes.
On a Sunday, as bacon, cabbage and spuds boiled away in the kitchen, us boys watched Jimmy Greaves — up until recently the top scorer for Tottenham Hotspur — with Brian Moore talk about tactics.
What they said mattered, and was the stuff of schoolyard debate for Mondays. If you missed it, you simply didn’t exist, in the way that schoolyards can be cruel and unforgiving places.
Social media is a bit like that too. A cruel and unforgiving place, where options are very harsh and sanity has a difficulty rising above the fray.
Politics too is equally brash these days in the UK. It’s hard to find a middle ground right now. There seems to be a lot of stuff coming in the flanks, the right wing in particular.
So, when you get a person who manages to make sense of soccer and see through the political fog with great clarity, it’s a rare thing. And Gary Lineker is a rare thing.
He was a highly talented footballer who played for Leicester and England, was one of the few Brits back in the 1980s who made the grade playing for Barcelona, and he enjoyed spells with Spurs and, in the interests of transparency, my team Everton. (Go you Blues!).
He’s articular, witty, a punster and is highly popular. A successful businessman too, he’s the best paid freelance presenter for the BBC. Which is why, when he tweeted that the Sunak Government’s new policy of imprisoning refugees who cross the English Channel illegally was like something from Germany in the 1930s, the Beeb had conniptions.
He was suspended from Match of the Day, the BBC, because the tweet broke its impartiality guidelines. And then all hell broke loose.
Presenter after presenter cancelled, the footballers refused to talk to the BBC, and MOTD went out in a very truncated format, no commentary, and no analysis. Like watching wet paint dry except you knew what the colour was going to be like anyway.
It was a mess
Other sports programmes were affected too. And the Director General of the BBC along with his top executives, found themselves distinctly out of lockstep with the British public — and had stepped right into a political cow patty entirely of their own making.
The chairman, Richard Sharp, is under intense pressure to resign even after he patched things up with Lineker by offering a review of the social media guidelines.
Lineker said he can’t wait to get back to fronting MOTD — but also put the boot in as well. “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,” he said. “We remain a country of predominantly tolerant, welcoming and generous people.”
Predominantly. But there’s an element who want to send refugees somewhere else — except Rwanda, as that’s illegal, UK courts have already ruled in the Government’s attempts to get tough.
The trouble is, the BBC isn’t snow white in this whole affair. Questions continued to be asked of Sharp and BBC Director-General Tim Davie as various commentators criticised the “muddle” over impartiality and “mess” of recent days.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said that Sharp’s position was “increasingly untenable”, amid an ongoing review after it emerged he had helped former prime minister Boris Johnson secure an £800,000 loan facility.
BBC’s own goal
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell also questioned Sharp’s position in light of the Lineker row, while Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey called on the chairman to resign, saying his position is “totally untenable”.
Even Sunak has been less than supportive of Sharp, a man who was the PM’s boss when he worked at Goldman Sachs.
But Sunak has faced questions too over the row, with Labour accusing the Tories of long seeking to undermine the public service broadcaster.
This is a political football that can’t be kicked into touch just yet.
On Tuesday morning, Dame Melanie Dawes, the chief executive of broadcasting regulator Ofcom, told a parliamentary committee at Westminster that the BBC row with Lineker “goes straight to the heart” of the broadcaster’s wider reputation in news coverage.
“I think they need to look at those guidelines and see if they’re right in a world of increased use of social media, and look at what they ask in terms of their contributors as well as their staff.”
This entire matter has made Lineker all the more popular. What’s more, it has put a huge dent into Sunak’s small boats’ policy. It was supposed to be a get-tough approach that appealed to Tory grass roots supporters. Now? It has had a spotlight shone on its darkest corners. And that’s hardly a winner for the Conservatives.