Gary Lineker chaos has been a huge own goal – but also a distraction from the real issue

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The BBC have made a mess and deserve scrutiny - but we shouldn’t forget the tragic problems that set Gary Lineker tweeting in the first place.

I picked quite a time to leave BBC Sport. No sooner have my printer rights been revoked and my keycard handed in than daily life in Salford explodes. The decision to force Gary Lineker to ‘step back’ from Match of the Day, the mass cancellation of sports programming in solidarity, the inevitable humiliating climbdown... I weep for the internal e-mails I’ve missed.

Lineker’s offence was to tweet in condemnation of the government as they introduce new legislation to essentially criminalise migrants trying to make it across the Channel in small boats. The British government have decided to make this the issue of the day, their key policy calling card, and in the process they have unquestionably sought to turn public sympathy against the many desperate people trying to make it to the UK. As column inches and TV spots are pointed in the direction of the BBC and the 20-minute farce broadcast in lieu of Match of the Day on Saturday, we should wonder whether the real issues are being clouded by the cacophony over the BBC’s four-day long reverse ferret.

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According to the BBC, as they desperately sought to defend their initial decision against rising internal and external opposition, Lineker expressing his view on the issue represented a matter of opinion while, say, his BBC-approved condemnation of Qatar at the outset of the World Cup was a matter of fact. That never held much water and, in any case, to state that the British government’s language has been demonising and deliberately divisive is a statement which can be backed up.

You may or may not regard Lineker’s comparison to the language of 1930s Germany as excessive, but the functional similarities between Conservative dog-whistles and Nazi language around ethnic minorities seem readily apparent. The government appear to be hoping that people forget the humanity of the issue and treat those in the boats as negative statistics, not as people. The Tories seem to want and need immigration to become a wedge issue, and they aren’t being delicate in the ways they are trying to bring that about.

From my perspective, half inside the building and half outside, the ideology of BBC impartiality was never why Lineker was censured. Other BBC presenters have made their political feelings known without rebuke, and it is impossible to imagine the same decisions being made had Lineker been tweeting his support for the government’s immigration policy. Lineker was among the loudest voices on the largest soapbox in the country, so he became a target of a faction of the Conservative party (and elsewhere) who despise the BBC and will take any stick available to beat it. Lineker presented an especially large stick.

The problem is that the BBC’s management is cowardly. Its reaction to any condemnation from the anti-Beeb brigade – who have an unusually large portion of the power in the country at present – is to try and roll over by way of placation. So when they came for Lineker, the BBC was minded to present them with his head. These are people who loathe the BBC on an ideological basis, who will never come round, who can never be thrown a bone and sated, but Director General Tim Davie and the rest of the corporation’s senior management either haven’t learned that lesson or bluntly refuse to.

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I spent five years working for the BBC and while I was hardly on nodding terms with the top brass, from a distance I was never impressed by their conviction or communication. At a time when the combination of a hostile government and rapidly changing media landscape requires incisive, intelligent and forthright leadership, the impression I got as an underling was that the most important people in the BBC were essentially spineless.

And so the BBC, having been forced to backtrack by an impressive display of solidarity from the many good people working in Sport, have again unwittingly offered themselves up for humiliation and condemnation from all corners. The newspapers will all be keen to stick the boot in, and politicians across the board will make hay. And as the arguments and accusations are thrown back and forth beside the nation’s water coolers and across the floor of the Commons, hardly any mention will be made of the issue that sent us all here in the first place – the small boats and the poor souls inside them.

The Conservatives will not be trying to sideline the issue. A Savanta ComRes survey for The Independent suggested that the policy of permanent forced deportation to Rwanda – a country with a poor human rights record and a track record of torture – is popular with the general public, with 42% of respondents in favour. But as a new media furore comes clattering through town, it will inevitably steal the limelight from the one which came before. Every year, thousands of people take the desperate choice to risk their life coming across the Channel. Some will die, and the welcome that awaits those that make it will be cruel and compassionless.

There are many important debates to be held about the BBC, about its policy of impartiality and how it should be applied. Its neutrality is a cornerstone of the corporation and one of the reasons it is so trusted and respected internationally. But in allowing those debates to instead become the headline at this moment, we do a disservice to a great many people who are in dire need of help and kindness.

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Lineker, in his tweets noting his return to Match of the Day, chose to try and recentre the debate around the key issue, saying that “however difficult the last few days have been, it simply doesn’t compare to having to flee your home from persecution or war.”

Whatever your thoughts on his right to tweet or the BBC’s handling of the whole affair, let’s follow Lineker’s example and make sure the most important things – the human beings unwittingly trapped in the middle of a media storm they know little about – are not left by the wayside.

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