According to reports, it was (in part) the intervention of the prime minister himself that brought the War of Lineker’s Tweet to a swift conclusion.
Sunak’s subtle warning: “I think the issue between Gary Lineker and the BBC is one they should resolve. I hope they can resolve it in a timely fashion,” came just a day before Lineker’s reinstatement. Perhaps after nailing the Northern Ireland protocol and a deal with France over migrants, he felt that sorting out a single Lineker tweet should be easy. Yet in the Twitter age, it’s been anything but.
It shows, instead, the power of celebrity: for at the heart of this issue is a compromise, the art of which seems to be something we’ve forgotten over our recent fractious years. The BBC’s guidelines will be reviewed, as well they might because every “case” involving a celeb and their publicly expressed views seems to produce a different response: Lineker, Alan Sugar, Andrew Neil, Prue Leith, Jeremy Clarkson, David Attenborough and others all treated differently. The lesson seems to be that “one size fits all” rules don’t work.
Gary Lineker’s victory over the BBC has something of the romance of association football about it, a bit of a David vs Goliath tale. Such is the turnaround that it feels to Lineker fans very much like a famous victory. But is it?
There’ll be crowd trouble. In reality, the points were shared, and we’re back where we started. Even for post-Brexit Britain, it was getting very silly, turning football into, well, a political football.
The Great Lineker Tweet Debate does also illustrate that the old adage about the BBC being bigger than any single personality isn’t quite true, if it ever was. Lineker is simply too big an asset to the corporation, commands too much loyalty from his teammates, and his offence was so contrived that they couldn’t sack him.
The BBC’s case rested on Lineker breaking rules which were in effect only guidelines, which were ambiguous and self-contradictory, and which didn’t make much sense in the modern age. Taken at their face value – which suited some – they would have meant Lineker couldn’t express an opinion on anything of any importance at any point while he was contracted as a presenter on sports programmes, far way from news and current affairs.
Everything, in the end, is “political” though not always party political, and almost every issue is “controversial” to someone. If Lineker sent out a Tweet about how brutal Putin’s war in Ukraine has been, the small band of people who think we should just let them get on with it would object.
If he made a stray remark in a press interview about sympathising with the nurses in their fight for better conditions, he’d be slammed for “getting involved in politics”, as if he shouldn’t express a view in public. Perhaps he doesn’t care for fox hunting, or he’s a secret enthusiast for all field sports – either way there’d be a lobby seeking to ban him from our screens. It’s absurd.
The BBC’s case, then, was weak, and that has compromised their position from the beginning. If Lineker had been caught doing something unconscionable then they’d have easily been able to sever his contract and ban him from their broadcasts.
But Lineker’s opinions aren’t outlandish, they don’t hurt anyone, and are shared by a large swathe of the population. His critics are uniformly against him because they disagree with him on the issues, and they resent the BBC because of the way it reported on Brexit and Boris Johnson, which they perceive to be biased.
They’re all-too obviously motivated by spite, and everyone can see it, because so many simultaneously want the BBC “defunded” (it’s also fair to add that many of Lineker’s supporters are Remainers and want the Tories out, but that merely proves that this is yet another proxy or culture war, and not a serious discussion about balancing free speech and contractual obligations).
In the struggle between corporate power and celebrity, in this case celebrity was won out – but it’s not always the case. The “talent”, as Michael Grade calls them, are more powerful than even they sometimes realise, but they’re not unassailable.
Jeremy Clarkson, for instance, is proving yet again the limits to what a big celeb with a big gob can get up to. He was only sacked by the BBC not for making distasteful remarks, but for belting a producer because he hadn’t arranged a hot dinner for him. Clarkson pushed his luck too far once too often.
Celebrities can be “too big to fail”, and broadcasters can be too reliant on them to sometimes do the right thing. In the case of Lineker, though, you don’t need VAR to see that his offence was relatively minor, and some quiet words of advice were all that was ever required.