Almost exactly a year ago, the England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford scored a great victory. It wasn’t on the pitch. It was at Westminster.
Rashford had launched a campaign against child poverty to ensure that every child could have a free school meal if they were hungry. He had been talking about the issue for months, but once he became publicly an anti-poverty campaigner, some of the less politically acute Conservative party MPs were unimpressed.
“Would it be ungenerous to suggest Rashford should have spent more time perfecting his game and less time playing politics,” was the reaction from Natalie Elphicke, the MP for Dover. Her comment was not merely “ungenerous”. It was politically stupid. A top-flight footballer can care about child poverty as well as about scoring goals. Following a public backlash, Ms Elphicke apologised. This was an instructive moment in British politics.
Football is an important part of British national culture. Footballers make an impact on people who ordinarily would not be interested in politics. Rashford’s campaign resulted in free school meals for children from poor homes including those who (in government jargon) had “no recourse to public funds”. The Conservative government extended the campaign to children whose parents’ immigration status prevented them from accessing mainstream benefits. The right to a free meal would be made permanent and to many people, Rashford is a hero.
But the initial negative reaction to Rashford is instructive because another star British ex-footballer and popular BBC TV commentator Gary Lineker is also embroiled in a fight over comments about politics.
Lineker criticised British government policy announced last week aimed at stopping migrants from crossing the Channel in small boats. Lineker tweeted (accurately) that rhetoric from government ministers about a huge influx of migrants made little sense. The UK takes far fewer migrants than other European countries, and the new supposedly hardline policy is divisive and will be challenged in the courts. Lawyers suggest it is in contravention of the European Convention of Human Rights. Lineker tweeted: “This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the ‘30s.”
It’s big news because Lineker presents one of the BBC’s most popular and much loved football programmes, Match of the Day, with viewing figures for Premier League football games in the millions. The BBC was sufficiently alarmed by Lineker’s comments that it claimed he had “stepped back” from his presentational role, though Lineker said he was told he could not present the programme.
Result? Nil-Nil on Match of the Day, nil presenters, nil programmes. Lineker’s co-presenters and others refused to work and the programme was taken off air. More widely, BBC staff were extremely unhappy, but – failing to learn from the example of the hapless Ms Elphicke, some Conservative MPs appeared to gloat at Lineker’s misfortunes. Scott Benton celebrated Mr Lineker "finally" being "shown the red card”. The party’s deputy chairman, Lee Anderson, said Lineker needed time to "reflect", and that he "receives a large amount of money from the great British public – the majority of which do not share his views”.
Well, we shall see. But the resulting row has left the BBC in a very odd position.
In the several decades when I worked (happily) for the BBC, there were frequent rows with governments. Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher loathed the fact that BBC journalists sometimes interviewed supporters of the IRA in Northern Ireland. Tony Blair, another ex-prime minister, argued strongly with the BBC over coverage of the 2003 war in Iraq. Other government ministers and the BBC have historically had many public disagreements. But this one is different.
Most of the previous political rows involved the BBC’s top leadership or journalists being accused of being too critical of controversial government policies. The row over Lineker is exactly the opposite. It made the BBC look as if it was acting as an arm of the government itself. The BBC has now backed down. It reinstated Lineker and said there will be a review of what presenters can or cannot say on social media.
But whatever the review decides, the BBC has a far more significant problem. Its current chairman, Richard Sharp, is a Conservative party donor. He was appointed to the job by former prime minister Boris Johnson in circumstances that are extraordinary. Mr Sharp assisted in Mr Johnson being provided with a loan of £800,000 ($973,000). Mr Johnson then gave Mr Sharp the chairman’s job. Nobody, apparently, did anything wrong here.
Well, we shall see.
There are increasing calls for Mr Sharp to resign, and whatever credibility he once had is much diminished, raising all kinds of questions. What does it say about the BBC’s “impartiality” if a football commentator gets into trouble for speaking out about human rights, while its chairman has donated £400,000 to the governing party? What does “impartiality” mean for the BBC, under such circumstances, if anything? Lineker is back in his job. Mr Sharp is still in his. I’m not sure that situation can continue for long.