On 13 October the BBC published a ruling that its best-paid presenter had broken impartiality guidelines. In February, after the then foreign secretary, Liz Truss, called for a boycott of the Champions League final in Russia, Gary Lineker tweeted: “And her party will hand back their donations from Russian donors?”
It was just the latest in a series of run-ins with BBC management, over tweets in which Lineker has aired views on everything from Brexit to the UK’s polluted rivers – and the sort of reprimand that might have made Lineker’s newest side project even more appealing. In January, the Match of the Day host co-founded Goalhanger Podcasts with two friends and former BBC producers; nine months later they are behind three shows that regularly top the UK podcast charts – The Rest Is Politics, The Rest Is History and Empire.
The Rest Is Politics, hosted by Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart, is the undoubted jewel in their crown: debuting in March, it has grown from 720,000 downloads that month to 4.98 million downloads during September. The week of turmoil in Westminster that led to Liz Truss’s resignation drove nearly 2 million downloads in seven days. But when I met Lineker at the Ivy Soho Brasserie in London, where he was having dinner with Goalhanger’s co-founder, Tony Pastor, and three male colleagues, he told me he’d have struggled to persuade the BBC to make it.
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“Do you think I could say: ‘I’ve got an idea for a podcast about politics – I’m going to get Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart’? They’d go: ‘What do you know about it?’” If Gary Lineker wasn’t involved, I asked, would the BBC have launched The Rest Is Politics? “No,” he said. “Too scared.” What of? “Well, when Alastair launches into Boris Johnson!” Pastor cut in: “I don’t think they could have allowed Alastair to be as outspoken, or Rory to say some of the things he’s said.” Lineker agreed: “We’re a lot freer.”
In a dark suit and open-collared shirt, Lineker sometimes gave the impression he would rather be talking football with his friends than facing questions from me. But between mouthfuls of white wine and fish and chips, he was happy to rave about podcasts – Campbell and Stewart’s in particular.
The idea began with a desire to pair two politicians, he said, “one from either side, and to get it to be cordial”. Campbell, a friend of both Lineker and Pastor, was signed first; then they looked for a moderate Tory. “It wasn’t Corbyn and Rees-Mogg we wanted,” said Lineker. “I’m going to take credit for Rory. I’d met him at a couple of dinners at a mutual friend’s house, and I thought he’d be really good.” He is thrilled with the show’s subsequent success: “It’s phenomenal. I thought it would do well – but I mean, it’s madness. It’s the biggest podcast in Britain by a country mile.” He told me he was especially impressed by his hosts’ grasp of international politics, and said of Stewart: “Rory’s so bloody likeable – and he’s a Tory! Sort of.”
With Pastor, Lineker has run his own television production company, Goalhanger Films, since 2014 – making documentaries about Anthony Joshua and Wayne Rooney, among others. Goalhanger first experimented with podcasting in 2018 with Behind Closed Doors, a football show hosted by Lineker and the writer and broadcaster Danny Baker. But its “breakout” success, Pastor told me, was The Rest Is History, launched in 2020 and hosted by the historians Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook. Downloaded 4.46 million times last month, the show is not far behind The Rest Is Politics in the UK charts. “People have said it’s like [BBC Radio 4’s] In Our Time in the pub,” Holland told me when I phoned to ask about his show’s success. “It’s reassuring that there’s such an enthusiasm for history.”
Lineker, Pastor and the producer Jack Davenport established Goalhanger Podcasts as its own company earlier this year. In September of this year they saw 10.4 million downloads across all their shows (up from 1.76 million in September 2021), and their prominence in the UK podcasting market has come at the right time: a report by the accountancy firm PwC this year forecast that advertising revenues from podcasts in the UK will hit £64m by 2025, up from £37m in 2021.
In Pastor’s view, the industry is going through a “Netflix, Amazon Prime period” of accelerated growth. “People don’t just want to listen to the radio – they want to choose what they listen to, and when they listen to it.” Lineker described it as “a relatively new genre, so we don’t really know what the boundaries are in terms of growth. But it’s a very, very good business.”
He admitted it had taken him a while to develop his own podcast habit. Now he listens to episodes while travelling, cooking and walking his dog – of his own productions, as well as The News Agents, with Emily Maitlis, Jon Sopel and Lewis Goodall, and That Peter Crouch Podcast. The medium is hugely liberating, he said. “Production for documentaries or a TV series, it’s so hard. You’ve got to get an idea, and then you’ve got to pitch it to someone. And then you’ve got to get them to commission it. With a podcast, you just go, ‘Well, let’s do it.’”
And while Lineker doesn’t, in his words, “set up the microphones”, he does take a close interest in his slate. “Gary came to our first live show,” Campbell told me over the phone shortly after my meeting with Lineker. “And I know he listens to them all. It’s no secret Gary’s interested in politics. He’s a very, very bright guy.”
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In September Tim Davie, the BBC’s director-general, told MPs at a select committee hearing that, while he was “very supportive” of Lineker, he saw reining in the presenter’s tweets as a “work in progress”.
“So’s Tim,” Lineker shot back, dead-pan, when I put this to him. “I think it’ll be a long process,” he added. “I don’t think he’ll ever stop me talking about politics. I don’t think he wants to stop me talking about politics, either. But obviously I have to tread carefully, which I always try to do.”
Lineker was paid £1.35m by the BBC last year, and regularly tops the corporation’s list of highest-paid presenters – although this ranking does not include those paid through the corporation’s commercial arm, such as Sir David Attenborough and Graham Norton. Lineker is often criticised in the media for his salary. Does that annoy him? “I’d actually much prefer it to being the lowest-paid BBC star.”
I asked Lineker if The Rest Is Politics functioned as something of a political outlet for him. “Yeah – but don’t tell the BBC,” he joked. “We’ve got one presenter from both sides. So it’s a bit balanced. Although they do seem to agree a lot about certain aspects of this government.”
Why not present a politics podcast yourself, I asked. He joked about getting into more trouble than he was already in, before giving a more considered response: “No. I love politics, but I’m not an expert,” he said. One of Campbell and Stewart’s great assets as commentators, he added, was that they have worked in the upper echelons of government. “So, you know, I wouldn’t be good enough – that’s why I wouldn’t do it.”
Amid the regular scrutiny of his BBC pay and rebukes for his political interventions, I wondered how long Lineker might remain at Britain’s public broadcaster. I asked him if he ever thought about quitting to become a full-time podcaster. “Maybe,” he said. “Who knows? Life’s thrown many things at me. And I’m 61.
“But I’ve another, what, nearly three years left on this contract. I’ve got time to work out my retirement and get my bus pass. So I’ll be able to go on a double-decker, at the top, and listen to my podcast and sail into the sunset.”
This interview with Gary Lineker, who has been criticised for sharing his views on the government’s refugee policy, was originally published on 22 October 2022.
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This article appears in the 26 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Disorder