In 1994, Walkers Crisps launched an advertising campaign in which Gary Lineker, the nice man of football, returned to his hometown of Leicester, received universal adoration and began stealing food from children. That’s how nice Gary Lineker is: for nearly 30 years, a major British snack brand has been playing on his reputation for niceness.
More than 150 crisp adverts later, though, being nice is out of fashion. Niceness, some think, should be a sackable offence. Yesterday on Twitter, Lineker described Suella Braverman’s latest attempts to shore up the government by kicking refugees as “beyond awful”. Later, when criticised, he replied: “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”.
The response this elicited from the Tories and their pet newspapers was exactly the same as the past few years would lead you to expect. This morning’s Daily Mail splashed on “Lineker faces BBC rebuke for likening small boats plan to Nazis”; the BBC, brave as ever, said it would be having a “frank conversation” with the Match of the Day host about its impartiality guidelines. That, though, is not enough for lingering irrelevancies like Nick Timothy and David Campbell-Bannerman, who’ve spent the past 24 hours demanding Lineker’s head. Robert Jenrick, meanwhile, said it was “disappointing” that anyone paid by the British taxpayer should be “so far out of step with the British public”. This surely raises interesting questions for any minister in a government currently polling as poorly as it is.
If most of us had been compared to Nazis – on the front page of an ostensibly friendly newspaper, which is surely doing more to spread the idea than a few tweets ever could – we might engage in some self-reflection about whether or not we had lost our way. Suella Braverman, alas, is not like most of us. Instead she simply said she was “disappointed” by Lineker’s comments. This disappointment is of course nothing compared with how the rest of us feel that she is still in her job.
In combating this barrage of hysteria, the BBC faces two problems. The first is: Lineker is right. Far-right political movements have historically used dehumanising language about minorities to distract from domestic problems; that is explicitly what this government is doing. That doesn’t make them Nazis, but there are times when “they are not actually Nazis” is not actually very comforting.
The other problem for the BBC is that Gary Lineker isn’t a news correspondent, and it’s not clear why the host of Match of the Day should be any more bound by impartiality guidelines than a scriptwriter or satirist. Even leaving aside the moral questions, as the Tory party seem determined to do, there’s no commercial reason to it: nobody is boycotting the Premier League because one of the commentators would prefer not to drown refugees.
The most baffling thing about this whole mess, though, is how anyone could look around the mess that is the world in 2023 and conclude that the real villain is Gary Lineker. Not so long ago, being nice was seen as a virtue. The modern British right are doing all they can to reframe basic humanity as a vice. It really isn’t Lineker whose job should be on the line today.
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