The unprecedented weekend uproar in Britain, after football hero and popular commentator Gary Lineker was suspended for a tweet condemning the government’s latest “stop the boats” policy, raises an important free speech issue.
Under pressure from right-wing Tory MPs, the BBC Director-General Tim Davie cancelled Lineker, whereupon other sports presenters refused to appear in solidarity with his right to speak out on a matter of conscience. Although the fuss is likely to subside this week with Lineker’s return, it will have repercussions, both for the Tory policy of appointing its party lickspittles to run national institutions and for its plans to jail asylum seekers and their children before deporting them to Africa.
The BBC is one of Britain’s most prized institutions – the key to its “soft power” in the world – and its main office-bearers have generally been significant intellectual figures, above political alignment. However, its current chairman Richard Sharp, appointed by Boris Johnson last year, is a banker and Tory donor who failed to disclose he was – at the time of his appointment – arranging a $1.5million loan for the prime minister. His failure to declare this perceived conflict of interest has led to powerful demands for his resignation.
The director-general, who made the decision to suspend Lineker after calls to do so by Tory MPs, is himself a former Conservative candidate with a commercial background in marketing. Having been in power for 12 years, the Tories have become quite brazen about appointing their supporters to run public institutions.
It is understandable that political parties should wish influential public bodies to be led by “one of us”, but democracy requires them to be both impartial and distinguished. Sharp and Davie are neither. It is their jobs – rather than Lineker’s – that should now be at risk, for their failure to stand up to political pressure. Obviously, a news and current affairs journalist holds a job that requires a degree of circumspection when tweeting on political subjects, but this rule should not apply to sports or science or any other employee who wishes to place on social media a personal view on human rights.
Lineker had tweeted that the government’s language – talking about an “invasion” by a “swarm” of immigrants – was akin to that used in Germany in the 1930s. Comparisons with the Nazis are best avoided, if only because they are incomparable, but his tweet made a point about the demonisation of innocent people. That point is starting to be echoed by many public figures who deplore a policy that will allow the arrest and imprisonment of children, and then send them to Rwanda without investigating their asylum claims.
This is, of course, the “stop the boats” policy that the government is banking on to win next year’s election, and which it has retained Australian political strategists Isaac Levido and Lynton Crosby – to promote. Alexander Downer, too, is regularly on the airwaves, explaining how perfectly the policy worked in Australia when he was foreign minister (an absurd comparison because the refugees seeking asylum in Britain are only 20 miles away camping in Calais, and what is needed is an agreement with the French government to process their claims while they wait).