What’s it all about, Gary? Politics and the sports presenter

Gary Lineker attending the GQ Men Of The Year Awards 2021 at the Tate Modern on September 1, 2021 in London. (Shutterstock/Fred Duval)

The UK’s Tory Government is trying to enact an Illegal Migration Bill accused by the UN of  “extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the UK”.  It has even copied the Australian Liberal-National Coalition’s slogan ‘Stop the Boats’ in its campaign to send ‘irregular’ boat arrivals offshore.  This move will almost certainly contravene the European Convention on Human Rights, from which many Tory MP’s wish to disengage.

It says much about our hypermediated world that this major issue has been swamped by disputes over the right of the country’s most prominent sports presenter to comment about it.  Gary Lineker, the BBC’s highest paid and most prominent broadcaster, was stood down for tweeting a sharp critique of the bill and likening its associated language to 1930s Germany.

As several co-sports presenters withdrew and the BBC’s football coverage in television and radio was disrupted, including the legendary Match of the Day highlights program, ‘Stop the Pundits’ became, for several days, the bigger story.  It touches on many media-related tensions in the febrile environment of British Brexit-era populism.

The Plight of Public Service Media

Organisations like the BBC and ABC have long been under intense criticism from the Right, which regards them as ‘our enemy talking to our friends’.  The usual accusation is that they have been captured by the Left, pursing a progressive agenda at full or partial public expense.  The most self-serving of the commercial media, notably those controlled by the Murdoch family, object to the very idea of public service media, seeing them as subsidised eaters of their news and entertainment lunch.

Right-wing populist politicians, media motormouths and free market thinktanks object to the very existence of independent PSM, which they would like to see privatised.  Any government can exert political pressure in public and behind the scenes, and threaten retribution via reduced funding.  They can also, as has occurred in Britain under the Tories, usher political fellow travellers into key PSM positions.

Unlike their commercial counterparts, PSM employees operate under strict rules and guidelines of impartiality within their news divisions, while those in information and entertainment areas are given greater, though still-restricted latitude.  Critics of PSM constantly demand impartiality, which generally applies only to media workers taking political positions with which they disagree.

When a prominent sports presenter like Gary Lineker says something more controversial than praising or criticising team/manager/player performance, and upsets the Tory-aligned tabloids and ‘qualities’, calls for action are swift.  These often involve demands for sackings, accompanied by allegations of hypocrisy, ‘wokeness’, etc.

No wonder PSM feel under siege.  The pressure is compounded by the size of their remit, a workforce increasingly consisting of freelancers (like Lineker) rather than employees, and the demands of a digital age in which institutional and social media have substantially interpenetrated.  The ground is constantly shifting, even in a sport zone traditionally resistant to embracing overt, especially Left-ish politics.

The Politics of Sport and Media

In the debates about Lineker’s and the BBC’s actions, much emphasis has been placed on his status as a sports broadcaster.  Should people in such roles, be they public or private, abstain from political commentary because its outside their remit?  Or, for that very reason – they are not professional news journalists bound by codes of ethics and guidelines – why shouldn’t sports pundits freely express their political views, especially in their own time?

The heat generated whenever a sport player or media personality, especially from PSM, crosses a moving line, is symptomatic of the last gaps of the old ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ world of sports media.  In that golden age – which, like most, was more alloy-based than pure – the illusion of sport as its own special world separated from the daily grind was celebrated.  Each intrusive demand for social justice was resisted by a sizeable chunk of the male-dominated sport media workforce used to playing on a very good wicket.

Patching holes in this fabric became increasingly frenetic and futile in the 21st century, as a combination of social movement mobilisation and digitisation changed the rules of the game.  Sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, traumatic brain injury, sexual abuse, climate change, ‘sportswashing’, and sundry other social issues could no longer be marginalised.

After Black Lives Matter and Me Too, and exposés of sports corruption and the victims of global sport events, loud complaints that sport and politics don’t mix became increasingly redundant, especially as the evidence mounted that it was only a certain kind of political connection that was being declared out of bounds.

Yet sport does not have to be a central issue, as in the case of Gary Lineker, the BBC and the Illegal Migration Bill, to become a sport-related controversy.  The very fact that a globally renowned footballer turned broadcaster exercised his non-sport related political conscience in public had a ripple effect across media, sport and society.

The next twist in this compelling sport and media drama is awaited.  It may have been a distraction in the face of the urgent issues surrounding the rights of those who seek protection by desperate, dangerous means.  More positively, perhaps for some, in the brief attention space created by truncated sports programming, echoes of the desperate voices of refugees rose above the broadcast chants of football crowds.

Originally published on openforum.com.au, March 14, 2023.
Copyright © David Rowe 2023
Email: d.rowe@westernsydney.edu.au
Twitter: @rowe_david
Website: https://westernsydney.edu.au/ics/people/researchers/david_rowe

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David Rowe, FAHA, FASSA, is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University; Honorary Professor, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Bath; and Research Associate, Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS University of London. His latest book is Making Culture: Commercialisation, Transnationalism, and the State of ‘Nationing’ in Contemporary Australia (co-edited, Routledge, 2018). David’s work has been translated into Chinese, French, Turkish, Spanish, Italian, Korean and Arabic.


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