Gary Lineker will be back for this weekend’s football coverage, and the BBC’s senior management only has itself to blame for making itself look so damn stupid.
Perhaps the greatest irony of this latest intervention in the ‘culture wars’ was that it all left Saturday night’s BBC football coverage looking like something transmitted from Communist Romania in the 1980s.
In place of Match of the Day was a single graphic featuring the utilitarian words ‘Premier League Highlights’, followed by 20 silent minutes of football, all possible context removed, all conversation silenced. The name and the famous music were missing. Perhaps the producers simply couldn’t bring themselves to attach them to such a poor product.
Twenty-four hours later, the same thing happened again for Match of the Day 2. In between, the BBC’s coverage of the crucial Women’s Super League match between Chelsea and Manchester United went out with the FA world feed commentary attached, and even that resulted in a tweet from commentator Nigel Adderley saying that, ‘To be clear, I was commentating on Chelsea v Man U for the FA’s World Feed coverage’, that, ‘I would rather they hadn’t taken it but they were entitled to’, and that ‘I entirely support the stance of other colleagues from MOTD’.
If nothing else, the solidarity of football in a general sense over this whole affair has been something to behold. We are all used to the idea of the professional game as a grasping wasp’s nest of competing individual interests, but on this occasion it felt as though almost everybody was foursquare behind the BBC’s presenter. From Ian Wright, Alan Shearer and Jill Scott down, the message was pretty much unanimous. This will not stand.
Come Monday morning, it didn’t even take until lunchtime for the BBC to completely capitulate on the matter. Gary Lineker will be back in his seat next weekend while the BBC will hold an independent review of their social media policies, and according to BBC Chair Tim Davie, “Gary has agreed to abide by the guidance whilst the independent review takes place”, although at the time of writing this hasn’t been confirmed by Lineker himself.
For BBC Sport producers, the end of this chaotic interregnum couldn’t have come soon enough. The weekend coming brings a very busy weekend of football, with Premier League matches, one FA Cup quarter-final and Match of the Day on Saturday, and a further Premier League match, the other three FA Cup quarter-finals, and Match of the Day 2 the following day. Whether Lineker was going to be there or not, an end to the uncertainty was needed before another big weekend of televised football.
Of course, there were dissenting voices from the political right, mostly coming in the form of people who absolutely, definitely, do not ever watch Match of the Day suddenly materialising on social media late on Saturday night, trumpeting how much they were enjoying the football without any commentary.
One MP made a great play of talking about how the truncated show meant that he’d been able to get to his “local” or a “pint” before “last orders”. Ah yes, because that’s what people who love football really want; their Saturday night hour-and-a-half highlights show reduced to 20 minutes so they can sit in the pub alone late at night for half an hour.
And as if that wasn’t enough, far right news outlet GB News presented an ‘Alternative Match of the Day without virtue signalling’, which if nothing else, proved why discussing football absolutely shouldn’t be left in the hands of people who have practically no understanding of it whatsoever.
Of course, they couldn’t show any actual football. They don’t hold the rights. But they did throw in some casual homophobia regarding the rainbow flags at Brighton, some shoddily presented graphics and, ultimately, a broadcast that would have been quite funny as a parody of a football show presented by people who hadn’t watched any football and didn’t really care much about it either, were it not for the dark political message that it was ultimately sending.
But then again, why would anyone have expected anything better from an organisation that has had repeated run-ins with the regulator Ofcom? ‘Broadcasters are free to transmit programmes which may be considered controversial and challenging,’ they said in a statement responding to charges that they’d made false claims over Covid-19.
Well, this was certainly not challenging, and it was only really ‘controversial’ in the same way that one might consider soiling yourself in the middle of a busy public area to be ‘controversial’. Sure, everybody’s talking about you, but they’re doing so because of the smell emanating from you.
There is no question that the BBC’s senior management only has itself to blame for the egg currently coating their faces, following behaviour which makes you wonder whether they were waiting for an opportunity to go after Lineker or whether they just jumped on this particular tweet opportunistically. The fact that so little thought seems to have been put into what the strength of the pushback might be suggests the latter, but it’s also worth considering how little they thought of just about everybody, in doing this.
Perhaps they just assumed that the public wouldn’t care, or that the public opinion would be more divided than it seems to have been. Perhaps they just thought that Shearer, Wright, Scott and the rest of them would just carry on regardless. Perhaps they thought that a lumpen proletariat of fans would rise up against this ‘wokeical correctness gone woke’. They don’t seem to have thought very much of anybody or anything beyond their own questionably motivated principles.
No matter what, to engage in this level of what looks like wilfully self-destructive behaviour speaks volumes for the extent to which the BBC has been tying itself in knots over questions of impartiality as political discourse in this country has become both more extreme and more febrile. The backgrounds of some of those at the top of the corporation gave rise to the open suspicion that it was the corporation that was acting politically, a matter which should cause alarm no matter what your political persuasion.
Various politically right-wing individuals who’ve worked for the BBC (and in some cases still do) have been allowed to just get on with saying whatever they wished on social media for years, and that central hypocrisy was the most undeniable aspect of this story, the point of no return in this battle to try and get Gary Lineker to stop saying things on social media with which the BBC’s senior management were uncomfortable. Ultimately, the BBC senior management’s attempts to rigorously enforce new impartiality rules only really shone a light on their own biases.
And from our narrow football perspective, this all serves as a reminder that Match of the Day does still matter.
It may not be the grand weekly event that it was in the days when there were only three channels which were mostly closed down by midnight, but it does remain the nation’s water-cooler, a point around which we can gather to discuss Saturday’s matches in an environment blessedly free of the need to be able to edit everything down into shareable clips for social media.
It remains valuable even if it’s not longer a focal point, and the BBC would do well to remember that. Gary Lineker and Match of the Day emerged from this weekend with their reputations significantly enhanced. The BBC did not. And that tells you as much as you need to know about how this entire story turned out.