Gary Lineker says BBC row was ‘so disproportionate’ and he ‘never thought tweet would be an issue’
Gary Lineker has said that he is “still bewildered” after the row with BBC bosses over his remarks on social media criticising the government’s policy on asylum-seekers.
The star presenter and former England footballer was briefly told to step back from Match of the Day earlier this month over his Twitter output, sparking a crisis in BBC sports programming as his fellow presenters, pundits and commentators staged a boycott in solidarity.
In a new podcast released on Monday, Lineker – who was swiftly days after being suspended– said he believed the “silly” row had been “so disproportionate”.
“I never contemplated it would be an issue at all,” he told the Rest is Politics podcast with former Tory minister Rory Stewart and Labour ex-spin doctor Alastair Campbell. Adding that “I love the BBC”, he continued: “People make mistakes but they recognised that, they addressed it.”
Returning to the issue of asylum, Lineker said: “Let’s have some empathy for these poor people who have to flee persecution or war. If we can at least show some empathy, some kind words.”
Asked about his personal politics, the footballer said he had been a “centre forward all my life”, adding: “I’m not particularly a lefty, I’m certainly not from the right. I think I probably drift from centre to left a little bit of centre.”
In the tweet igniting the row, Lineker had responded to a government clip of home secretary Suella Braverman setting out the government’s highly controversial plans to effectively ban most people from seeking asylum in the UK, saying: “Good heavens, this is beyond awful.”
Replying to a Twitter user who said “it was “easy to pontificate when it doesn’t affect you”, Lineker added: “There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. 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, and I’m out of order?”
Asked on the podcast about how the row had happened, Lineker said: “There was the policy, which when they spelled it out, I thought ... I don’t think this is going to work, is it even going to be legal?
“Obviously we all recognise there’s a massive problem, but it’s going to get worse as well with climate change and stuff like that, people fleeing their countries, and I just thought ‘come on’.”
His remark about 1930s Germany “was never meant as any kind of comparison with the Holocaust or anything like that”, Lineker said.
Upon waking up to see “237 WhatsApp messages”, Lineker said he gasped and “had really worried thoughts for a second” about whether there had been a “scandal” or whether his children were safe as he “couldn’t think what that could possibly be” about.
He continued: “The first message I saw was somebody showing me the Daily Mail’s front page, which obviously caused all this furore, linking me to the Nazis, and I just went, ‘oh, thank God for that, that’s all it is’. I don’t mind that, it didn’t bother me. I was okay. And it kind of just spiralled sillily out of control.”
Doubling down on his “factual” comparison of government rhetoric to language used in 1930s Germany, he said: “I’m not saying at all that policies echo those of Germany or anything like that, but sometimes – I’ve said sometimes – some of the language is not dissimilar. [They’ve] used words like ‘invasion’ and ‘swarms’ and ‘criminals’ and ‘rapists’ and all these things. And that might lead to something, it might not.”
Echoing claims by his agent of a “special agreement”, Lineker said he had told Tim Davie when the BBC director general first brought in new social media guidelines in 2020 that the “two things” he would “not back down on” were the refugee crisis and climate change – “and he agreed”.
“Obviously all these things will be linked to politics, pretty much everything is ... all my argument here was – let’s have some empathy to these poor people that are forced to flee persecution and war ... at least show some empathy, some kind words.”
While the UK “obviously can’t have everyone here”, it could “at least have our fair share”, he added.
The presenter described the solidarity shown by his colleagues as “beautiful”, with Ian Wright the first to have declared he would not present Match of the Day without Lineker.
“To get that team spirit, that camaraderie and togetherness – it just moved me,” he said, adding: “I must admit I had a tear in my eye.”
Discussing the issue of impartiality – with the BBC having announced an independent review of its social media guidlines in response to the row – Lineker appeared to point to recent criticisms of the BBC, including chair Richard Sharp’s role in facilitating an £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson while in No 10.
“For me, what they have to think about – first and foremost, before you talk about anybody else’s impartiality – the government of the day ... cannot decide who the chairman of the BBC is or have any kind of influence on who they put in to be director of news or anything else. That for me is where it needs to start,” he said.