I phoned Gary Lineker this morning to thank him for replacing me as Britain’s most controversial and divisive TV presenter.
He chuckled ruefully and I could almost feel his eyes rolling through my phone.
But when I asked him if he was OK amid the media firestorm erupting around him over his latest inflammatory tweets, he was adamant: ‘Yes, absolutely fine.’
And I believed him.
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Lineker’s not a guy to bow down to a howling mob.
I guess when you’ve been abused by 100,000 Real Madrid fans at the Bernabéu stadium because you’re Barcelona’s star striker in El Clásico, you’re used to coming under ferocious attack.
But at the centre of this latest furore involving the BBC’s most famous sports presenter and his forthright tweets lies a vitally important debate about free speech.
Lineker sparked a massive outcry when he responded to a video statement by Home Secretary Suella Braverman headlined ‘Enough is enough. We must stop the boats’ by tweeting: ‘Good heavens, this is beyond awful.’
After someone suggested he was out of order, and that something must be done to counter the massive surge in illegal migrants entering Britain by boat, he retorted: ‘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?’
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At which point, all hell broke loose, with Tory MPs and government supporters racing to condemn the comment and demand he be sacked.
Now, let me be clear: I don’t agree with Lineker’s analogy.
There is no sensible comparison to be made between Hitler and the Nazis and this current Conservative government, and to infer there is one is both wrong and offensive, not least to Jewish people who have reacted with understandable anger.
But he was factually correct to say Britain takes in fewer asylum-seeking refugees than other major European countries like Germany, France, Italy, or Spain.
And of all the objections to Lineker’s remarks, the one that I find most ridiculous is that he shouldn’t be allowed to express an opinion at all because he is one of the biggest faces of BBC sport.
I get that the BBC has strict impartiality rules for its news and current affairs presenters, because they read or report on the news and a taxpayer funded national broadcaster should remain scrupulously neutral in those areas.
But no offence to Gary, who cares what an ex-footballer says about news or politics on his Twitter feed?
He’s not part of the BBC News division, and he’s not even a BBC staff employee. There’s nothing in his contract prohibiting him from tweeting about the news.
And if the BBC is really that upset about him expressing political views, why did its senior management direct him to open the recent World Cup in Qatar with a monologue criticising the host nation’s record on human rights?
Lineker had never done that at previous World Cups, even in places like Russia, and I’d bet good money he won’t do it at the next one in America.
That disingenuous monologue struck me as a far more problematic offence than him tweeting his own views from his own Twitter account in his capacity as a freelance TV presenter who works for multiple different companies not just the BBC.
And when it comes to firing him, who would do that exactly?
The BBC’s new chairman Richard Sharp donated £400,000 to the Conservative party and was recently revealed to have helped facilitate an £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson shortly before Johnson appointed him as BBC chairman.
Is THAT what the BBC considers impartiality?
This whole Lineker debate is riddled with hypocrisy.
Everyone currently screaming for him to be sacked equally vociferously called for Jeremy Clarkson not to be sacked over his incendiary column attacking Meghan Markle.
Conversely, everyone currently vociferously defending Lineker also screamed for Clarkson to be sacked.
We live in an era of absurd partisan tribalism where facts and consistency don’t matter as much as standing up for your team at all costs. Lineker’s a woke darling, Clarkson’s a right-wing hero, and that’s all their followers care about.
If Lineker had said he supported the small boats policy, his critics would have cheered him on and demanded he get a statue in Parliament Square.
I prefer to just defend free speech in all its guises even if I vehemently disagree with what someone is saying, or even hate the person saying it.
Full disclosure: I’ve been friends with Gary Lineker for over 15 years, since some of our kids were at the same school.
We meet up regularly for lunch or dinner, and a typical meal with Mr Lineker involves a lot of vigorous debate.
He loves a good argument, which is why we get on so well.
He’s not always right but in my experience, he always means what he says, and he also practices what he preaches.
When he spoke out passionately that Britain should be a safe haven for desperate people from war-torn countries, and people mocked him with cries of ‘well take one into YOUR home then!’ – he did.
Where we differ on the small boats debate is on what to do about the surging numbers of young male healthy non-vulnerable economic migrants from countries like Albania also coming into Britain on small boats thanks to ruthless criminal gangs.
It’s an unsustainable situation which must be stopped so we can focus on better processing those with a genuine asylum claim to be here.
I haven’t seen Gary, Sir Keir Starmer, or any of the other critics of the new policy come up with anything better, and claiming everyone in the small boats is a vulnerable refugee is demonstrable nonsense.
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But it’s worth remembering that one of the reasons so many people want to come here is because Britain is seen as a tolerant country that will fight to the death to protect freedoms like free speech.
Just ask the Nazis!
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