SARAH VINE: What gives Gary Lineker, a man insulated by money and status, the right to cast anyone who opposes illegal immigration as a heartless bigot?

Has Gary Lineker been hanging out with Vladimir Putin? I just wonder because the only other person that I can think of in recent months who has compared a democratically elected Government to Germany under the Third Reich is the Russian tyrant, who used the supposed ‘denazification’ of Ukraine to justify his illegal invasion.

I’m sure Lineker – who has the Ukrainian colours in his Twitter bio – would be horrified to think of himself in the same sentence as that murderous genocidal maniac.

Nevertheless, he was the one who tweeted about the Government’s latest immigration strategy, saying it was ‘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’, thus igniting a vicious culture war which has thrown the BBC – and the entire nation – into a tailspin.

After initial hesitation, BBC bosses suspended Lineker, prompting fellow Match Of The Day pundits Alan Shearer and Ian Wright to withdraw their labour ‘in solidarity’ and precipitating various other BBC presenters and staff to follow suit. Piers Morgan waded in, too, saying: ‘Memo to anyone who now agrees to present Match Of The Day tomorrow: we’ll see you, and we’ll judge you accordingly.’

I’m sure Lineker – who has the Ukrainian colours in his Twitter bio – would be horrified to think of himself in the same sentence as the murderous genocidal maniac, Putin

I must confess I was surprised at the slightly menacing tone of that comment. But Lineker and Morgan move in the same lofty media circles. Perhaps they’ve got a nice villa holiday booked together in Antigua and Morgan doesn’t want anything to spoil it.

Personally, I think it’s pretty low for someone such as Lineker, a hugely influential public figure with a vast social media following (8.8 million on Twitter alone) to simplify a complex issue such as immigration in such a crass and insensitive way.

It doesn’t help the debate; it doesn’t offer any form of alternative solution; it’s just self-serving virtue-signalling which, ironically, makes him guilty of precisely the same thing he’s accusing the Government of doing – that is to say demonising a group of people for political ends.

But really, that’s not the issue.

Lineker is entitled to his opinions, and if he thinks trying to stop boatloads of desperate people from being fleeced by criminal gangs, or preventing adult men posing as children to gain illegal access to Britain, or discouraging families from risking their lives in the cold waters of the Channel, is an act of cruelty similar to Nazi Germany, then fine: it’s a free country, by all means embarrass yourself with that view.

The problem is the context.

Those, like Morgan, who are supporting Lineker on the grounds of free speech are forgetting (or conveniently ignoring) the fact that he is not just a sports presenter whose opinion isn’t all that important.

He is the sports voice of the BBC, in many ways a mouthpiece for the organisation. And with that elevated position and its unique platform and reach comes an unignorable duty of impartiality, well understood by the BBC’s other thousands of talented journalists and presenters.

It’s not only that the BBC is publicly funded, and thus honour- bound to remain apolitical to serve every spectrum of licence fee-payer opinion and not just a select few; it’s that the organisation possesses such high standing, such influence in our cultural landscape, that anything its employees or representatives (of which Lineker is one) say or do carries huge sway with the public.

The BBC is not just a provider of news and entertainment. Like the Monarchy, it’s a cultural institution that wields soft power in all our everyday lives. And like the Monarchy, those who are privileged to be a part of it and who, as a result, enjoy its considerable benefits, must appreciate the associated responsibilities.

Lineker has woefully failed to do so. In fact, he has done the precise opposite: abused his position as mouthpiece for the BBC and used it – not for the first time, it must be said – to present a divisive position, one that is not only highly partisan, but also offensive to many Jewish people. (As Energy Secretary Grant Shapps said: ‘As a Jewish Cabinet Minister I need no lessons about 1930s Germany from Gary Lineker.’)

This is not a question of free speech – it’s a matter of propriety. And as long as Lineker is paid whatever vast sum of money of ours that he is paid by the BBC (around £1.3 million a year), he is not really a free agent. If he doesn’t like that, he can leave. But he can’t have it both ways.

Those, like Piers Morgan, who are supporting Lineker on the grounds of free speech are forgetting (or conveniently ignoring) the fact that he is not just a sports presenter whose opinion isn’t all that important

And he especially can’t do so with impunity. Because while the rest of his BBC colleagues tie themselves in knots making sure they don’t slip up, Lineker has, in recent years, seemed to have made it his mission to – deliberately and with breath-taking arrogance – flout the rules.

He actively flaunts his political allegiances, as though daring his BBC bosses to discipline him, something which – until now – they have never done.

Why, I cannot fathom. Is he really that irreplaceable as a presenter? I can’t really see it, although admittedly I’m no expert on football. From what I’ve watched of him, though, he doesn’t seem any more or less insightful than the average fan in the pub on a match-day.

And yet, in certain circles, he is revered. Perhaps that’s why he believes that, despite having built his career and reputation as a presenter on the back of his association with the BBC, the guidelines that everyone else who works and represents the organisation must respect simply don’t apply to him.

That said, Lineker was happy to present coverage of last year’s World Cup from Qatar, run by a regime that openly persecutes gays. If he was going to accuse anyone of acting like the Nazis, surely that was the moment to do so.

Despite his hero status among the Twitterati and other virtue-signalling elites, his behaviour doesn’t really wash with the British public, who aren’t stupid. They don’t much like hypocrites, and they also don’t like people who abuse their positions to push their own agenda or, for that matter, use the excuse of free speech to hurl vile insults around the internet.

And on this specific issue, immigration, people don’t want to be told by a man comfortably insulated by money, privilege and status, and protected from any of the issues that directly arise from uncontrolled immigration (access to public services, housing, in some cases criminal behaviour), that their concerns – to which the Government’s latest strategy is a direct response – make them heartless bigots.

That’s why this whole debate is so significant. It captures the great and ever-widening division between the liberal elites and the majority of people of this country, the ones who – unlike the players paid millions to kick a ball around a pitch who withdrew their post-match interviews to the BBC yesterday – can’t just shut the electric gates of their luxury estates against the world and hide in their velvet-lined mansions.

The BBC has a duty of care to all its licence-payers, which is why the Corporation must not back down. It has taken a stand, and it is a right and reasonable one. No matter how loudly Gary Lineker and his celebrity pals wail from their ivory towers.

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