Politics, Social commentary

Lineker & refugees: politics, punditry & polarisation

Popular communication today thrives on polarisation. Social media channels are not neutral carriers of unbiased opinion, they are shaped to stoke strong opinions which fuel the shallow politics of our age.

The current controversy surrounding Gary Lineker, the BBC and his social media comments on the government’s refugee policies is a perfect example.  The government plaster a simplistic slogan like Stop the Boats on lecterns and powerpoints and seem affronted when celebrities disagree in a similar fashion. 

Calm and sensible

The problem for the government is that a National Treasure has spoken out against them.  And Lineker is no firebrand or extremist. His glittering career has been built on using his huge talents calmly and sensibly. As a player, he never once got booked. And his broadcasting success has been forged as the anchorman, facilitating the strong views of others with smooth style and self-deprecating humour.

The BBC’s action to suspend Lineker has thrown kerosene onto the flames of an already divisive political issue. The social media pile-on it provokes leaves no space for any nuance in the discussions.  You are either with Gary and pro-refugees, or against him and against refugees. And the BBC has got itself in a right pickle.


But these forms of polarised, media arguments doesn’t take you any closer to resolving the actual issue.  Like TV football pundits who can’t influence what happens on the pitch, there is a wide gap between the commentary and practical solutions. 

It is easy to stay in the safe zone of comforting, generalised terms like ‘justice’ and ‘kindness’. Its far more difficult to propose practical policies that would work.

And whether we like it or not, small boats crossing the channel is a genuinely complex problem. It is dangerous and hugely costly on every level. We need a solution that will actually work.


I remember a specific moment when I realised some of the complexities of these issues when I worked in a large, 140 room hostel in East London in my 20s. I was booking in an asylum seeker in as a new resident and I was very moved by him telling me that he ‘didn’t know anyone in the UK’ and how isolated he was.

But then the next day I saw the same man leave the hostel and jump into a minibus, embrace the driver and high-five all the other passengers.  I was left thinking that the situation was perhaps a bit more complex than I thought.

My experience since then has continued to expose me to the genuine tensions involved in offering help to those coming to this country, whether as asylum seekers, from the EU or those affected by human trafficking. 

To be effective, we need to maintain a compassionate realism which combines humanitarian kindness with efficient assessment and enforcement.  The truth is that efforts to help others will always be affected by exploitation. We need to avoid both cynicism and naivety – and to have systems which embody both grace and truth.

Worst example

Immigration policy is probably the worst example of the gap between political rhetoric and practical management. Former Home Secretary, Priti Patel spoke about making the ayslum system ‘firm and fair’ but it has remained bureaucratic, slow, inefficient and not fit for purpose.  And slogans cannot cover these basic failings.

Ten years ago, I went to see both Westminster City Council and the Greater London Authority to propose emergency accommodation specifically for EU citizens who were sleeping rough. I got nowhere with both, not because they did not think it was needed, but because the politics was too sensitive.

During the pandemic, the Everyone In initiative brought many homeless non-UK nationals into accommodation and helped many get Settled Status. But it remains the most politically tricky aspect of addressing rough sleeping.  The polarisation around immigration continues to affect the ability for a sensible discussion.

Poisonous vitriol

It is interesting that a footballer is at the centre of this current debate because professional football is a culture built on extreme polarisation. 

Every week, hundreds of thousands of people gather and chant abuse toward the opposing team. The poisonous vitriol in the worst rivalries is sickening as tragedies, disasters and deaths are all used to mock the opposition.

This collective irresponsibility is part of the culture that professional football generates. It could be argued that this is what sport is for: a form of combat by proxy which channels anger and tension in less destructive ways.

Real issues

But people fleeing violence and oppression, risking their lives and being exploited in their desire to come to this country are real issues which need practical, workable policies to address them.

This is what really matters in the real world. And it’s more important than all the cheap slogans, soundbites and social media furore. And its even more important than who presents Match of the Day.

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