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There were no words. Which was apt in its own way, because when people can’t speak freely, there often aren’t. There were noises, the sound of various crowds. But there was not even the most iconic theme tune in sports broadcasting. Which is just as well, because this wasn’t Match of the Day. It was a 20-minute highlights package stitched together, looking like the kind of cheap production of goals from a second-rate European league that was waiting for some interchangeable, inoffensive song to be added on before it was broadcast.
Six days after Match of the Day 2 showed an historic low for Manchester United, Match of the Day was a historic low for Match of the Day. The most successful club ever in the English league suffered their heaviest defeat for 91 years last Sunday but the most iconic show in British football broadcasting is in the greatest crisis in its history. No presenter, no pundits, no analysis, no interviews and no commentators. There was less of the actual football, little of the feel or the fun. Instead, anyone who had missed the news the programme had been shortened and tuned in a little late was greeted by Sully, a film about avoiding a plane crash. It might not have been the cleverest of choices: not after the BBC’s car crash of a week.
It is tempting to say it is a crisis caused entirely by the BBC; tempting, but not true, because that is ignoring the role played by the venal, toxic Conservative Party, with their determination to silence and scapegoat anyone who disagrees with them. But director-general Tim Davie’s brand of crisis management has been to create a crisis with his management. Chairman Richard Sharp is discovering that, as rewards for Tory donors go, it is preferable to get a multi-million contract to provide unusable PPE than to be put in a position where he encountered people with immutable values about inconvenient things like free speech.
Instead, the BBC gave Gary Lineker more suspensions than any referees or footballing governing bodies, operated on the illusion they could purge anyone who did not toe the (Conservative) party line and, hopefully for only one week, ruined the best sports show on terrestrial television. They had a show stripped of its personnel and its personality, its wisdom and its wit. The goals were good: brilliant, in some cases. The games were compelling, along with the plotlines and the characters. Match of the Day should have been a brilliant 90-minute drama. Not this week. The real action took place before the shots and saves were televised.
The strikers went on strike in support of Lineker, led by the laudable Ian Wright, supported by his sidekick Alan Shearer. The commentators Steve Wilson, Conor McNamara, Robyn Cowen and Steven Wyeth staged the mutiny on the gantry. Even more people became unavailable than in the average Everton injury crisis: Alex Scott, Mark Chapman, Micah Richards, Jermaine Jenas, Alex Scott from a second show, Mark Chapman from another programme, Jason Mohammed, Kelly Somers, Colin Murray, Dion Dublin, Jermain Defoe. It was a test and they all passed it.
And so, after the BBC abandoned Presenter Hunt, Bargain Hunt instead replaced Football Focus. With no Final Score, a corporation with relations to repair opted for Repair Shop. There was no Fighting Talk; not without free speech.
Meanwhile, the BBC’s top brass had been too busy kowtowing to an authoritarian government to read the room; not the green room, as the pundits showed their principles, or the dressing room, as the PFA made it clear the players were not speaking to Match of the Day, or the rooms populated by the BBC’s rank and file. Probably not the wider room of the country, either. Most can see through the disingenuous claims. There can be no dispute that Lineker would have been permitted to present had he been an enthusiastic advocate of the government’s migration policy, if his politics echoed Suella Braverman’s or Lee Anderson’s or Dominic Raab’s. Instead, he used his platform to speak up for refugees. And, for this rancid regime, it is especially irritating when a number of footballers and former footballers have social consciences. It is evident a number of members of the government do not.
It is a world where the most biased people claim they want impartiality, where those who claim to hate cancel culture are keen to cancel. And, yes, it is a distraction tactic. After 13 disastrous years, all the Tories have left are culture wars and lies. There is something very Trumpist about the way they corrupt everything they touch. There is something typically inept about how all their cunning plans backfire: the groundswell of support for Lineker from his colleagues clearly caught them by surprise. The BBC’s reputation is tainted, home and abroad, by doing the Conservatives’ bidding: “In turmoil” said the New York Times headline while CNN went for “chaos” and the Washington Post went for “BBC boycott”. The BBC kept making news – El Pais, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, La Repubblica – but all of it was bad news for them.
But in 13 years of vandalism, the Tories have damaged almost everything they can. As the NHS shows, national institutions are particularly susceptible. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before they got to Match of the Day. And so Saturday evenings across the country were ruined; it was entirely typical that others suffered because of the actions of right-wing headbangers. It is a theme of the last few years. The people who are considering giving Stanley Johnson a knighthood tend to be the ones in favour of banning England’s leading scorer in World Cups from the national broadcaster. And a broken British Broadcasting Corporation is another sign of a broken Britain.