It started with a discussion about podcasts, it ended with me telling Gary Lineker he was acting like an antisemite and asking why he hadn’t said a single thing about the hostages still in Gaza.
Somewhere along the way, there was lunch.
I’m still shaking a bit as I write this. It is not often you are offered the chance to come face to face with someone as well known, as loved and reviled as one of the BBC’s biggest stars. Someone whose actions you and many of your community have found personally painful.
Ostensibly it was a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch to talk about Gary’s podcasting empire. These affairs are normally sedate, polite affairs between television and radio executives and members of the press like me, who write about the entertainment industry.
That this lunch, in Soho’s iconic Little Italy restaurant was going to be different was clear from the start. There were representatives from almost every national newspaper as well as every trade magazine. Tickets were so tightly contested that only the first 25 got one. We introduced ourselves; “I feel scared now,” Gary admitted with a laugh.
The discussion happened over salad and risotto. There was a polite Q&A with the host about Gary’s impressive podcasting business. The Rest is History, The Rest is Politics, Empire, The Rest is Football; his Goalhanger company has certainly done extremely well with millions of listeners. Most of the people who starred in them had been friends, he admitted.
And then the discussion element – all recorded – was opened.
One of the first questions he was asked was about his social media activity and the perception of his bias. Obviously this is not a new debate; in March last year he was suspended from Match of the Day for his social media activity which included attacking language used by the government over its immigration policy, saying it was “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”.
When his fellow Match of the Day commentators walked out too, however, there was a quick BBC backtrack. New BBC guidelines covering social media activity were written at the end of last year; Gary told us, astonishingly, that he had helped to write them. “I know the guidelines very well,” he said. “Obviously people think the BBC is biased in this way or that way. It is an institution which tries to be neutral on most things and I think it does remarkably well in that sense.
I managed to get a question in quite soon after. I asked why, if he knew the guidelines so well, he had broken them when he retweeted a message from the BDS movement which said the Palestinian Football Association was calling for “all regional and international sports bodies to take an urgent stance on Israel’s grave violation of human rights and subject it to legal accountability measures”.
This was either not neutral and directly impinged on his job for the BBC – against the guidelines – or if, as the press had been told, he had retweeted it in error thinking it was a news story, that was also against the guidelines which says people who work for the BBC have to read what they are tweeting.
And then there was a strange exchange in which he told me the BDS movement message was actually a news story. I told him it wasn’t, it was a demand. He continued to say it was a news story and I continued to tell him it was a demand, not a news story. The host was getting annoyed by me, and the rest of the room was watching with a mixture of horror, amusement and (I hope) some admiration that I wasn’t letting this go.
And then he dropped in the fact that the BBC – despite having hundreds of complaints about the tweet – had not talked to him about it.
“I took it down because people were reading into it that it was my opinion,” he said. “They thought that it was my view. I retweeted a news story. I think it was a news story. I took it down because people were you know, they seemed unhappy. It was nothing to do with the BBC. They didn’t contact me. I hadn’t breached the guidelines.”
The discussion moved on. I admit I was smarting; not sure whether to be angrier with him or the BBC who had clearly allowed him to get away with the idea in his head that a demand to ban the Israeli football team from the people making that demand was a news story.
Later on he mentioned that it was clearly that some people in the room hated him. I think he was looking at me.
The talk went on. In case you are interested, it included the fact that he has nearly two years left on his Match of the Day contract and that his podcast company is mainly listened to by people under the age of 55. He also said that he no longer looks at his Twitter responses; while he once only looked at messages from verified accounts and those his followed he was now finding all sorts of other people invading his feed; it was “toxic” he said. He was using the extra time to listen to more podasts.
After the talk ended I was gathering my things when I was surprised to find he had sought me out. He wanted to know what was wrong. It is interesting that someone this famous would care about what a journalist would think; but I guess that charm is one of the keys to his success. He does charm very well. Thinking about the effects of his behaviour, presumably less so.
I spluttered that I thought he was behaving like an antisemite. His X feed only showed one side of the issue. He’d never once condemned Hamas on X or sent a message about the hostages.
“I’m thinking about the women hostages who are probably still being raped,” I said. “I’m thinking about the babies being killed,” he countered. “I just want peace.”
I told him that we all wanted peace and that there had been peace until October 7. He said the situation was complicated – “the conflict” - and I said that complication included the actions of Iran. He told me that he believed Jewish people were suffering because of the actions of the Netanyahu government; I told him that no government would behave differently when so many members of their nation had been killed, whatever one thought of Netanyahu.
The arguments I’ve had so many times on social media with trolls were suddenly being spouted by one of the most famous faces in Britain. For example: we never bombed Dublin when the IRA was bombing us (er, the IRA weren’t in control of Dublin and they never vowed to wipe out every English person).
I told him how much I was hurting at the way he – so powerful with his nine million followers – was encouraging a narrative that the weekly hate marches feed on. I also said that, as someone who has interviewed many hostage families, I could not understand why they did not seem to warrant a single mention.
He asked how he could do it without attracting more hatred on his own feed; how was he meant to do it? I shrugged, said “post a photo of a hostage” and told him about the thousands of trolls I get who call me a Nazi, Zio bitch, a liar and a murderer. We all get trolls.
He said that he wasn’t tweeting on October 7 – and when he looked at Twitter on October 8 he was surprised to find that he was trending. He made out that he was trying to only retweet neutral things. I explained that people whose tweets he’d liked had red triangles in their names and that signified a support for Hamas. He didn’t know, he said.
There was a brief moment where he mentioned his Jewish friends and how they’d experienced antisemitism and how he did care about British Jews. I asked him to please show it. I know he doesn’t want to be thought of as an antisemite – he probably isn’t. Even as we were angrily exchanging words, people tried to drag him away and he insisted on talking to me. I do respect that.
He put his hand out, I shook it. I doubt I got through. But now you know that at least one person has told him how his tweets are perceived by many of us. Whether that makes any difference, we will see.