It started with a discussion about podcasts, it ended with me telling Gary Lineker he was acting like an anti-Semite and asking why he hadn’t said a single thing about the Israeli hostages still in Gaza.
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, and both as loved – and reviled – as one of the BBC‘s biggest stars. Never mind someone whose actions you and many of your community have found personally painful.
Ostensibly I was meeting Lineker as part of a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch to talk about his podcasting empire. These lunches 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 the iconic Little Italy restaurant in London‘s Soho, 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. At the table, we each had to say our names and who we wrote for.
‘I feel scared now,’ Lineker admitted, with a nervous laugh.
I suppose you could say I was there for a dual purpose: firstly, to get a story, but also to try to see if I, as a member of the Jewish community, could get in a question tackling Lineker over his social media activity. I would never have dreamed that I could get close to making a genuine impact – but I wanted to try.
Lineker has become an unlikely touchstone in online political debate. While he sees himself as a Left-of-centre social justice warrior, it has been clear for a long time that this doesn’t extend to the Jewish community.
On X (formerly Twitter) – his social media home of choice – he hasn’t uttered a word about the horror of October 7, nor criticised the actions of Hamas. While he has been tweeting incessantly about the growing death toll in Gaza – and I cannot blame him for that – he never points out the atrocities Hamas has committed on its own people.
He’s often tweeted in support of the pro-Palestine marches – where demonstrators brandish anti-Semitic placards showing the Star of David being thrown in a bin or a swastika inside the Israeli flag – saying: ‘Marching and calling for a ceasefire and peace so that more innocent children don’t get killed is not really the definition of a hate march.’
What Jewish people might have felt about these tweets (one was reshared 28,000 times), how frightening many of us have found the marches, did not appear to cross his mind.
Lineker in some ways epitomises that rather simplistic do-gooder attitude which somehow always leaves out the Jews as too white/ too wealthy/ too powerful to be victims of racism – even though plenty of people may duly pledge #neveragain every year on Holocaust Memorial Day.
But back to lunch. The discussion took place over salad and risotto. There was a polite discussion with the host about Lineker’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, attracting millions of listeners.
And then the Q&A was opened up to the rest of the room.
One of the first questions saw Lineker asked about the perception of bias in his online posts. This is not a new debate; in March last year he was suspended by Match of the Day for his social media activity, which included criticising the language used by ministers when discussing the Government’s asylum policy, saying it’s ‘not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s’.
When his fellow Match of the Day commentators walked out in support of him, however, the BBC quickly backtracked.
New BBC guidelines covering social media activity were written at the end of last year; Lineker told us, astonishingly, that he had helped to write them. ‘I know the guidelines very well,’ he said.
I managed to get a question in soon after. I asked why, if he knew the guidelines so well, he had broken them by retweeting a message calling for the suspension of Israel from international sporting bodies.
There was a bit of back and forth. I think I managed to annoy the host who’d hoped for a smooth session. The discussion moved on.
When it was over and everyone clapped politely, I couldn’t bring myself to join in.
So afterwards, I was surprised to see Lineker seeking me out. He wanted to know what was wrong. It is interesting that someone as famous as Lineker would care about what a journalist thinks, but I guess that charm is one of the keys to his success. And Lineker does charm very well. Thinking about the consequences of his actions is something he’s less good at.
I spluttered that I thought he was behaving like an anti-Semite. His X feed only showed one side of the issue. He’d never once condemned Hamas on the site 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 conflict’ was complicated – 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. More than 1,300 people were brutally killed; some 250 were taken hostage.
The arguments I’ve had so many times on social media with ignorant trolls who don’t understand the complexities of existing in this troubled region were suddenly being spouted by one of the most famous faces in Britain.
For example, he said: ‘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.
People keep trying to impose their narratives – be it Northern Ireland or the black/white racism which obsesses the United States – on to a much more complex and nuanced Middle Eastern story.
I told him how much I was hurting at the way he – so powerful with his nearly nine million X followers – was unwittingly encouraging a narrative that the weekly hate marches feed on. Could he imagine what it felt like to be a minority of 270,000 in the UK and see this every week on our streets, where we lived, I asked him.
‘No,’ he admitted ruefully.
I told him I’d interviewed hostage families and asked 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, saying: ‘Post a photo of a hostage.’ I told him about the thousands of trolls who call me a Nazi, Zio bitch, a liar and a murderer. We all get trolls.
He said he was trying to retweet only neutral things, he said. They didn’t feel neutral to me, I replied.
There was a brief moment where he mentioned his Jewish friends and how they’d experienced anti-Semitism and how he did care about British Jews. I asked him to please show it.
I know Lineker doesn’t want to be thought of as an anti-Semite – and I don’t think that he is one in reality. Even as we were angrily exchanging words, people tried to drag him away and he insisted on continuing to talk to me. I do respect that.
He put his hand out, I shook it. I appreciate people who want to talk; in this age of social media our opinions have become so divided, so binary that sometimes we forget there are humans at the other end who are also – I hope – capable of nuanced thought.
If I’m lucky, a small part of what I said got through.
I’ve still got all sorts of emotions pulsing through my veins – anger, satisfaction, frustration, exhaustion – but I know I did my best. I hope he does too.