WHY ALAN SHEARER SHOULD SPEAK UP FOR FREE SPEECH IN SAUDI ARABIA TOO
Written by Andrew Page
Earlier this month, Match of the Day’s Gary Lineker found himself at the centre of the nation’s attention when the BBC suspended him from presenting duties for using his twitter account to criticise the government.
On Tuesday 7th March, Lineker had tweeted that Suella Braverman’s Illegal Migration Bill was “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”
On Friday 10th March, the BBC responded by telling him to ‘step back’ from his duties. But they were unprepared for what was to follow.
Later that evening, co-presenter Ian Wright pulled out of his presenting duties in solidarity with Lineker, and Newcastle’s all-time top scorer and fellow pundit Alan Shearer followed about an hour after him, tweeting that “I have informed the BBC I won’t be appearing on MOTD tomorrow night”.
Their actions sparked a walk out that spread right across the BBC’s football service over the next 24 hours, decimating the corporation’s weekend sports broadcasting. Saturday evening’s Match of the Day was reduced to a 20 minute show with no commentary, and the 10 o clock news bulletin didn’t have a full sports section. The BBC were forced into a humiliating climb down, and Lineker returned to presenting duties the following weekend.
Its pleasing that a Newcastle United great like Shearer should play such a public role in defending freedom of speech. Shearer and Wright were the first two BBC employees to put themselves at odds with their employer in solidarity with Lineker, and they couldn’t have known how things would play out at that point. Shearer deserves a lot of credit.
But it’s impossible not to draw comparisons with how free speech is dealt with in Saudi Arabia. While Shearer was prepared to go out on a limb to defend his colleague's right to free speech, he has been relatively silent on the owners of Newcastle United, who ruthlessly crush dissent in the most brutal fashion.
In 2018, journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered, apparently in retaliation for his criticism of the Saudi regime.
In August last year, Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani was sentenced to 45 years in prison after being convicted of “using the internet to tear [Saudi Arabia’s] social fabric.” In the same month, Leeds University student Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison for using her twitter account to show support for Saudi dissidents and activists.
These are only 3 victims of the Saudi regime’s extreme intolerance of dissent and the rate of executions in the kingdom has continued to rise following the takeover’s completion.
The point was made by Guardian Chief Sports Writer Barney Ronay when he tweeted:
“It's good infringement of Gary Lineker's rights brings this reaction. But also striking that your Shearers etc are totally cool with countries that literally *torture people for voicing their views* owning clubs and running the league.”
Ronay is being too harsh here. Shearer is not “totally cool” with Saudi Arabia’s ownership of Newcastle United, and he made this clear in an article for The Athletic when the takeover went through, writing:
“I want my club to represent my city and my region and not some distant, authoritarian regime.”
He also added that: “we owe it to ourselves and the wider world to listen to the evidence about human rights abuses in Saudi, to educate ourselves and know what we’re getting into.”
But in spite of these admirable sentiments on the takeover’s completion, Shearer has had very little to say in the months since.
And yet he is a public figure who has shown a willingness to speak out in defence of freedom of speech. He has previously expressed concern about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, and he has written that “it's important to be mindful about sportswashing and what that actually means.” Despite not currently being employed by Newcastle United, he is arguably more closely associated with the club than anyone else alive.
There doesn’t seem to be anyone better placed than Alan Shearer for Newcastle United fans to ask to speak out on the crimes that our owners commit against dissidents. Why wouldn’t our fans want him to say something?
Yet when NUFCFAS' twitter account appealed to Shearer to speak out, we were met with an angry response from some supporters.
Some fans argued that Shearer had no power to affect anything that happens in Saudi Arabia, so it was pointless asking him to say something. But Saudi Human Right’s organisations have repeatedly told us that a wave of negative criticism in the run up to an execution can cause a killing to be stopped or delayed. The draconian sentences that Saudi courts hand down to dissidents clearly demonstrate the Kingdom’s extreme sensitivity to any negative publicity, and if someone in Shearer’s position were to say something it could have an enormous impact on individual cases.
This pessimism about the ability of anyone associated with the club to affect any sort of change in Saudi Arabia is a sharp contrast to what I can remember local politicians, Sky Sports presenters, and fan groups telling us before the takeover. They seemed to believe that Saudi Arabia purchasing Newcastle United might eventually lead to their entire society being transformed. “Engagement” and being “critical friends holding the owners to account” were to be key steps in this process, so it’s surprising that saying anything at all is now viewed as a complete waste of time.
Another fan argued that as Shearer wasn’t employed by Newcastle United, it wasn’t fair to ask him to speak out. Its hard not to compare this to criticism we received when we asked Eddie Howe to say something about the plight of a Saudi man facing the death penalty – in that case it wasn’t fair to appeal to Howe, because he was employed by the owners.
Someone else said that we had “previously dragged Howe into this and are now doing the same with Shearer” adding that we “want him on the barricades as a sacrificial campaigner for [our] amusement”
We aren’t planning on sacrificing anyone – we are simply asking Shearer to speak out on an issue that he clearly has an interest in.
We are asking him to make a short statement on abuses in Saudi Arabia that almost everyone is going to agree with. It should be fairly easy. He will get asked to participate in numerous causes, and judging by the amount of local charity work he is involved in, he often responds positively.
So what is it that upsets these fans so much? Why wouldn’t they want us to ask Shearer to say something?
Judging by their reactions, you can only suspect that some Newcastle supporters don’t want to upset the ownership while they continue to pour money into the club.
What would happen if fans became more critical, and famous ex-players started speaking out against the ownership? The existing harmonious relationship between fan groups, local journalists, and the individuals in the boardroom who act on behalf of the brutal regime that owns the club might be harmed. Given how poorly the Saudi state responds to any sort of dissent, perhaps these fans have reason to be concerned.
But they will also have to accept that some of their fellow supporters are never going to show any sort of deference to a regime like Saudi Arabia, no matter how much they might spend on new players. Supporting Newcastle United never used to involve any sort of acceptance of one of the most barbaric regimes on the planet, and it still shouldn’t now.
For that reason, we continue to urge Alan Shearer to speak out on the abuses committed by the Saudi state. Not only could he have a massive impact on the lives of the regime’s victims, he would also highlight that many of us do not accept Newcastle United existing as a propaganda arm of the Saudi state.
Would you like to support us? All funds will go towards the campaign.
Follow us on Social Media