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  1. Diary
15 March 2023

Gary Lineker’s tweet, the BBC’s panic, and why I was left to “sort it out”

As the Match of the Day host’s agent, I had a busy week at the centre of the impartiality storm.

By Jon Holmes

My phone started ringing excessively on the afternoon of Tuesday 7 March after Suella Braverman had made her statement on the government’s small boats policy in the Commons. Gary Lineker, with whom I’ve worked since 1980, had tweeted about the policy, reiterating his support for refugees. Gary takes a passionate interest in refugees and immigration and, as he saw it, had a special agreement with Tim Davie, the BBC’s director-general, to tweet about these issues.

We all know Gary’s freedom to tweet has been the subject of difficult debate. BBC guidelines on social media use for staff and freelancers are – let us say – a bit vague, and Gary is self-employed. He’s not a political pundit; he’s a sports presenter, and most of his tweets are about football. He’s constantly being asked to appear on political programmes – including by the BBC – and he assiduously avoids them. Gary believes in the independence and impartiality of the BBC, as I do, and we agree that those who work in news should not express political opinions on Twitter.

The BBC describes Gary as an icon, a totemic figure. One of the reasons he has this status (apart from the money the BBC pays him, the subject of endless controversy since it was made public) is his huge Twitter following. But if Gary said “vote communist”, or “vote Liberal”, or “vote Brexit”, would it make any difference?

[See also: Iain Dale’s Diary: An eerie Washington DC, Keir Starmer’s own goal, and the conundrum of Isabel Oakeshott]

Early lessons in fame and politics

Over the years, I’ve voted for five different parties – but as a politics student at Leeds, in 1970, I canvassed for the Labour candidate in a safe Tory seat. We were equipped with a flyer from Jack Charlton – the popular World Cup-winning England and Leeds player – on why he voted Labour. The local Conservative club were outraged; they claimed Jack had signed something for them saying he was Conservative. To which Jack replied: “I only joined them for the fishing!”

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In my first year at Leeds, I worked on the university paper, the editor of which was Paul Dacre, whose Daily Mail now has a keen interest in Gary’s relationship with the BBC. The young Dacre was a strange fellow – hard working, not sociable but a good journalist. In his final year we won Student Newspaper of the Year, after which Dacre said to us: “Right, I’m off to get a degree now. I’ll see you.” I didn’t see him again for 30 years.

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Crisis talks with the corporation

When I started getting calls about Gary from the BBC, we just wanted everyone to calm down. But the storm was raging. Gary’s initial contact with various BBC staff hadn’t produced a result, so he said: “Jon, sort it out.”

I was summoned to a meeting at Broadcasting House on Friday at 2.30pm, the day before Match of the Day was due to be broadcast. I live in rural Nottinghamshire and that morning I’d woken to heavy snow and wondered if I’d even make it to London. I had a lunch planned there in my capacity as chairman of the Professional Jockeys Association – as tough a job as I’ve had. After the lunch, I crossed central London to the BBC meeting. We didn’t achieve much, but when they asked me how the matter could be resolved, I told them taking Gary off air would not be helpful and we needed to clarify the guidelines.

As I took the Tube two stops to Holborn, the BBC issued a statement saying Gary had indeed been taken off air. As I headed to my flat nearby, first Ian Wright pulled out of that week’s Match of the Day, and then Alan Shearer. It was falling apart. For the next hour or two I let my phone ring and ring, as it had been agreed at the meeting that there would be no statement from our side. In my view, the BBC did not have to put itself in that position and publish its statement. It’s best not to feed the beast. You starve it – that’s how you achieve a quick resolution to problems like these.

Off to the races

By the time I got back to Nottinghamshire, the whole thing had collapsed into a shambles. The next day, I suggested that Gary come to the Leicester game with me – we’re both lifelong supporters. The club organised lunch and it went well – apart from the result (3-1 to Chelsea). On Sunday I resumed discussions with the BBC in online meetings, but I resisted saying “I told you so”. By this time, Tim Davie had returned from a business trip to the US, and by about 4pm we’d agreed something to everyone’s satisfaction. Apologies would be made, an inquiry set up, and Gary and Tim would speak again. I had my best night’s sleep for a long while.

The following morning the phone did not ring, and I looked forward to spending the next few days at the Cheltenham Festival, where I’ve been going for the past 30 years or so, interrupted only by the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 and Covid. It was quite a week.

Jon Holmes is Gary Lineker’s agent, the former chair of Leicester City FC and a co-host of the podcast “Football Ruined My Life”

[See also: Joanna Cherry’s Diary: Identity politics, squabbles in the SNP, and my position on the leadership race]

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This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe