“My employer’s ability to shoot itself in the foot while simultaneously kicking itself in the balls is just incredible.” This was the take of one BBC News journalist last Friday evening (10 March), shortly after the corporation suspended Gary Lineker following a three-day row over a tweet he posted that likened the government’s language around asylum seekers to “Germany in the 30s”.
Unaware of the pandemonium that would follow, the BBC said it had decided Lineker, a freelance presenter paid £1.35m by the corporation last year, would step back from presenting Match of the Day until “we’ve got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media”. By Monday morning, following a weekend of protests by presenters, cancelled programming and cries of foul play by BBC management, Tim Davie, the director-general, reinstated Lineker while an “independent expert” reviews the corporation’s social media guidelines. On Twitter, Lineker thanked his supporters, colleagues and Davie. Risking further ire from his critics, he tweeted that “however difficult the last few days have been, it simply doesn’t compare to having to flee your home from persecution or war to seek refuge in a land far away”. The same BBC News source described Monday’s announcement as “classic BBC: announce a review to kick the can down the road”. He added: “Gary has won and the director-general has lost.”
Eventually Davie will have to tackle this issue. But for now, he’ll probably feel some relief. News of Lineker’s suspension on Friday led to widespread disruption for the BBC as its football presenters refused to show up for work in “solidarity” with their colleague. Come Saturday, Football Focus and Final Score were replaced with Bargain Hunt and The Repair Shop; Match of the Day was substituted for a 20-minute highlights show without commentary and analysis.
Behind the scenes, BBC Sport was in disarray. Many staff had learned about Lineker’s suspension through a breaking news alert from the BBC app. Even as Ian Wright and Alan Shearer tweeted to withdraw their services from Match of the Day, one source said there was “no word coming from management”. On Saturday many journalists felt unsure about whether they were expected to show up for work, fearing they might offend colleagues and be called “scabs” on social media. “Nobody wanted to be the one person who was breaking solidarity with Gary Lineker,” said a BBC Sport staffer.
Pat Nevin, a former Chelsea footballer and 5 Live commentator, went ahead with his broadcasting duties on Sunday and was indeed called a “scab” by Twitter trolls. Nevin said he only agreed to commentate on the condition that he be allowed to address the Lineker issue. In the broadcast, he called on the BBC to clean up its social media policy and to make contracts clearer. Nevin told me he felt staff, especially lesser-known presenters, for example on local radio, were put in an “invidious position” by BBC management. He said the timing of Lineker’s suspension on Friday evening “wasn’t great”. “It has been a hard, unusual weekend for my colleagues,” Nevin added. “A lot of them have suffered. They know if they don’t turn up to work they’re in breach of contract. And that’s not a good place to be.”
The Lineker saga could hardly have come at a worse time for Davie and the leadership of the BBC. Last month I reported for the New Statesman on a widespread feeling of mutiny within the corporation’s news department. Already demoralised by cuts, many news journalists feel the reputation of the BBC has been damaged by reports on the relationship between their chairman, the former Tory donor Richard Sharp, and the former prime minister Boris Johnson. Sharp has been accused of failing to declare a conflict of interest over his involvement in the facilitation of a loan to Boris Johnson around the time that the then-PM recommended him for his BBC job. Sharp has said his role was limited to introducing Sam Blyth, Johnson’s distant cousin who later provided him with a loan guarantee, to Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, to ensure “due process” was followed. In February a poll of more than 1,000 National Union of Journalists members at the BBC found that 95 per cent thought Sharp should resign.
Over the weekend dissent spread to BBC Sport’s headquarters in Salford. “Sport isn’t a massively politicised, militant workforce,” said one staffer. “But suddenly we were dragged into the eye of a storm. Not everyone thinks Gary Lineker is right. Some people feel there is a double standard here and he should be subject to restrictions. But I think what is almost universal is that people think this has been handled terribly.” On Monday Barbara Slater, director of BBC Sport, faced angry questioning from staff in a series of meetings. The BBC Sport journalist I spoke to predicted that relations between staff and his department’s management would recover, but that Davie would face more problems. “There was a lack of clarity in the decision-making and people feel very, very let down,” he added. “That’s what I hear from other people: senior management have let us down.”
The Lineker debacle always looked like a lose-lose situation for Davie, who, alongside Sharp, has repeatedly identified impartiality as a key area of concern for the BBC. If he sacked Lineker he would lose a star presenter and face accusations that the BBC’s leadership was in the pocket of the Conservative government. If he failed to discipline Lineker for breaching the BBC’s social media guidelines – which have stated since 2020 that “high-profile presenters”, even outside of BBC News, have “added responsibility” not to take sides on political controversies – he would look weak; critics of the BBC would continue to lash his organisation with allegations of liberal bias. In the event, Davie found a way of upsetting both sides. Many of Lineker’s supporters feel Davie caved in to pressure by suspending him and only U-turned for fear of losing another weekend of football coverage. Lineker’s detractors accused Davie of a “pathetic capitulation”.
Peter York, president of the Media Society and co-author of the 2020 book The War Against the BBC, told me he “felt sorry” for Davie having to deal with the Lineker row while defending his organisation from accusations of bias and facing uncertainty over the future of the licence fee. “The top brass of the BBC – who are not raging lefties – are concerned to steady the ship, are concerned to avoid Tory reprisals, which are constantly coming,” he said. “And [Davie] was in a situation where he had to prove himself to one and all by doing something decisive – or so he felt. It’s very difficult for any of us to put ourselves in that particular position.”
On Monday a BBC spokesman told me: “We’re not suggesting this weekend was anything other than difficult, which is why we have apologised to staff contributors, presenters and our audiences. We were dealing with a complex and fast-moving situation, during which we tried to keep all involved as up to date as possible.”
Sympathetic voices were harder to come by in the BBC newsroom. One long-standing BBC News journalist said there was a feeling among staff that Davie, who started his career in marketing rather than journalism, was appointed to “get a grip”. “No news – and barely any broadcasting – experience, but excellent at gripping, steadying the ship, a great business mind from the private sector, just the chap for a BBC in freefall,” they said. “Now he creates this skip fire and keeps piling fuel on it. It’s like an MBA lesson in how to totally balls up crisis management.” They added: “Summed up in two words: embarrassing shitshow. Davie and Sharp have lost the dressing room.”