This afternoon (10 March), shortly before 5pm, the BBC cracked. More than 72 hours after Gary Lineker had likened the government’s rhetoric around asylum seekers to “Germany in the Thirties” on Twitter, the corporation issued a statement saying it had decided its presenter would “step back” from his Match of the Day duties “until we’ve got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media”. The statement added: “We have never said that Gary should be an opinion free zone, or that he can’t have a view on issues that matter to him, but we have said that he should keep well away from taking sides on party political issues or political controversies.”
The BBC’s position probably came as a surprise to Lineker. On Thursday he had tweeted once more to declare that “this ridiculously out of proportion story seems to be abating”. He added that he was looking forward to presenting Match of the Day, as usual, on Saturday evening. But it wasn’t to be.
The BBC’s statement, which created more questions than it answered, came after days of heated debate in newspapers and on social media. “Lineker’s playing the BBC for fools,” blasted Friday’s Daily Mail splash, its third consecutive front page devoted to the saga. The Daily Express noted that Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, had criticised Lineker, and its splash demanded: “Now will the BBC make him sorry?” Meanwhile, several media personalities – Piers Morgan, Emily Maitlis and Dara Ó Briain among them – had defended Lineker, some while raising awkward comparisons with Richard Sharp, the BBC chairman, who is himself at the centre of an unresolved dispute over impartiality.
The very same debates are playing out within Broadcasting House. Thursday’s Mail front page reported that BBC journalists were “boiling” with anger that Lineker was seemingly free of impartiality rules. A BBC journalist, who asked not to be named, backed this assessment, telling me Lineker was an “overpaid [presenter] who knows he’s embarrassing the BBC and should shut up”. Another long-standing insider told me that “no one gives a fig” about Lineker. A third senior journalist said, however: “The Mail’s front page claim that Beeb staffers are ‘boiling with anger’ about this is total nonsense. No colleagues I’ve spoken to are cross. They know Lineker is Lineker and will say what he wants. There was considerably more anger about [BBC chair] Richard Sharp because that really does attack impartiality perceptions.”
Spare a thought for Tim Davie, the BBC’s director-general. In the midst of this frenzied debate, it is Davie who must ultimately decide what to do with Lineker, his star presenter who was last year paid £1.35m by the BBC. Should Davie discipline Lineker, and ultimately sack him if he continues to provoke? Or should Lineker, a freelance presenter paid to share his wisdom on football rather than report on news impartially, be tolerated? The BBC’s Friday statement appeared ominous for fans of Lineker. But the corporation’s position still appears far from settled. Can an “agreed and clear position” on Lineker’s social media use be reached? If so, how might this look? How might it affect other employees’ use of Twitter? If not, is Lineker out? What happens to his existing BBC contract, which runs until 2025?
Davie can’t win. If he sacks Lineker the Match of the Day host’s supporters will be enraged, once again round on the BBC’s embattled chairman, and claim that the corporation is in the pocket of the government. (Plus, whisper it among some of Lineker’s envious peers, but he is a highly accomplished broadcaster who would not struggle to make more money elsewhere.) If Davie backs his man, opponents will say the BBC has shown weakness by failing to uphold its own standards and Lineker will continue to be cited as a symbol of the BBC’s liberal bias. Whatever course he takes, Davie is bound to outrage roughly half of the British public, and a fair number of his own employees.
But the Lineker debacle should have come as no surprise. The writing has been on the wall (specifically, Lineker’s Twitter page) for some time. He has never shied away from tweeting his views, and he’s made it abundantly clear that he has no intention of toning himself down.
Last October I interviewed Lineker for a New Statesman feature on his successful podcast production business, Goalhanger. When I asked Lineker about the BBC and impartiality, the interview turned frosty. Davie had recently told a committee of MPs that he was seeking to rein Lineker in on Twitter and that this was a “work in progress”. “So’s Tim,” said Lineker, unsmiling and deadpan, when I brought this up. He added: “I don’t think he’ll ever stop me talking about politics. I don’t think he wants to stop me talking about politics, either.” Days later the BBC reprimanded Lineker for having breached impartiality rules through a tweet about the Tory party’s Russian donors.
Over the next couple of weeks I became a regular visitor to Lineker’s Twitter page. It seemed to me that the BBC rebuke, rather than discouraging Lineker from tweeting about politics, had galvanised him. In between hot takes on football, Lineker urged Rishi Sunak to attend Cop27, recoiled at the thought of Boris Johnson returning to Downing Street, lauded the Spanish government for imposing a windfall tax on banks, and showed support for Just Stop Oil protesters.
Davie and the BBC must have noted Lineker’s activity, and the comments he made in his New Statesman interview. But apparently there was no issue. That was until this week. As well as dominating Fleet Street front pages, the Lineker row was widely reported by the BBC itself on Wednesday. Nick Robinson invited Braverman to tell the Today programme whether Lineker should be sacked; 14 hours later, the story led the BBC’s News at Ten. (This led to some conspiracy theorism among Lineker supporters, but one senior BBC journalist told me that Wednesday was a “very slow newsday” and that an internal audience briefing note had told staff the Lineker story was generating “huge” reaction.)
Far from abating, as Lineker predicted it might, the story endured through the week. Fleet Street remained gripped, and Lineker appeared determined not to give way. The BBC’s statement today may buy it some thinking time, but time is running out for Davie to decide how much his star presenter is ultimately worth.
When will the BBC get over its fear of the right-wing press?