The BBC has reinstated Gary Lineker and apologized for the saga that unfolded this past week after the public broadcaster’s highest-paid presenter was suspended for tweeting criticism about the British government’s asylum policy.
Lineker was told on Friday he would not be presenting the BBC’s flagship football highlights program, “Match of the Day,” over the weekend, after his latest breach of the BBC’s impartiality guidelines. The move sparked mass protests from pundits and commentators in solidarity with the former footballer and led to a significant disruption of the BBC’s sports programming.
On Monday, the BBC’s Director General Tim Davie issued a statement apologizing for the saga, recognizing that it has been a difficult period for BBC “staff, contributors, presenters, and most importantly, our audiences.”
“The potential confusion caused by the grey areas of the BBC’s social media guidance that was introduced in 2020 is recognized. I want to get matters resolved and our sport content back on air,” he added.
Davie reiterated the broadcaster’s commitment to impartiality and said it has a “difficult balancing act to get right where people are subject to different contracts and on air positions, and with different audience and social media profiles.
“The BBC’s social media guidance is designed to help manage these sometimes difficult challenges and I am aware there is a need to ensure that the guidance is up to this task. It should be clear, proportionate, and appropriate,” he said.
The BBC chief announced a new independent review of the broadcaster’s existing social media guidance and how it applies to freelancers outside of news and current affairs.
“Gary is a valued part of the BBC and I know how much the BBC means to Gary, and I look forward to him presenting our coverage this coming weekend,” he concluded.
Lineker again took to Twitter to air his views on a tumultuous 48 hours, thanking his colleagues who walked out in solidarity over his suspension for their “incredible support.”
“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,” he added.
Why was Lineker suspended?
The row began last Tuesday when the BBC sports presenter used his significant social media reach to draw parallels between the U.K. government’s recently announced asylum laws and Nazi Germany.
Lineker, who has been the corporation’s highest-paid star for the last five years, receiving a salary of £1.35 million, has amassed a substantial following on social media, attracting over 8.7 million Twitter followers. He has often used his platform to comment on current affairs, proving himself to be an outspoken critic of Brexit and the governing Conservative party.
He is regularly vocal about migrants’ rights and revealed previously that he has taken refugees into his home.
His most recent remarks were made on Tuesday shortly after Home Secretary Suella Braverman announced new legislation to tackle illegal immigration that would see any individual entering Britain illegally detained and deported.
“Good heavens, this is beyond awful,” Lineker tweeted in response to a video posted by Braverman outlining the proposed new law.
When one social media user called him “out of order” for commenting on the plans, Lineker replied: “There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order?”
The BBC presenter’s remarks enraged some members of the public and lawmakers from the governing Conservative party. But why? Doesn’t Britain pride itself on freedom of speech?
So, what’s the problem?
The issue lies in Lineker’s association with the BBC.
As a tax-funded organization, the Beeb, as it is affectionately known in Britain, is required by its Royal Charter and Agreement to treat current affairs, no matter how controversial, with due impartiality.
The organization’s editorial guidelines offer further insight, stating:
“Where individuals identify themselves as being linked with the BBC, or are program makers, editorial staff, reporters or presenters primarily associated with the BBC, their activities on social media have the potential to compromise the BBC’s impartiality and to damage its reputation.”
In social media guidelines issued in July last year, BBC staff were prohibited from “expressing a personal opinion on matters of public policy, politics, or controversial subjects.”
As such, many argue that Lineker falls under this remit and should therefore refrain from airing his own views on topics such as government policy.
Lineker disagrees. On previous occasions where he has used his sizeable social media platform to criticize the government, he has defended his right to do so by insisting the BBC’s impartiality rules only apply to those working “in news and current affairs.” He also claims to be a freelancer at the BBC, as he undertakes presenting roles at several other broadcasters, and therefore believes he should be treated differently.
The ex-England footballer’s insistence on speaking out over controversial issues has given BBC executives a headache, not least for Director General Tim Davie, who has made two significant interventions over impartiality since assuming the role in 2020.
“The BBC’s editorial values of impartiality, accuracy, and trust are the foundation of our relationship with audiences in the U.K. and around the world,” Davie has said previously.
In reference to Lineker’s regular interventions, Davie told MPs last year: “I’ve talked to Gary. I think he’s a brilliant presenter, and it’s a work in progress in terms of where he draws the line. But we’ve had a good conversation, and I think he understands the guidelines.”
Several BBC colleagues have criticized Lineker for his continued defiance of the rules expected to be followed by all at the organization.
News editor Neil Henderson was forced to apologize to the sports presenter in August last year after commenting on a post by Lineker criticizing MPs for preventing sewage from spilling out onto Britain’s beaches. “The BBC lives or dies by its impartiality. If you can’t abide it, get off it,” Henderson told Lineker, a remark later deleted and apologized for. BBC staff aren’t permitted to publicly criticize colleagues.
Further back in 2018, the BBC’s cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew urged Lineker to remain impartial.
“Gary. You are the face of BBC Sport. Please observe BBC editorial guidelines and keep your political views, whatever they are and whatever the subject, to yourself. I’d be sacked if I followed your example. Thanks,” he tweeted to the sports presenter.
Even some within the left-wing press have called for Lineker to refrain from speaking out. Guardian columnist Roger Bolton published an article on Thursday with the headline: “I agree with Gary Lineker on refugees. But he should delete his tweet, for the sake of the BBC.”