The presenter of the BBC’s most popular sports programme has been forced to “step back” from his duties over tweets in which he compared UK government rhetoric on immigration to that used by 1930s Germany.
The public broadcaster said on Friday that it considered Gary Lineker’s recent social media activity to be “a breach of our guidelines”.
The Match of the Day host, who works as a freelancer, reacted to the government’s latest strategy aimed at stopping small-boat crossings on the Channel by telling his 8.7mn Twitter followers the policy was “immeasurably cruel”.
The language being used about migrants was “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”, the former England international football player wrote.
The BBC issued a statement saying it had decided Lineker would “step back” from presenting Match of the Day “until we’ve got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media”.
Lineker declined to comment; he was previously reprimanded by the BBC in October last year for tweeting about the Conservative party’s relationship with Russian donors.
The BBC’s decision has sparked a mounting rebellion among Lineker’s colleagues. The show’s producers have been forced to change its format after a series of big-name former footballers including Alan Shearer and Ian Wright declined to appear on Saturday’s programme without him. Commentators also chose not to appear.
The show usually features highlights from the day’s Premier League football matches and discussion of the games. The BBC said that this week it would instead “focus on match action without studio presentation or punditry”.
On Saturday the walkout spread as some pundits pulled out of other BBC football coverage, including the Football Focus show.
The row is placing fresh strain on the BBC’s concept of its political impartiality.
Tim Davie, director-general of the broadcaster, has prioritised higher levels of impartiality. On arriving in September 2020, he told staff: “If you want to be an opinionated columnist or a partisan campaigner on social media then that is a valid choice, but you should not be working at the BBC.”
People who worked with Davie said his thinking was informed by the context of his arrival as management were preparing to negotiate the BBC’s next funding settlement with the Conservative government. A person who advised Davie at the time said: “We were basically seen as Remoaners after the [Brexit] referendum campaign. Given we had a full-on Brexit government at the time, he thought we needed to fix that.”
Just over two years on, the BBC is embroiled in controversy over its management’s proximity to the governing Conservative party. Investigations are under way into the appointment of its chair, Richard Sharp, who was recommended for the role by Boris Johnson shortly after allegedly helping the then prime minister arrange a loan for up to £800,000. Sharp has denied wrongdoing and is refusing to quit, saying he neither facilitated nor arranged financing for Johnson.
There is growing concern internally about seeming bias in the application of the impartiality rules. For example, Lord Alan Sugar continues to host The Apprentice, despite explicitly backing the Conservative party in 2017 and 2019.
“In the last few years, we have become much more worried about criticism from Downing Street,” one senior news producer said.
A Labour party figure said: “The BBC’s cowardly decision to take Gary Lineker off air is an assault on free speech in the face of political pressure.”
Until 1990, the BBC had no requirement to be impartial. That year, Margaret Thatcher’s government imposed a principle known as “due impartiality”. The concept is supposed to avoid false balance and give journalists room to defend basic democratic principles.
At the time the late Lord Ferrers, a government minister, told the House of Lords that “firmer rules on impartiality might require, for instance, the murderous regime of Pol Pot to be defended by an alternative view”.
“Due” impartiality was also supposed to allow the BBC to avoid having to apply it to all programming. But by 2010, an update to the editorial guidelines concluded that due impartiality applied “to all our output and services”. The latest guidelines, issued in 2019, include a social media section which also covers freelance staff.
Due impartiality binds some BBC staff more than others. For instance, BBC journalists have been asked not to attend pride marches in Northern Ireland, where LGBT+ rights are more contentious than in Great Britain.
Staff on sports and culture programmes face less onerous restrictions. Lineker has previously argued that the rules that bind him ought to be loose.
When the BBC found against Lineker over his tweet last October, it said that “Lineker, though not involved in BBC journalism . . . falls into the category of those for whom there is an “additional responsibility” [of impartiality] . . . ” because of his prominence.
A former senior editor said the BBC was right to suspend Lineker: “The gulf between what is asked of news presenters and Gary Lineker is now too big. They can’t go to a gay pride march, but he can compare ministerial rhetoric to the Nazis? He ought to rein it in. BBC rank-and-file people are his colleagues.”
Several senior staff members also said they thought the BBC was right to act on Lineker. But, they added, the rule book was unsustainable — not least because the BBC relies on opinionated outside contributors. For example newspaper columnists who sometimes criticise the government also host some of its current affairs output.
Richard Sambrook, a former director of BBC News, has urged the BBC to “review and clarify its contractual relationship with freelance staff, and clarify to what extent impartiality rules extend beyond news. Both are currently full of fudge.”
On Saturday former BBC director-general Greg Dyke said he thought the broadcaster had made a mistake in its handling of the Lineker controversy, and undermined its own credibility in the process.
“It looks like — the perception out there — that the BBC has bowed to government pressure . . . Once the BBC does that, then you’re in real problems,” he told the Today programme.