How the Gary Lineker row threw the BBC into crisis

Tim Davie announced on Monday that the popular sports presenter will return to “Match of the Day,” bringing to a close a days-long saga over the network’s social media guidelines

Gary Lineker walking his dog on Sunday in London
Gary Lineker walking his dog on Sunday in LondonHENRY NICHOLLS (REUTERS)

Tim Davie’s visit to the BBC’s Washington offices last weekend turned into a stormy event as the BBC director-general battled the crisis triggered by his decision to suspend sports presenter and former soccer player Gary Lineker over comments he made on Twitter against the British government’s immigration policy.

From across the Atlantic Ocean, Davie watched as the move sparked an internal rebellion within the BBC, provoked bitter public debate and caused a disaster of his own making. The general director tried to control the spiraling crisis from Washington. Speaking to BBC News on Saturday, Davie said Lineker was “a superb broadcaster, he’s the best in the business.” “Success for me is – Gary gets back on air and together we are giving audiences that world-class sports coverage,” he added, before rushing back to London.

And on Monday, the crisis appeared to finally be contained, with Davie announcing that Lineker would return to the BBC to host “Match of the Day,” a popular soccer highlights show. In a statement, Davie said: “Everyone recognizes this has been a difficult period for staff, contributors, presenters and, most importantly, our audiences. I apologize for this.” The BBC director general added that the company will revise its social media usage guidelines.

Lineker was suspended from “Match of the Day” after angering Conservative Party lawmakers and the right-wing press with a tweet that criticized the British government’s new asylum policy, which will see migrants arriving by boat detained and deported. In a message on Twitter, Lineker – the former captain for England – said it was “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.” Home Secretary Suella Braverman, for example, has described people arriving by boat to British shores as an “invasion.”

Lineker is known for his criticism of the Conservative Party: he opposed Brexit and has also spoken out against Russian donations to the political group. But this time, Davie decided to take a harder line with the sports presenter, suspending him from “Match of the Day” while the BBC revised his use of social media.

In 2016 and 2018, the BBC defended Lineker on the grounds that he was a freelance presenter – with a yearly contract worth €1.5 million ($1.6 million) – and worked in the entertainment sector, meaning he was not subject to the BBC’s impartiality guidelines. But rules have been tightened since then, with the introduction of the so-called “Lineker clause.” Under this new social media rule, “extra responsibility” was demanded of presenters with a “high profile.”

After the immigration comments, the BBC said that Lineker had breached these guidelines, adding that the former soccer player should “keep well away from taking sides on party political issues or political controversies.”

But Lineker refused to bow down. He did not apologize for his comments, and this triggered a wave of solidarity that caught the BBC leadership off guard. One after another, BBC sports presenters and freelancers announced that they would not go on the air in protest of Lineker’s treatment. With Lineker suspended, last Saturday’s edition of “Match of the Day” was reduced to a brief 20-minute broadcast with the best plays.

Soccer fans also rushed to support Lineker. At soccer games, some spectators waved signs with the message: “I’m with Gary. Migrants are welcome.” This sparked concern within the Conservative government, which had pressured the BBC to take action against Lineker. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, however, tried to distance himself from the row. “Gary Lineker was a great footballer and is a talented presenter,” he said in a statement issued on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Lineker is still standing by his comments. Following the news that he would be returning to host “Match of the Day,” Lineker tweeted: “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.”

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