Few in the U.S. had likely heard of Gary Lineker when, over the weekend, he brought the BBC, one of the U.K.’s best-known and most-respected institutions worldwide, to what has been described in the media as a “crisis like no other.”
Over the course of five chaotic days and countless headlines, triggered by a tweet from Lineker — a former soccer star and, as host of the BBC’s flagship soccer show Match of the Day since 1999, one of the U.K.’s most recognizable and beloved television personalities — the British public service broadcaster became embroiled in a major public spat over its impartiality and the influence the government may or may not have on its operations, one that looks likely to reverberate for some time.
The situation erupted March 7, when the U.K.’s interior minister, Home Secretary Suella Braverman, unveiled the government’s hugely controversial new legislation purportedly aimed at cracking down on boats bringing migrants across the English Channel from France. The legislation proposes detaining and deporting anyone arriving by boat to England, regardless of the validity of their refugee status, and has been widely condemned as a clear breach of the Refugee Convention, first signed in 1951 in the wake of World War II (Braverman herself admitted it was more than likely to break human rights laws). The United Nation’s Refugee Agency said it was “profoundly concerned” by the bill, describing it as an “asylum ban,” which would effectively deny genuine refugees looking for safety and asylum a fair hearing.
In response to Braverman’s video explaining the bill, which she posted on Twitter, Lineker — a vocal advocate for refugees and not averse to speaking up about such issues (more on that later) — tweeted his response to his 8 million-plus followers.
“There is no huge influx [of refugees],” he wrote. “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.”
The response, initially, was much as you’d expect. Many praised Lineker for speaking up. Many condemned him for speaking up. The U.K.’s largely right-leaning press — which rarely misses an opportunity to bash the BBC or personalities it deems to be politically on its left — went into attack mode. Right-wing tabloid The Daily Mail — which frequently condemns so-called “cancel culture” — said Lineker should be fired.
Then the government got involved.
A day after Lineker’s tweet, the press secretary of U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters it was “disappointing” to see “that kind of rhetoric” from someone whose salary was paid by the license fee, the national TV tax that is the main source of funding for the BBC. They said it was “up to the BBC” to decide how to respond. Several government ministers also chimed in, criticizing Lineker and demanding the BBC sanction him.
Critics claimed that by speaking out on Twitter, Lineker had violated the BBC’s rules on impartiality, which require the broadcaster and its employees to be balanced in its presentation of news and issues. In criticizing the government’s policy, Lineker had supposedly crossed the line. “Gary Lineker outrageously breached the BBC’s sacred impartiality,” bellowed a Mail opinion piece.
On March 9, two days after the tweet, with Lineker on the front pages of every British newspaper, the BBC announced that he would “step back” from Match of the Day until there was an “agreed and clear position on his use of social media.”
The reaction was immediate.
Within hours, Lineker’s two Match of the Day co-hosts Ian Wright and Alan Shearer (like Lineker both celebrated former soccer stars) announced they wouldn’t appear on the show out of “solidarity” to their colleague. What followed was a mutiny across the BBC’s sports department, with numerous TV and radio presenters due to lead the weekend’s soccer shows also laying down tools, saying they wouldn’t work while Lineker remained suspended. The collective action extended into the sport itself. The Premier League told players and managers they would not have to do post-game interviews with Match of the Day, despite those interviews being contractually required in many cases.
The result was high farce. On Saturday, March 11, Match of the Day went out live with no host, no commentary, no interviews and no punditry. Instead, the show featured a string of uncommented game highlights, playing out like a video art installation. The program, which usually runs over an hour, came in at a tight 20 minutes. Several of the BBC’s radio soccer shows had to be dropped entirely.
The BBC now had a major problem on its hands, and one largely of its own making. Perhaps realizing the extent of the negative reaction — which added to the public pushback already gathering force around its asylum policy — even the government tried to distance itself from the broadcaster. Prime Minister Sunak tried to wash his hands of the matter, saying it was “between Gary Lineker and the BBC” and that he hoped it would be resolved.
But, as many in the media have pointed out, there are deep ties between Sunak’s ruling Conservative Party and the top brass at the BBC. Unfortunately for the BBC, with Lineker gone, much of the attention then turned to the impartiality and the political leanings — and close government links — of these execs.
The BBC’s chair Richard Sharp, a former banker who used to work with Sunak at Goldman Sachs, donated more than £400,000 ($486,000) to the Conservative Party and helped secure a loan of £800,000 ($972,000) for previous Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who then recommended him as chair for the state broadcaster. This loan was not disclosed during Sharp’s appointment process. His appointment is currently being investigated.
BBC director-general Tim Davie actually stood as a Conservative councillor in the early 1990s and, since taking up his position at the network, has said BBC staff should avoid “virtue signaling,” an apparent snipe at expressing left-wing views, and argued against BBC comedy shows criticizing the government.
As the noise intensified, there were calls for both Davie and Sharp to resign. Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said Sharp’s position was “increasingly untenable.”
Another prominent Conservative on the BBC board is Robbie Gibb, who used to serve as a spin doctor to former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May. Speaking on the The News Agents podcast about the Lineker situation, Lewis Goodall, the former policy editor at BBC politics show Newsnight, recalled how Gibb made “life really hard for me” when he was at the BBC, with him frequently being warned that Gibb was keeping an eye on him over his apparent left-wing leanings. “I’m sitting there going, ‘Hang on a minute, I’m being lectured on impartiality by a guy who until 12 months ago was literally head of comms in Downing Street,’” Goodall added.
Many also pointed out that, when it came to Lineker’s tweet on refugees, the BBC’s impartiality guidelines were a red herring. In the past, Lineker and several other prominent BBC personalities had posted and commented on politically sensitive issues with zero censure from the broadcaster. Several of the most outspoken were on the right of the political spectrum.
Ahead of the U.K. general election in June 2017, conservative businessman Alan Sugar, who hosts the BBC’s version of The Apprentice, posted a mocked-up image of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn next to Adolf Hitler and called on Brits “not to vote for Corbyn.” In the last election, in 2019, Sugar vocally backed then-Conservative leader Boris Johnson.
(Even Lineker himself, in 2017, tweeted “Bin Corbyn,” a highly politicized message that barely raised an eyebrow outside of social media.)
Then there’s Andrew Neil, a former BBC host who fronted numerous political shows at the network and was a regular, politically partial, commentator on social media. Neil often used Twitter to share his own views on issues such as Brexit and climate change. While at the BBC he also chaired The Spectator, one of the U.K.’s leading right-wing magazines, and a publication frequently mired in controversy over articles about race and religion. Neil eventually left the the broadcaster to launch the right-wing news network GB News.
In response to complaints against Andrew Neil’s political comments, the BBC had argued that as a freelancer, not a full-time employee, Neil was not bound by the network’s impartiality rules when not speaking on air or on behalf of the network. Lineker, it should be noted, is also a freelancer and not a full-time BBC employee. Several argued that the BBC was simply picking and choosing when to deploy its rules.
In an interview — ironically on the BBC — on March 11, Davie was asked if Lineker would have been suspended if he’d publicly supported the government’s new asylum policy, instead of criticizing it. “I’m not going to get into hypotheticals,” the director-general dodged.
On Monday, March 14, five days after the initial tweet and having been forced to apologize over its limited weekend sports coverage and the focus now having very much shifted to the impartiality — or not — of its senior execs, the BBC reinstated Lineker. But it also announced it would launch an independent review into its social media rules, with Davie recognizing the “potential confusion caused by the grey areas” of their guidelines.
The BBC’s new social media rules were first introduced in 2020 and, for the first time, addressed those working — like Lineker — in “non-news” roles at the network. The timing of the new guidelines is significant, having come into place in October 2020, a month after Lineker signed a new five-year contract with the BBC.
“Those guidelines were manifestly never reflected in the contract, nor probably those of the other many freelancers on BBC Sport,” says Alice Enders, director of research at Enders Analysis. Had the BBC fired him, she notes, the network would have been liable to pay out Lineker’s contract in full.
But the detailed specifics of the BBC’s impartiality rules and Lineker’s contract aren’t really the crux of the matter. Instead, the media storm around the presenter and his political tweet has exposed a bigger debate surrounding the BBC over how much influence the Conservative government is exerting on the nation’s public broadcaster.
“What seems clear is that the BBC does not want [Lineker] to criticize sitting members of the government,” Enders says. “And the past five years have shown how nasty and vicious some of those politicians can be and how much they would like the BBC’s license fee to disappear in a puff of smoke so they can fully occupy the airwaves with their own opinionated shows.”
Enders notes that the media focus on Lineker and the BBC — which made headlines news from day one of the crisis — had “swamped the small boats policy that Gary had sought to highlight with his original tweet” (something several commentators have suggested was the government’s intention in the first place).
Lineker, who has neither apologized for nor deleted his original tweet, will return to work at the BBC this Saturday, hosting Match of the Day. But the controversy looks set to rumble on noisily.
Several Conservative politicians have expressed outrage at Lineker’s reinstatement, with one claiming the BBC has now given Lineker “carte blanche” to “push his highly political anti-government agenda and cause offense to many with impunity.” Others asserted that the Lineker saga had further strengthened their argument for scrapping the BBC license fee altogether.
And while the government — and much of the press — may be angry at Lineker’s supposed victory, for those not on the right, the week of chaos gave the British public its closest glimpse at the extent of the ties between the Conservatives and the BBC. A new poll by YouGov, released Tuesday, showed that 38 percent of Brits think that BBC chair Richard Sharp should resign over the conflict-of-interest issues relating to Boris Johnson and the loan (as opposed to 16 percent who think he should stay).
“I think what’s happened here is Gary Lineker 1 : BBC credibility nil,” said Craig Oliver, a former BBC news executive who later served as communications director for Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron (and a further example of what many have called the “revolving door” between the network and government).
“This week’s story will keep happening unless the BBC is truly independent of the government of the day,” tweeted Veep and The Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci on the day Lineker was reinstated. “Appointments to its Board, and of its Director General, and determination of its funding, need to be visibly separate from Downing St. Or the public will lose trust in the BBC.”
There’s no timeline for when BBC’s review into its social media guidelines will start or conclude, and, perhaps crucially, no detail about who will lead it. But Lineker made it clear, with a tweet, of course, that his position on the matter, and on the government’s refugee policy, hasn’t changed.
“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 posted after his reappointment. “It’s heartwarming to have seen the empathy towards their plight from so many of you. We remain a country of predominantly tolerant, welcoming and generous people. Thank you.”