The presenter of the BBC’s most popular sports programme was forced to “step back” from his duties on Friday over recent tweets in which he compared UK government rhetoric around immigration to that used by Nazi Germany. The public broadcaster said they 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, found himself at the centre of a political storm after he was rounded on by several senior government ministers for expressing his views on social media earlier this week.
He reacted to the government’s latest strategy aimed at stopping small-boat crossings on the Channel by telling his 8.7mn followers on Twitter the policy was “immeasurably cruel”. The language being used about migrants, the former England international football player wrote, was “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”.
The BBC on Friday 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.
The saga lays bare the controversy over the government’s plans aimed at denying asylum to anyone it deems to have entered the country illegally. The proposed legislation, which the government has conceded might breach human rights laws, is a key part of its pledge to “stop the boats”.
But the case also highlights the strains on the BBC’s long-changing concept of 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 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 finds itself embroiled in controversy over its management’s proximity to the governing party. Investigations are under way into the appointment of its chair, Richard Sharp, who was recommended for the role by Boris Johnson shortly after helping the then prime minister arrange a loan for up to £800,000.
A Labour party source said: “The BBC’s cowardly decision to take Gary Lineker off air is an assault on free speech in the face of political pressure.”
Lineker’s personal politics are no secret; he is “the king of the centrist dads”, one senior BBC editor said. He was reprimanded in October 2022 for tweeting about the Conservative party’s relationship with Russian donors.
Until 1990, the BBC had no requirement on it to be impartial. That year, the Margaret Thatcher 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, included 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, however, the BBC determined “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 management were 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 rulebook was unsustainable — not least because the BBC relies on opinionated outside contributors.
Journalist David Aaronovitch has hosted The Briefing Room on Radio 4 since 2016, a current affairs programme. Until this month, he was also a columnist at The Times. He said: “I personally think the refugee policy is unworkable and immoral. I have written that. But on the programme, we just focus on the workability. And people seem quite happy with that separation.”
Another columnist, the FT’s Tim Harford, who is sometimes critical of politicians in his columns, hosts More or Less, a current affairs show on Radio 4.
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.”
The decision will mean a dramatic change to the format of its most-watched sports show for this week. A series of big name former footballers who regularly appear alongside Lineker on Match of the Day, including Alan Shearer and Ian Wright, have declined to appear without Lineker. Wright tweeted: “Everybody knows what Match of the Day means to me, but I’ve told the BBC I won’t be doing it tomorrow. Solidarity.”
The programme usually features highlights packages from the day’s Premier League football in between discussions of the games and the season so far. For this week, however, the BBC has announced that it will instead “focus on match action without studio presentation or punditry”.
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