With just 32 words posted to Twitter, one of the UK’s most beloved sports personalities found himself at the center of a national controversy the likes of which had not been seen since Party gate.
Gary Lineker’s face graced the front pages of more than three dozen newspapers in less than two weeks in a spat that has cast doubt on the impartiality of the country’s public broadcaster, the BBC.
Lineker, 62, is a former professional footballer who has turned his career as an athlete into a commentator role on the BBC’s popular football program Match of the day.
But on March 7, Lineker swapped sports commentary for political commentary on social media, targeting the government’s proposed legislation that effectively sought to ban asylum seekers from the UK.
Under the policy, persons attempting to cross the English Channel would be detained and returned to their home country or to a third country, such as Rwanda, whether that was near their country of origin or not.
The proposed policy has drawn international condemnation from human rights groups. They claim that the law on illegal migration, passed at second reading this week, would violate international humanitarian law.
Following the unveiling of this bill, Lineker retweeted a video of Secretary of the Interior Suella Braverman explaining it with the comment, “My goodness, this is beyond terrible.”
When asked why he hated it, Lineker wrote: “There is not a huge influx. We are taking in far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy targeting the most vulnerable in a language that is not much like the one used by Germany in the 1930s, and I’m out of use?”
That could have been the end of the story. Except that Lineker, with a following of 8.9 million people, was widely criticized by politicians and supporters of the Conservative Party. Within 72 hours, the BBC suspended him for breaching the company’s impartiality guidelines.
‘Straight to the heart’ of BBC’s reputation
This only fanned the flames of scandal; his fellow commentators supported and boycotted him Match of the dayas well as other programs.
“Everyone knows what Match of the day means to me, but I’ve told the BBC I won’t,” said fellow England football legend Ian Wright on Twitter. “Solidarity.”
BBC has broadcast Match of the day last weekend, but without hosts. The 80-minute highlight reel, mostly peppered with insights from commentators, was shortened to 20 minutes, broadcast as a mashup of game clips with no voiceover. Viewers flocked to watch the car crash in slow motion, with an additional half a million people tuning in.
At the beginning of this week, the BBC had reversed course and asked Lineker to return to Match of the dayand offer a full apology.
Although Lineker’s aim was to discuss the government’s immigration policy, his suspension and consequent reinstatement has sparked debate over the BBC’s impartiality, and its popularity has made it a subject for the masses to debate.
The BBC’s director-general, Tim Davie, credits the controversy with the public broadcaster’s lack of clarity on social media policies for people who work for the company in roles not specifically news-related.
“The BBC has in its charter a commitment to impartiality and a commitment to freedom of expression,” Davie’s statement read. “That’s a tough balancing act to get right where people are subject to different contracts and on-air positions, and with different audiences and social media profiles.”
Melanie Dawes, the chief executive of Britain’s Office of Communications (commonly known as Ofcom), which oversees the BBC’s charter, didn’t mince words this week, saying the reputation of the public service broadcaster was at stake .
“Obviously an episode like this goes straight to the heart of that wider reputation, beyond their coverage of news and current affairs,” said Dawes.
Although the Lineker incident has attracted the most attention, it is not an isolated one.
The day before the BBC’s bizarre, hostless Match of the day, The protector reported that the public service broadcaster refused to broadcast an episode of David Attenborough’s latest nature documentary series about environmental degradation in the British Isles. Sources within the BBC report this The protector that the decision was “made to deflect potential criticism from the political right”.
The BBC has denied this claim, insisting that the series was originally intended to be just five episodes, so the sixth will not be broadcast on TV, but will be made available online.
The Guardian also reported that this month to emails and Whatsapp messages sent by BBC editors to journalists at the start of the pandemic asking them not to use the word ‘lockdown’, specifically referring to Downing Street’s desire to use this language to be removed from the message.
And last month, news broke that BBC chairman Richard Sharp had helped former Prime Minister Boris Johnson secure a £800 million loan, and that he failed to disclose this information when he applied for the chairmanship job. Since then, Sharp has faced calls for his resignation.
Heavy, uneven hand
Social media guidelines have become commonplace for journalists, as Suzanne Franks, professor of journalism at the City University of London, points out. The difference here, she said, is that Lineker is not a journalist, but a sports presenter.
“I think the problem was that the BBC got completely confused about this for some reason,” said Franks.
The Lineker saga has also shed light on the unfair treatment non-news presenters receive.
This week, said Lineker’s agent his client believed he had an agreement with the BBC that he could speak on refugee issues and immigration. This would not be unprecedented as other commentators appearing on the BBC have similarities – Conservative commentator Alan Sugar, for example, is regularly seen criticizing the Labor Party on various platforms, including social media.
The whole quarrel slandered the Director General himself. Davie previously worked in marketing for Pepsi, but also served as deputy chairman of a regional Conservative party organization in the 1990s and ran for councillor, albeit unsuccessfully.
On the BBC, Davie gave an interview about this concern, but denied it had any impact on his governance of public service broadcasting.
“Anyone who knows me knows that yes, some political involvement 30 years ago. But [I’m] absolutely unaffected by pressure from one side or the other. That’s not how we work editorially at the BBC,” Davie said.
Bite the hand that feeds
Franks is not convinced this is a story of political leanings from the top of the BBC, but is likely more related to the ruling Tories who announced their plans last year. to drastically reduce public broadcasting funding.
“The BBC, as a public service broadcaster, is beholden to the government and there have been times in its history – and now, sadly, it is one of them – when they are absolutely under the spell of what the government wants and what the government thinks.” she said.
“And when this tweet came out last week saying that the government’s comments about migrants are reminiscent of some of the language used in 1930s Germany, the BBC was clearly concerned, terrified.”
However you look at it, Franks said, Lineker won this deadlock. He never apologized and instead stood by his words.
“After a few surreal days I’m really happy we got through this. I want to thank everyone for the incredible support, especially my colleagues at BBC Sport, for the remarkable show of solidarity,” Lineker said on Twitter. “Football is a team game, but their support has been overwhelming.”
But in what he offered as a final comment, he ended where he started and advocated empathy for migrants and refugees.
“As difficult as the past few days have been, it just doesn’t compare to having to flee your home from persecution or war to take refuge in a land far away.”
With files from Lyndsay Duncombe